Days of Irritation


One of Barack Obama's most appealing qualities is his calm demeanor, which makes him seem thoughtful, reasonable, and disinclined to shoot from the hip. This quality is especially welcome in the wake of incidents such as the attempted sabotage of Northwest Flight 253 or the fizzled Times Square bombing, both because it encourages the public to keep the risk of terrorism in perspective and because it reassures those of us who worry about an overreaction from an administration that fails to do so. But the conventional wisdom in the Washington press corps seems to be that Obama needs to blow his cool to show he cares—really cares—about the BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. That advice apparently influenced a statement Obama made on Saturday, when he said the seemingly unstoppable leak is "as enraging as it is heartbreaking." But did he really mean it? At a press briefing on Tuesday, A.P. White House Correspondent Ben Feller was determined to find out:

Feller: The President said when the top kill procedure failed over the weekend that the leak was as enraging as it is heartbreaking.  Have you seen the President enraged about this?

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: Throughout this process, absolutely.

Feller: Do you think that that has come through to the American people?

Gibbs: I think the American people are frustrated.  I think the people of the Gulf are frustrated.  I think the President is frustrated. I think the White House is frustrated. I don't see how anybody could look at what's happening in the Gulf and not be frustrated and heartbroken—absolutely.

The briefing then shifted to other topics. Fortunately, Chip Reid of CBS News picked up the ball from Feller, focusing with laser-like precision on the question all Americans are asking: Exactly how pissed off is the president?

Reid: You said earlier that the President is enraged. Is he enraged at BP specifically?

Gibbs: I think he's enraged at the time that it's taken, yes. I think he's been enraged over the course of this, as I've discussed, about the fact that when you're told something is fail-safe and it clearly isn't, that that's the cause for quite a bit of frustration. I think one of the reasons that—which is one of the reasons you heard him discuss the setting up of the oil commission in order to create a regulatory framework that ensures something like this doesn't happen again.

Reid: Frustration and rage are very different emotions, though. I haven't—have we really seen rage from the President on this?  I think most people would say no.

Gibbs: I've seen rage from him, Chip. I have.

Reid: Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do? (Laughter.) 

Gibbs: He said—he has been in a whole bunch of different meetings—clenched jaw—even in the midst of these briefings, saying everything has to be done. I think this was an anecdote shared last week, to plug the damn hole.

Holy crap. Obama clenched his jaw? This must be serious.

To some extent, the bizarre fixation on how angry Obama is and how he expresses it (Does he raise his voice? Does he curse? And if so, does he use the really filthy words that you still can't say on broadcast television before 10 p.m., although they're acceptable on HBO and A&E?) reflects the "cult of the presidency" that Gene Healy decries. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whose infantile expectations of the president Healy has skewered, is one of the pundits who thinks Obama should be more emotional to show that he's engaged. But I'm not sure that demand makes sense even for those who view the president as the literal father of our country. If Obama went on a profanity-laced, LBJ-style tirade, would Feller, Reid, and Dowd be satisfied? Or would they be frightened by the sight of Daddy freaking out?