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Politics & Policy

Is It Good for Presidents to Be Emotional Or Not?

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama conducted a lengthy press conference during which he outlined a set of executive actions that he claims will help to reduce gun violence in America. In the middle of his speech — while reflecting upon the abomination at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 — he cried.

This, I have to say, does not especially bother me. As a general matter, I stand by my pre-speech view that Obama has let his emotion and his frustration get the better of him in this area, and that he has in consequence taken a set of steps that make for bad politics and for even worse law. But that he cried per se? That is immaterial. Whatever they might like to believe, men do cry sometimes, and what happened in Connecticut was upsetting enough to push anybody over the edge. Naturally, those of us who disagree with Obama on matters of public policy must remind our critics that the president’s tears have no bearing at all on the merits of his position, and that nor do they serve to undermine ours. But, that caveat aside, I see no real problem with either his breakdown or with the empathy that it has invited. Insofar as his tears are a taken as an expression of genuine grief — rather than used to bully the dissenters into acquiescence — there’s nothing wrong with them at all.

That said, I’ve been fascinated by the vitriol that I have seen thrown at those who disagree. If my little corner of social media is any indication, Obama’s champions believe wholeheartedly that only “sociopaths” would believe that it was a mistake for the president to show such unfiltered emotion at a televised press conference. Obama, his denigrators have been told in no uncertain terms, is a “real person” with “real emotion,” and his tears are a reflection of his enthusiasm for reform. Unlike the emotionless “gun lobby,” this theory goes, the president really, genuinely, unquestionable “cares” about this issue. Of course he’s lachrymose. Only a real bastard could hold back on this one.

As far as it goes, this contention is all well and good. But you’ll forgive me for noticing that this isn’t the usual argument forwarded in defense of this president’s mien. On the contrary: Typically, Obama’s defenders take quite the opposite tack. Usually, their man is “no drama Obama.” Usually, he is unwilling to let his human urges get the better of him and lead him to a stupid public policy conclusion. Usually, his dispassion serves as the bedrock of his putatively admirable “don’t do stupid stuff,” “just interested in in what works” philosophy. When asked why he seemed so sober in the wake of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and in Boston — the latter of which involved an immigrant putting a bomb next to an eight-year-old boy — Obama’s acolytes explained that, unlike that cowboy George W. Bush, the president was able to put his anger aside and set the outrage in in its proper context. A similar response has been forthcoming when conservatives have complained that Obama isn’t publicly livid at the murder of Kate Steinle, that he isn’t outwardly angry about ISIS’s execution of American citizens, that has has stayed stony faced during discussions of the economy or the healthcare sector, and, for that matter, that for seven long years now he has managed to remain steadfastly emotionless when talking about pretty much anything other than the apparent enormity of the contemporary Republican party. Obama is a “smart” and “cool” man, we have been told. It’s unfair to look at his public disposition and to conclude that he doesn’t care.

On guns, though, Obama’s tears are being treated as if they are virtuous — perhaps even the prerequisite to serious action. This, I’m afraid, makes no sense. Because it involved first graders, Newtown was particularly harrowing. But if anything, this fact should cause a determined rationalist to try more, not less hard, to keep his disgust and his diagnosis separate. Unless we are to believe that Obama considers “universal background checks” to be a substantially more important issue than immigration, than the domestic economy, and than war and peace — on all of which, to some extent at least, he has been thwarted by Congress — there is no reason whatsoever that we should regard his emotion here as being uniquely virtuous. Because Americans disagree so strongly as to how we might use our “common sense” to solve the problems that make us all cry, distinguishing our arguments from our despondency is imperative. For the last seven years I have been told that the president is supremely good at doing exactly this. Now, his inability to do so is not just understandable, it’s the key to fixing the problem. Which is it, guys?


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