Why Obama, like his predecessors, can't get angry in public.

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June 10 2010 7:28 PM

Presidential Anger Management

Why Obama, like his predecessors, can't get angry in public.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

While no one has yet discovered a way to plug the BP oil leak, each day does bring the discovery of yet another fundamental character defect that explains President Obama's helplessness. He's not emotional enough. He lacks crisis experience. He is insufficiently creative. With the leak likely to last into the summer, before long it will be blamed on Obama's bad penmanship or his skinny legs.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The one question we'll always be able to ask, fortunately, is whether the president is sufficiently angry. In the daily temperature reading that has become the White House press briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs once again addressed the president's temper. "Our point is not to feign, through method acting, anger at what environmental and economic damage has been wrought by this disaster. That wasn't going to fill a hole. That wasn't going to put money in the bank account of a shrimper that's not fishing. That's not going to help a hotel worker or a hotel owner on a beach in Florida."

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Here's the thing about presidential anger. It's never seen in public—not just from our first smooth jazz president, but from any president. If presidents show anger in public, they risk looking out of control, which in moments of crisis is the exact opposite of what people want.

When there is anger, it's not often constructive anger. Perhaps the most well-known angry president moment was when Bill Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky. Yes, that anger was targeted at a specific problem. But it was not exactly helpful. Clinton had other moments. The New York Times' John Harwood reminds me that Clinton chewed out Brit Hume, then of ABC News, when he asked about a "certain zigzag quality in the decision-making process" of his nomination to the Supreme Court of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had just made a speech. "How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me," he said.

George W. Bush had moments of real resolve—his speech with a bullhorn at Ground Zero—and he had moments of dime-store resolve—when he said "bring 'em on" and that he wanted Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive." But the only glimpse we got of his anger was when he told us about it. Do you remember the issue that caused it? In March 2002 Bush said he'd gotten "plenty hot" when he learned that the INS had approved a visa for one of the 9/11 bombers after a seven-month delay.

It's not that presidents don't get angry. They show it as candidates. Clinton shouted down a heckler. George H.W. Bush's most irritated moment happened during an interview with Dan Rather in 1988. Ronald Reagan's most explosive and famous moment came in Nashua, N.H., at a primary event with Republican candidates. As ex-president, Jimmy Carter had a throwdown with Sudanese officials.

We don't see presidential anger, but we hear about it later either in carefully planted quotes—a week after the spill, Gibbs let it be known that Obama told aides "plug the damn hole"—or those well-reported books. Or we hear about it later on a presidential recording. (Here's John Kennedy getting angry about Air Force furniture. Here's Lyndon Johnson giving the business to Albert Thomas.) Sometimes presidents are dimed out by their friends and successors. Thomas Jefferson described George Washington as a man who mostly kept a lid on his anger but when he "broke his bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath," falling "into one of those passions when he cannot command himself."

If you want to make a president angry, one way to do it is to talk to them about their anger. Nixon, we know from the Watergate tapes, had a deep and abiding anger, but in public he didn't let it show. "The tougher it gets," he used to say, "the cooler I get." But then he was asked about his anger. "Don't get the impression that you arouse my anger," said the president to a reporter during a news conference. "You see, one can only be angry with those he respects." The angriest Obama has gotten in public was when he was asked about (wait for it) why he didn't get angry enough.

One exception to this rule is John Kennedy's public fight with American steel companies. In private, Kennedy used a wide range of expletives to describe what the steel companies were doing to the economy (and to him). His power was questioned in the press and he responded by showing his anger in public. Ultimately the steel companies backed down.

Perhaps Obama will take a lesson from his predecessor. This week BP executives will be in Washington. The White House now says that Obama might meet with some of them. Given the buildup, they might want to ask for Secret Service protection.

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