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Obama and the Gulf Disaster: The Psychology Behind the Criticisms

06/09/2010 03:42 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Criticism of Pres. Obama's leadership of the Gulf of Mexico disaster has been growing in the last few weeks as fears mount about the long-term ecological, social and economic impact of the huge, unrelenting flow of oil. The President's recent press conference mitigated some of those criticisms, but many view his response as too little, too late. They ask why didn't he take strong command of the situation and address the nation several weeks ago?

Much of the criticism is justified, if only in terms of the PR value of stronger, direct public statements of concern. The criticism is coming from both right and left. But I think there's a hidden, psychological basis to some of the criticism. It's the emotional response to man-made or natural disasters, and how that shapes what people look for -- and criticize -- in a leader.

That is, the psychology of the criticism of Obama's performance reflects something deeper than questions about BP's performance and/or untrustworthiness, given the cozy relationship big oil has had with the federal government. It's also deeper than debate over the government's proper role in dealing with such events or other challenges facing the nation.

To explain, first take a look at the themes within some of the criticisms. MSNBC's Chris Matthews has been railing against Obama's what he sees as a passive response to the disaster. For example, recently he erupted in anger and lashed out at the profits BP reaps as it fails to fix it. But he also criticized the Obama administration for letting BP control the disaster response. Calling this "disaster capitalism," (from Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine) he questioned why the President doesn't just "nationalize that industry and get the job done," adding that in China, "they execute people for this."

That's typical of Matthews' sometimes over-the-top passion, but he's been making solid criticism of the President around the theme that he's looking like an observer, standing on the sidelines, instead of getting in there and doing something.

Similarly, other critics have openly wondered why Obama hasn't shown more passion, like pounding the table, showing outrage; perhaps shouting.

Some conservative critics have implied the same, but link their criticism with an attack on Obama's entire presidency, as you might expect. For example, look at the title of Peggy Noonan's May 29th op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal: "He Was Supposed to Be Competent: The spill is a disaster for the president and his political philosophy."

Noonan makes the connection crystal clear, in case you still didn't get the message: She calls this "...his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all... shaped by the president's political judgment and instincts."

She adds that Obama has been "...chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. How could there not have been a plan?" Noonan says that Obama "...attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language...(and)...his staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won't see the big picture."

Then, conservative columnist George Will, appearing on ABC's This Week last Sunday, he placed himself somewhere in the middle... sort of. He said that President Obama "is being unfairly blamed" for oil spill response, but "... it sort of serves him right." He's apparently defending the President's leadership and "lack" of passion that others decry, while arguing that it just goes to show that big government can't do the job anyway, so it's better to leave it in the hands of private enterprise - which created the problem to begin with.

I think that one strong thread weaving through critiques from both the left and right is that Obama has not shown the emotional outrage and arm-waving that are so important for doing, well...what, exactly? That's the question they don't address. What's the outcome they're looking for? Could it be that they just want to be reassured by what looks and sounds "passionate?"

I think that's the case. Many of the complaints about Obama's coolness, his being too cerebral, too measured and reasoned in his responses are fueled by a wish for a strong "Big Daddy." A commanding, strong-sounding, protective figure who will somehow "take command" and "do something" to fix things and make us safe again.

That kind of wish is largely unconscious. It's driven by unacknowledged, terrifying feelings of helplessness, fear and impotence in the face of events beyond your control. It's similar to what lies behind much of the denial about climate change, as Ev Ehrlich and I wrote about here last summer.

Denial is one kind of response. Another is seeking refuge and the illusion of protective action from a leader who sounds "in command." That's what can lead to attraction to "demagoguery leadership," some of which we're witnessing in today's politics.

But when you're driven by emotions of fear and longing for safety, those can also trump your ability to stop and ask what, exactly, you want a display of more "passion" and pounding the table to result in, with respect to actually solving the problem?

When you acknowledge that the best minds and technologies are working on this disaster - while also acknowledging that corporate greed and government collusion with the oil companies have created it - that realization should point you towards supporting all efforts to create the best solutions. It should steer you towards wanting fact-based, results-oriented leadership, which is what Pres. Obama is now, apparently, trying to deliver. That includes exposing the reality of the situation, mobilizing the means we have to achieve the results, and creating a strategy that works.

That's where reasoned criticism is important. Unlike the flailing of those who psychologically long for a Commanding Father to make you feel secure, some are actually proposing constructive critiques. For example, some are proposing that this situation requires a "government takeover." Even conservative, "less government" advocates are singing a different tune about that now, such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Another good example is what David Gergen has suggested. He's a truly bi-partisan figure who's served both Republican and Democratic administrations. Gergen has posted both a strong critique of Obama's leadership as well as specific, strategic actions by the Feds to take over the strategy and structure of the whole operation.

He writes that "It's time for the White House to get in the driver's seat and get us to safety - fast .... this catastrophe is increasingly threatening the nation's welfare."

Gergen proposes 10 actions. For example:

  • Set up a daily command center in Washington where a presidentially-appointed leader runs the show, calls the shots, coordinates the overall effort, briefs the president and briefs the country.
  • Have two deputies, one to direct the leak-stoppage and the other to direct the clean-up. Ex-CEOs and generals would be excellent candidates.
  • Provide the country with the kind of daily briefings that the military has mastered for wartime - bring in people who are smart, straight and tough.

Gergen's 10-point list is well worth reading. His critique and proposals are the kind that are sorely needed in our polarized, self-serving political culture. If the President embraced them it would be consistent with the strong, rational leadership that many people believed him capable of to begin with.

And that's a psychologically positive wish for a leader to demonstrate!

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