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Let Obama be Obama

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | June 8, 2010

In the wake of the Gulf oil tragedy, almost as much attention has been given to the President’s demeanor as to the spill itself. The punditry has been offering advice: show anger, get in BP’s face, shake a moralizing finger, share the pain. Two questions arise in response to these suggestions. First, why are so many people so concerned with Presidential style?  Second, is the advice any good?

Members of marked and historically non-powerful groups (like women, children, and people of color) are typically considered open to explicit interpretation and critique: not of what they are saying, but how they are saying it. (This is a way of giving their points less importance, as well as encouraging them to be self-conscious.) Some readers may remember an incident of about thirty years ago that illustrates that point. Sandra Day O’Connor, having just been named to the Supreme Court, found herself at a White House dinner sharing a table with that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, a white male whose name escapes me. (Some kinds of fame are more fleeting than others.) “Lighten up, Sandy Baby,” I recall him as being quoted.  “You need to smile more.”

She did. (Oddly, nobody suggested that he needed to smile more, or even acquire some manners.)

Likewise white people once assumed that African Americans should smile and be good-natured, no matter what. They, like women, should not express anger or disagreement. Those who did were “uppity” – not a good thing. Of course, the world is different now, and such expectations, if made explicitly, are likely to receive disapproval, as well they should. But people in roles considered not “normal” for them are still likely to be subjected to closer scrutiny and deeper interpretation than those who appear to belong. So it is not all that surprising that many people have seen fit recently to tell President Obama how to behave.

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in the rain, following a briefing on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, at the Coast Guard Venice Center in Venice, La. on May 2. (White House photo)

If the President is to be the beneficiary of behavioral advice, is it at least good advice? That is, advice likely to help the president’s agenda to succeed?

For a couple of reasons, I think not.

First, we must return to the problem of race. One reason for the Obama victory, it has often been suggested, is that (like Bill Cosby, or O.J. Simpson before, and unlike Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton) he projects a “nice,” unthreatening image.  But if Obama were to start expressing anger and creating shame, there is a very good chance that even many of the people now urging him to do so would start to feel … somehow … a subliminal unease. The Birthers and others who profess discomfort with Obama for being “foreign” (or Communist or Fascist) are in a sense the mine canaries of contemporary American racism: they show the symptoms before the rest of us. But let him do anything that could be construed as non-deferential, and see what happens.

It would be the same if the president were female. She’d be urged to show more anger and express moral indignation. But the moment she did, she’d transmogrify into a bitch or a scold. You have to be “normal” in a position of authority in order for your behavioral choices to be reasonably free.

But even if race has nothing to do with it, following the advice of the pundits might work badly for the President now and in the long run.

Barack Obama is “no drama Obama.” We elected him precisely because – at a moment when everything seemed to be in turmoil and no one knew how to fix it — he seemed calm and unflappable. Such a style works well when the people need comforting. Now many people want something else, but  the fact is that it was no drama Obama whom we elected.

Suppose his handlers tried to manipulate Obama’s rhetorical style into something  angry and critical — a harder job than might be apparent. It is not a matter of recasting his words: the words he has been speaking are angry enough already. It is just their wrappings — the tone of voice, the level of loudness, the facial expressions and gestures – that convey calm and reasonableness. Words can be rewritten, but the non-verbal parts of rhetorical style go much deeper, representing something intrinsic to the speaker’s character. If they are manipulated, the resulting speech sounds hollow and forced, and the speaker sounds like a robot or a hypocrite. Surely this is worse than letting Obama be Obama.

And finally, we have to take the long view. Yes, maybe right now it would be gratifying for our president to voice the anger and dismay we feel, to hurl at their targets the criticism they richly deserve, to make clear that this is a struggle between the virtuous us and the evil them.

But everyone will eventually have to work together to solve the problem – not just to fix this current catastrophe, but ensure that nothing like it ever happens again. At that point, both the perpetrators and the rest of us (including the president) have to be able to work together as a unified we: the we that we once cheered in the refrain Yes, we can. Anger and shaming will only set us against them, and make that opposition hard to change. We should follow the president’s lead and work toward a rhetoric of we.