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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.

Comments to “Let Obama be Obama

  1. I gotta say, Pres. Barack Obama is a great leader. We couldn’t have a better leader today than Obama. Let’s just support our president! And everything will flourish here in our country.

    • Thanks Robin for the insightful post. I think you are correct when you say that certain groups are “expected” to express themselves in a certain way and going outside those boundaries might have a cost.

      Although I believe Obama is a very good president I think he needs to express a little more anger. The current republican mantra seems to be if I repeat an incorrect sound bite often enough people will believe it. I think he needs to call them out more often on their errors. There are other issues where those opposing him clearly have the wrong priorities and he needs to expose the weaknesses and clearly delineate the differences even if it means stepping out of his comfort zone. Otherwise some call him a weak leader and some scratch their heads wondering where the response is to some of the republican and tea party follies. But this is not a place to go into those issues further.

      I think a little more anger and a closer examination of the causes of the BP oil spill are necessary along with the establishment and enforcement of more stringent regulations to prevent a catastrophe like this from happening again. Of course any issue that affects the fish stocks here at is of vital interest to us. Here in Alaska you can pick up rocks on a Prudoe Bay beach 22 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and still find oil. So no matter what the oil companies’ public relations flack tells you these are problems of lasting consequence.

      BP Oils past record of environmental lapses, ignored maintenance and ignoring safety concerns is well documented in the Alaska Pipeline where they have had multiple preventable accidents. Maintanence and safety, along with 7,500 jobs were part of the one-third overhead that BP cut under Tony Hayward. Now they are trying to outsource their liability in accidents as well as other "overhead costs" Whatever happened to the idea of the past president that “the Buck Stops Here”; Instead of trying to shirk their responsibilities BP should be held accountable for any and all actions of all of the companies it subcontracts to.

      All the best,

  2. Anger at the top levels won’t help — action and positive results to stop this contamination and go another direction in energy production will! I still hope that will be the outcome.

  3. The 1979 Heismann winner was black.
    The 1980 Heismann winner was black.
    The 1981 Heismann winner was black.
    The 1982 Heismann winner was black.

    No wonder the name escapes her.

    • You have actually underlined Professor Lakoff’s point: instead of engaging with her core argument, which is about the double bind about tone of communication that exists for women (and now for Barack Obama) as members of marked groups, your comment seems intended to undermine Professor Lakoff’s credibility over a minor detail. If you really cared about the substance of the argument, you would have to disprove that the exchange actually took place.

      In fact, it took me about 10 seconds to find an account of this incident online. The year was 1985; the perpetrator of the comment was Washington Redskin John Riggins. He had recently (1983) won the Bert Bell Trophy, not a Heisman. Most important for the impact of the story Professor Lakoff is telling here: Riggins was indeed white.

      And another website underlines the gendered dimension of this whole incident: the next day, reportedly, Riggins sent Supreme Court Justice O’Connor roses as an apology.

      Try thinking about that sentence with, say, Antonin Scalia as the focus. Would flowers be an appropriate way to apologize for treating a Supreme Court justice in an undignified way?

  4. Thanks Robin, I think you helped touch on what I thought was wrong about such ‘advice’ — I didn’t believe it was at all well-intended, and you hit at the root. There is already enough agony and anger over the Gulf oil spill and plenty of blame to go around. It makes me sad just how foolish we mortals are when tinkering with nature in irresponsible exploitation of its resources. Anger at the top levels won’t help — action and positive results to stop this contamination and go another direction in energy production will! I still hope that will be the outcome.

  5. Gulf oil tragedy is a serious issue. and we shall all need come together and combat this situation. also share our helping hand.!!!

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