Dear Belladonna Rogers,
I didn’t vote for Obama and wasn’t happy when he won. Still, I’m a loyal American and want to see the country to do well even if it means he’s re-elected. But the country isn’t doing well and I find that almost everywhere I go, even among people who agree with his politics, I sense a wave of anger rising up at the president. I’m normally a pretty even-tempered guy and I don’t get emotional about politics or whoever is president, but even I’m feeling irritation when I see him on TV. What is it about this president that’s so exasperating? And how can I deal with my rising level of annoyance with him?
Irritated in Cleveland
“Folks,” as the president likes to refer to Americans outside the Beltway, are getting fed up with him. You ask what it is about President Obama that causes even a normally even-tempered man like you to become incensed. Short answer: his withering condescension.
By way of introduction, a few words on the importance of presidential character in general. If you’re a politician, you don’t want voters’ assessments of your policies to be based on their negative reactions to your personality. The counter-example to Obama is Reagan: people thought he was a sunny, decent, fair, good-natured guy. That was a political advantage, especially with independents and centrists: they were predisposed to give his views a fair hearing (even though they didn’t always agree with his positions) just because they liked him.
One of the great lines in the classic 1978 movie Animal House is uttered by Dean Vernon Wormer, when he says to fraternity pledge Kent “Flounder” Dorfman, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
Similarly, I’d say that condescending, disdainful, and contemptuous is no way to go through a presidency. Nothing is better guaranteed to alienate your fellow citizens than being addressed as if you’re the only serious adult while they’re not merely in kindergarten, but are among the dimmer five-year-olds in the class.
With Obama, we hear the derision in his mocking tone. We also intuit his nonverbal signals of contempt.
Poker players are well-acquainted with “the tell” — the tiniest of changes in behavior, from a slightly deeper inhalation of breath to a nano-second-lasting twitch that reveals a clue about the cards another player has or signals an upcoming bet in the game. Every player has a different tell, and some tells are genuine while others are purposeful and intended to deceive — an under-the-breath curse word uttered to suggest a bad hand when a the player actually has a terrific hand.
Similar to poker tells are what the psychologist Paul Ekman calls “microexpressions,” which, as the term suggests, are fleeting facial expressions that last from less than a second to a few seconds at most, and reveal the real emotions a person may be trying to conceal, or may unconsciously feel. A teenager’s eyeroll when being chastised would be a microexpression, conveying to the parent or teacher that the experience is way annoying while attempting to seem respectful and cooperative (the sooner to get it over with). If the parent or teacher looks away for a nanosecond, he or she will miss the microexpression — it is that fleeting. Another Ekman-coined term is “leaking,” meaning the unintended expression of an emotion that has inadvertently “leaked” out.
With Obama, the tell or microexpression is invariably a kind of smile, which has “leaked” out. It isn’t a friendly smile; it’s a sneer, a smirk and it’s visible in the videos in this column. When you see him break into a smile as he’s about to answer a question, that’s invariably the tell that he’s about to lob a contemptuous and condescending taunt at the questioner.
Only last week, on July 25, Obama could be seen on TV lecturing us as follows: “Now, what makes today’s stalemate so dangerous is that it has been tied to something known as the debt ceiling — a term that most people outside of Washington have probably never heard of before.” As William Kristol, editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard, commented,
Consider the condescension implicit in the president’s statement — “a term that most people outside of Washington have probably never heard of before.” These “people outside of Washington” are not little children being lectured on an obscure subject by a worldly adult. These people outside Washington are … citizens. Judging by the polls, most of us have opinions about whether, and under what conditions, the debt ceiling should be raised. We don’t seem to be as ignorant as Obama thinks we are of the term or concept of a debt ceiling. But the president assumes we’ve never bothered our pretty little heads about such a thing…It would be nice to have a president who spoke candidly to his fellow citizens as adults.
Similarly, Commentary’s John Steele Gordon wrote, of the same speech, “Was last night’s speech by President Obama…the moment when American popular opinion froze into an enduring, and negative image of this president? It was classic Obama: elitist, condescending, impolitic, self-obsessed, and dishonest.”
Thanks to the wonders of online video, one can see Obama’s mockery of the kinds of people he doesn’t respect, and hear the derision dripping in his voice when, for example, he referred during the campaign to plumbers. (I wonder how he felt about plumbers five years ago in Chicago when his toilet was blocked and the Drano and the snake he bought didn’t do the trick):
[YouTube Video not Available]
Condescension is an attitude whose implicit message is: “I am superior to you.” It’s gratuitously insulting, it’s anti-democratic and it’s wrong. As few people in public life have demonstrated more vividly than Obama, just because you’re highly-credentialed doesn’t mean you’re either smart or well-educated. And even if someone is bright, that isn’t the only important quality in a president.
The most important qualification for a president isn’t a Harvard degree but rather (a) competence at dealing with other people and working well with others; (b) emotional intelligence, a concept pioneered by psychology writer Daniel Goleman, meaning the ability to read other people’s emotions and being able to behave in a way that takes those feelings into consideration;(c) good judgment; and (d) character.
Character has been described as “how you behave when no one is looking,” and involves basic human decency, empathy, dependability, and the courage to understand what “the right thing” is, and then to do it. Presidents who had it include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry S Truman, and George H.W. Bush.
The character essential to be an effective president is hardly expressed by dismissing and denying the intelligence of “the public” — you know, Obama’s idea of losers who’re trying to get through life without an Ivy League degree. Another way he expresses his condescension is by holding himself up as the only unflappable, self-controlled adult in the room, who’s been tasked with the tiresome duty of dealing with the volatile, immature folks “out there.” In August, 2009, John Knefel found himself irritated by Obama’s condescension in describing his liberal critics as “a little excited,” as if passion and fervor were negative qualities in an advocate:
During an interview with a Philadelphia-based radio show, Obama, once again, mocked and infantilized his critics on the left. Responding to a question by the show’s host, Michael Smerconish, about recent comments made by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about jettisoning the “public option” from the final health care bill, Obama responded, “The press got excited and some folks on the left got a little excited…” What a fantastically dismissive thing to say about health care reform advocates who feel discouraged and betrayed by the administration’s willingness to consider a bill that doesn’t include a public option. They are “excitable” — you know, like children are. Their anger, and the backlash that Obama is facing from liberals, stems from a purely reactionary mindset, apparently. Yes, why on Earth would the announcement that the health care bill might no longer contain any teeth at all cause the left to cry foul? If they were more serious and thoughtful, they wouldn’t be so excitable.
Obama seems to me to have trouble with his own aggression, and his disdainful notion of humor may be one way of expressing it without appearing (to himself, anyway) to be angry. He thinks that appearing cool is his strong suit. When he’s pissed off, he turns to contempt or sarcasm rather than overt anger. He assumes that his true feelings of hostility are concealed by his verbal jabs, when in reality, they’re revealed for all to see.
This is a constant undercurrent in Obama’s response to criticism: to denigrate his detractors by dismissive adjectives and verbs that suggest he’s the only rational one in the room.
In Portland, Maine, on April 1, 2010, he was at it again, this time characterizing opponents of ObamaCare as “hollering,” and purveying “fear mongering” through “overheated rhetoric:”
“There’s been a lot of fear-mongering, a lot of overheated rhetoric. You turned on the news, you’d see that those same folks who were hollering about it before it passed, they’re still hollering, about how the world will end because we passed this bill.”
Another of his favorite put-downs is to say, “But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, they are trotting out the exact same ideas that got us into this mess in the first place.”
“Trotting out,” is condescending. When Obama presents his arguments and his data, he’s being logical. If anyone has counter-arguments or countervailing data, they’re “trotting out” irresponsible drivel.
He seems unable to hold a town hall meeting outside zip codes such as 90210 (Beverly Hills) or 10027 (Columbia University and the Upper West Side of Manhattan) or 02138 (Harvard) or without insulting his audience, as he did in Fairless Hills, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, answering a questioner with ten children, clearly more than Obama found acceptable:
He said, “I notice some folks clapped, but I know some of these big guys, they’re all still driving their big SUVs. You know, they got their big monster trucks and everything. You’re one of them? Well, now, here’s my point. If you’re complaining about the price of gas and you’re only getting eight miles a gallon — (laughter) — you may have a big family, but it’s probably not that big. How many you have? Ten kids, you say? Ten kids? (Laughter.) Well, you definitely need a hybrid van then.”
As veteran White House reporter Keith Koffler wrote of Obama’s response on his blog, www.whitehousedossier.com, in April of this year:
Obama has no idea why the person who called him out – or why anyone, for that matter – has purchased an SUV…. But he assumes they are up to some kind of egregious mischief. We get this little lecture on fuel economy from the president who thinks nothing of trucking a convoy of heavy-duty vehicles 15 miles to go golfing every other weekend, flying to Hawaii every year on vacation, or jetting to New York City date night with his wife – who BTW flew separately last December to Hawaii for the family vacation and took a four day jaunt to Spain.Obama has carved out a nice chunk of change for himself, but the community organizer’s hatred of success and wealth abides within him. There’s real contempt in the first two lines of the statement, with phrases like “their big SUVs.” This is a person who, while pursuing his own success, continues to resent you for yours.
With miniaturized technology such as cell phones that can record video, a politician is virtually never entirely off-the-record. He may think he’s talking to a roomful of like-minded, wealthy, Marin County devotees, but then, wouldn’t you know it, one of them has a video feature on his phone, and the candidate’s intolerance, coupled with his condescension for millions of his fellow Americans whom he neither knows nor understands, goes viral:
When you add it all up, it’s clear that Obama deploys mockery, derision, humiliation, ridicule, contempt, scorn and downright nastiness when he’s outside the comfort zone of people he knows and likes. His forays into the heartland seem to evoke either anxiety or hostility that he tries to mask with what he thinks is humor but that comes across to others as a screeching fingernail across the blackboards of our souls. He’s not the smooth, cool guy his PR machine imagines he is: he’s a snob, and a nasty snob at that. He seems to be utterly unaware of how he comes off: unconscious of the intolerance, the disrespect, and the profound ignorance of how people unlike himself and his cronies live, think and feel.
It’s interesting to compare Obama’s snide condescension with the firm, effective way that Ronald Reagan expressed his exasperation in New Hampshire in 1980 — and he was exasperated. Watch how skillfully he deployed just the right degree of anger as he dealt with the moderator of the debate that was about to begin:
By contrast, when Obama finds himself feeling anger, he strikes back, but not in a comfortable-in-his-own skin Reaganesque way. Because some members of every audience will giggle or laugh, if only out of nervousness, Obama hears the laughter and interprets it as a green light to continue badgering, belittling and demeaning the person whom he believes has challenged him, or is just a man with ten children, a version of family apparently unfamiliar to this president.
Obama’s behavior bears some resemblance to locker room towel-snapping where young men compete to put one another down. In those circumstances, though, it’s a group free-for-all on a level playing field. When Obama deploys his ridicule and arrogance, however, the playing field is far from level: citizens normally feel the need to express respect at least for the office of the president, and invariably for the incumbent in office. In return, this president often behaves like an ill-mannered Ivy League frat boy making fun of a townie. It’s an odious thing to behold, and may be one of the reasons you find yourself irritated by his behavior.
Cumulatively, the continuous repetition of condescending remarks such as these becomes annoying to some, and downright infuriating to others. The “public” — of whom Obama is so dismissive — pays attention to his superciliousness, and remembers what they’ve seen and heard from him.
To quote from Lincoln, the current president would be well-advised to find a way to speak more respectfully to “the better angels of our nature” than to betray his contempt for the millions of citizens who aren’t like him and his friends.
At least half of our politically-divided country will continue to disagree with President Obama’s policies. But is it necessary, or politically wise, for him to aggravate policy differences with his repeated demonstrations of disdain for those whom he is in office to serve?
What irritates you, I believe, irritates many people. Even without the credentials of which the president is so proud, everyone can recognize a snob, and resent the obnoxious disdain that is never far from the surface. My advice? When you see the Seal of the President of the United States on your TV screen,
reach for your remote and switch to a channel that doesn’t broadcast presidential addresses or press conferences. If they all do, then turn off the TV altogether. Life is stressful enough without being irritated by this condescending man.