You Feel Me?

The MoDo column I criticize below exemplifies the warped notion that we should view the president as a benevolent national Father-Protector.  But it’s also a good example of a related phenomenon, the apparently unquenchable yearning for Presidential Empathy.

“Once more,” she writes, “President Spock”  has “willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.”  There’s a little tension between Dowd’s desire for a presidential father figure and her demand for a “Feeler in Chief.”  She seems to want a daddy who cries a lot.

But this understanding of the president’s role is hardly unique to her:

Introducing his 1996 presidential ranking survey, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared that a great president needed to “have a deep connection with the needs, anxieties, dreams of the people.” Of course, the ability to channel the collective soul of the American volk isn’t a skill that the chief magistrate needs in order to faithfully execute the laws or defend the country from foreign attacks.

Maybe so, but most public intellectuals have a much broader view of the president’s job.  Which may explain why disdain for Obama’s “No Drama” affect is so common among the chattering classes.

This president is too cool, too reserved, too professorial, they charge.  He has “a stony, cool temperament,” (Peggy Noonan);  His “above-the-fray mien… does not communicate empathy” (Richard Cohen), and he shrinks from “lead[ing] the nation emotionally” (Jon Meacham). “I wasn’t feeling it,” MoDo’s Times colleague Charles Blow grumbled after Obama insisted he was “angry” about the spill.  (Really, press secretary Joe Gibbs insisted yesterday, “I’ve seen rage from him.” He “clenched” his jaw.)

I have more than my share of complaints about this president.  But this is one that leaves me, er, cold.  It seems to me that it’s to Obama’s credit that he’s not a blubbery empath like Bill Clinton.  It’s good that he’s reluctant to play the role of podium-pounding blustery populist.  Thank God for small favors.

Over the last century, the Framers’ limited, businesslike presidency has been transformed into an extraconstitutional monstrosity that promises everything and guarantees nothing, save public frustration and the steady growth of state power.  When American “opinion leaders” join together to lament the fact that the president’s not an effective enough demagogue, it’s not hard to understand how we got here.