The ‘Professor’ Calms the Crowd

Press works (and reworks) the outrage narrative

Last week saw a massive buildup of stories about public outrage at the AIG bonuses and Obama’s attempts—through a slew of public appearances, various expressions of anger, and ramped-up rhetoric—to quell that anger.

During Tuesday night’s press conference, Obama only got one question about the AIG bonuses (asking why it took him longer than New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo to express outrage). The press corps laughed at his response (“It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak”), and played it as a sassy moment in an otherwise somber and professorial lecture. (Note: Professorial apparently means grim and dour. Has no one ever heard of Richard P. Feynman?)

Reports the next day contrasted Obama’s serious “new tone” (NYT headline: “In a Volatile Time, Obama Strikes a New Tone”) with his recent appearances on Jay Leno and 60 Minutes, which media mumbles had tagged as jovial and inappropriately jovial, respectively. The implication: that Obama’s “new” tone (because he wasn’t ever called “professorial” during the campaign) was his newest response to public anger; the lightheartedness shelved in favor of a more calculated sobriety. But the garrulous focus on primetime presidential sobriety was a superficial move at best, suggesting that the political success of Obama’s agenda depends on just that—not only on selling it, but also on riding the most appropriate emotional tide while he’s at it. (Anger and dourness are apparently expected and welcome; gallows humor apparently is not.)

The Times wrote:

At a time of anger and anxiety in the country, Mr. Obama showed little emotion. He rarely cracked a joke or raised his voice. Even when he declared himself upset over the $165 million in bonuses paid this month by the American International Group despite its taxpayer bailout, his voice sounded calm and unbothered.

And from The Washington Post:

Obama’s comments last night — delivered in a calm and measured tone — were a departure from his emotional declarations of outrage last week that helped speed anti-AIG legislation through the House.

The focus on Obama’s attitude—“showed little emotion” and “rarely cracked a joke” after noting the “anger and anxiety in the country”—underscore the extent to which the media have made the president’s tone (or behavioral tick and jokiness) the main indicator of how in-touch (or panicked, or off-base) Washington is with respect to the country’s (panicked, angry, pitchfork-y) mood. Note that the “departure” mentioned isn’t a departure in message, but in demeanor—“calm and measured” as opposed to “emotional.” (Hmm, remember the clamor about him not being emotional enough?) The outgoing message of Tuesday’s presser seems to have been the following hypothetical headline: “After Some Tonal Missteps, President Gets Back On Track.”

But for all the stories about Obama’s so-called communications blunders, polls say that the past “supercharged week” (NYT) hasn’t hurt Obama’s favorability ratings.’s Nate Silver notes that 67 percent of the public had a favorable impression of Obama and 28 percent an unfavorable one last week, as opposed to 68 percent and 27 percent, respectively, the week before. Public opinion of Obama has pretty much stayed the same throughout the AIG bonuses hullabaloo. Invoking Occam’s Razor, Silver makes the following point:

This apparent steadiness in Obama’s numbers comes in spite of the fact that the public has been following the AIG story very, very closely. The Occam’s Razor answer to this dilemma may simply be that, in spite of the outrage the public feels about the bonuses, they do not particularly blame Obama for them. Instead, they blame AIG itself, and may see Obama as being as much of a victim as a co-conspirator. We should keep in mind that, among the 95 percent of the population that does not follow politics especially closely, what they’ve seen is Obama expressing some (tempered) outrage about the bonuses and saying he’ll do whatever he can to recoup them, in between stints on Leno and filling out his March Madness bracket.

Silver’s point is interesting because it’s a reminder that the myopic focus on whether Obama is hitting the right note or whether he is in touch—down to the minutiae—is largely irrelevant. Arguably, the media tried at the outset to characterize public outrage too summarily, letting it roil and jump according to every presidential tick and eye flutter—and, essentially, tying it to the wrong object. (This is why the following bit in the NYT story is so ironic: “Appearing on ‘60 Minutes,’ [Obama] laughed in talking about the problems he faced, leading his interviewer to ask if he was punch-drunk. That was not a question that seemed pertinent Tuesday.”)

The superficial assessments of Obama’s performance Tuesday night—from boring to professorial to unemotional—are frustrating for that reason: they seek to resolve a media narrative (how will he appease the crowds?) that has largely been expedited and shaped by the dramatic potency of creating sides—an overwrought messiah vs. the crowds type of scenario, if you will.

But popular anger by itself shouldn’t (and ultimately won’t) drive Obama’s agenda (as George Packer notes in a smart blog post), and Obama knows that. So let’s stop blowing the president-responds-to-public’s-anger story out of proportion. Plus, as Dan Froomkin at the Post notes: “Polls continue to show that the American people are considerably more patient with and appreciative of Obama than the daily drumbeat of media coverage might have you believe.” Indeed.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.