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Obama's Anger Problem?

5 years ago
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If President Obama is mad, who's he so mad at?

Let me explain. On Friday afternoon, at the daily White House press briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs was explaining why his boss this week will be making his second trip as president to hard-hit Elkhart, Ind., which has an unemployment rate of 17 percent.
I think what the president wants to do is discuss the continued battle that we have to get this economy back on track; and in places like Elkhart and, again, throughout the country, how can we lay a foundation for that long-term economic growth. . . . It's a community that has been hit, even as communities throughout this country have been hit hard, it's hard to imagine . . . more places that have been hit harder than a place like Elkhart, Indiana. So I think the president wants to go back there and talk about the steps that we're taking, where we are. But again, the amount of work that still sits in front of us that has to be done to get the economy moving again.
And a reporter asked Gibbs if Obama was expecting to receive "as warm a welcome this time" as he had garnered on his first trip to Elkhart in February, given that the unemployment rate there has gone up about five points since then.Gibbs replied:
Well, look, I hope that the people there and the people across the country believe that the president is working hard every day to get the economy back on track. But, look, he understands their anger and frustration. He's angry and frustrated too.
Seconds later, I asked a simple question: "Who is he angry at?"

Gibbs had a quick answer: "That would probably be an enormous list to start --" And another reporter in the room interjected, "Top five!" People laughed. Gibbs continued his reply:
You heard the president talk about it last fall -- he thinks that unnecessary risk was taken in our economy that led to a collapse in the financial industry. That by definition pulled back to a large degree the amount of lending that was happening in our economy. The president spoke in some ways about this in a completely ignored speech right after Labor Day in 2007 on Wall Street, about the risks that were being taken and the downsides for the American people. . . . I think he's angry and frustrated on behalf of the American people that it took us -- we didn't, as I've said before, didn't get here overnight, and unfortunately, we're not going to be able to turn it around overnight. . . . So I think the president understands we've got a long way to go, and we'll continue fighting to make sure we make progress.
Note that Gibbs named no names. Not one. No particular CEOs, no particular companies, no legislators, no regulators, no government decision-makers or policymakers. Obama's apparently angry at the damn situation, not at any of those people and institutions responsible for it.

This was not a surprising response. Obama became president in part because he was able to transcend a media stereotype: the angry black man. He repeatedly demonstrated during the presidential campaign that he was temperamentally different from traditional black leaders who have too often been slammed by critics for being overly angry. (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright.) Obama played it cool. This was especially so when Wall Street collapsed. He stayed calm, while John McCain -- whose campaign was guided and funded by corporate lobbyists -- railed against those corporate lobbyists who had helped rig a political system that benefited the irresponsible scoundrels running the casino economy.

Never let them see you sweat, and never let them see you get angry -- that appears to be an Obama creed. It has worked rather well for him. But if the economy doesn't improve and if his health care reform effort stalls within the muck of Congress, Obama might find himself in need of a foil or two.

Anger is not always inappropriate. Sometimes it is much needed. Politicians can display anger to identify with the concerns of voters and to gin up support for their policies. In the debate over health care reform, Obama has tried to bring all the parties together: the medical profession, the pharmaceutical companies, the insurance companies. The plan is obvious: buy off the various special interests and prevent them from trying to kill an effort to remake a system by which they now profit greatly. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on the other hand, has called insurance companies "villains" -- a view that many Americans, according to the polls, are sympathetic toward. (I've always believed that an easy way to win an election in this country is to run against health insurance companies and cable companies. Don't most people despise both groups?) Pelosi is attempting to use populist anger to advance health care reform. Obama has demonstrated little, if any, interest in such a tactic.

So far. And here's the question: Can he restructure the U.S. health care system for the better via savvy at-the-table dealing? Another view is that fundamental change that challenges the prerogatives of major businesses can only occur if large segments of the population are really ticked off and politicians believe they have no choice but to address this public outrage. That means generating a degree of populist anger and riding it. That's not how Obama, the onetime community organizer, does business. But with his health care reform effort hitting trouble on Capitol Hill, it may be that Obama does have an anger problem -- as in, not enough of it.

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