Is Obama Angry Enough?
SMG professor says public wants presidential passion
When he was running for president, Barack Obama came across as cool, thoughtful, and silver-tongued, in sharp contrast to “maverick” John McCain, a fiery and sometimes erratic speaker. At the polls, Obama’s level-headedness appeared to trump McCain’s anger, but after a year and a half of analytical problem-solving, Obama is now getting heat for not getting hot under the collar.
The president’s measured response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has drawn criticism from across the media spectrum. A CBS News correspondent recently asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs whether he’d “really seen rage from the president” and to “describe it.” And Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank questioned why Obama needs experts to determine “whose ass to kick,” borrowing the president’s most animated phrase on the spill.
BU Today spoke with Kathy Kram, the Shipley Chair of Management at the School of Management, about what leaders have to gain or lose by getting angry.
BU Today: Obama was seen as a steady hand in his presidential campaign. Now he’s being criticized for being too reserved. Why are people surprised that he’s not getting mad?
Kram: Obama has a temperament that is grounded in getting all the facts and thinking decisions through rationally. Temperament is basically nothing more than a set of preferences for how one wants to be in the world.
In Obama’s case, the negative response is, where is his anger? Why isn’t he acting faster? Those responses are coming from people who might have different temperaments themselves or would have wanted a leader to act differently than Obama did. But I take the position that it’s really not a matter of right or wrong temperament. It’s what do you have to work with and whether it works for you most of the time.
Would you advise Obama to get mad?
I would want him to be aware of the downside of not expressing his emotions — i.e., losing the support of some of the public. Then he would have to figure out if there’s a way for him to do that without seeming inauthentic or ineffective. There’s a danger of doing something that’s not really you; you come across as inauthentic and you lose credibility, too.
Critics say Obama takes too long to make a decision, but he was swift in firing General Stanley McChrystal. Was he trying to prove he has fire in his belly?
Maybe. The firing could have been to show the public that he can act quickly when necessary, but he also has a history with McChrystal. It’s been a problematic relationship.
What does showing anger in times of crisis reveal about a leader?
Courage and willingness to act. Particularly willingness to act in the space of very limited information. But again, every inclination has its strengths and limitations. Leaders who do that a lot may end up making different kinds of errors by acting too fast. I am really reluctant to say one way is better than another. I think the key is knowing your natural inclinations and questioning whether they’re always the right way to go. Maybe that’s what Obama was doing. Maybe he realized he was being criticized for taking so long in the BP situation, so he wasn’t going to let that happen again with McChrystal.
How important is it for leaders to show emotion?
I think it’s important to show compassion, to stand up for principles, and to emphasize what’s really important. Emotion is a big part of that. Again, expressing emotion is one thing; having random outbursts is something else. I think emotions can be expressed in a planned, thoughtful way, which is what I think Obama is more inclined to do.
I think a lot of times constituents are looking for passion. I suspect that Obama’s logical, rational, fact-based approach can sometimes mask his passion. Maybe that’s what the public is looking for at the moment: the passion to get things right.
Is all this talk about Obama’s temperament just the result of a 24-hour news cycle, with pundits searching for something to analyze?
I’m not sure. I think in general I would interpret this wish for Obama to fly off the handle more as a sense of powerlessness that we’re all feeling, and we want our leader to do something dramatic to solve the problem.