Friday, July 2, 2010
By TOM EHRICH
The measure of President Obama isn't his emotional distance, his ability to reflect our feelings back to us, or his ability to provide a marriage-like thrill, as one New York Times columnist put it.
The measure is competence. We elected him to be head of government, not our "Daddy in D.C." Is the government he leads addressing the right issues? Is it making headway in resolving problems? Is it behaving in a manner that reflects our values? Is our government fair and just? Is it spending our tax money wisely? Is our national security in good hands?
It seems trifling nonsense to grade a presidential speech on whether the president's tone was stirring or flat, and whether we had as much fun watching him as we did emoting with an "American Idol" finalist.
It's a variation on the game we have historically played with women. It didn't matter what they said or did --- it was how they looked. California's brutish politics recently turned on one candidate's hairdo. No wonder the state is bankrupt.
Obstructionist politicians try to elevate "style points" and "emotional authenticity" as key markers of success. Of course, they do. Diverting attention away from competence is a surefire way to escape accountability for their own incompetence.
No politician, not even a Hollywood actor-turned-pol, can emote successfully on behalf of 309 million citizens. If feel-good is the measure, all incumbents must go.
Worst of all, fixating on public appearance does nothing to resolve serious problems. It merely encourages artifice --- and the winner is the guy or gal with great hair, winning smile, and (choose one) patriotic fervor, fire of rage, tear of sympathy, reassuring smile --- each delivered on cue.
The BP oil spill is about oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. It isn't about how deftly the president absorbed and fed back to us the emotions of Gulf residents. The issue is the oil. Can government agencies work effectively in collaboration with private enterprise to get a disaster under control?
If we have been paying attention, we know that not every problem is solvable, certainly not within our 55-minute attention span. In life, we learn to measure progress, address complexity, learn from failure, change direction as needed, and reward competence.
That is what we should be asking of our president and the many leaders who influence our lives. Are they smart enough to understand complex problems? Are they capable of learning on the job? Can they deal with unpredictable outcomes? Can they inspire competence in the people they hire?
Yes, there are plenty of intangibles in a leader's performance. But the intangibles that matter are based on values and candor, not verisimilitude and couture.
Americans need jobs, not a father in the White House. Americans need financial institutions they can trust, not a stern rebuker-in-chief. Americans need wars worth fighting, sacrifices worth making, ideas worth embracing, not a deft performer who gets judged on his selection of tie, tone of voice and emotional range.
Enough adolescent parsing of appearances. Let's get serious.