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Give Them Something They Can Feel


There are many things at which the president is extraordinarily gifted. Emoting isn’t one of them.

[Last] Thursday, in the opening remarks of his press conference, the president said: “Every day I see this leak continue I am angry and frustrated.”

I wasn’t feeling it.

Then, as the press conference was ending, after he had meandered through an unsatisfying mix of defenses and didacticism, he tried again: “When I woke this morning and I’m shaving and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, ‘Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?’ ” Score. After all, whose heart doesn’t go out to a cute little girl when she worries?

People needed to be assured that Obama possessed three basic presidential traits: being informed, engaged and empathetic. As for the first trait, he was superb as always. I think amassing facts is his idea of being warm and fuzzy.

On the second, he was a bit wobbly. How is it that he didn’t know if S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, who was the director of the Minerals Management Service, an agency at the heart of the spill debacle, had resigned or been fired that morning? Maybe he would have known if earlier he had not been in the Rose Garden taking pictures with Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke men’s basketball team.

This is the same coach who famously bristled that Obama should stick to fixing the economy after the president picked North Carolina to win the N.C.A.A. championship in 2009. Maybe the coach could have reminded him that he still had more important things to do.

On the third point, empathy, Obama came up short. That is until he invoked his daughter and saved himself. Malia for the win!

Obama is going to have to dig deep on this one. He can’t afford to repeat the messaging mistakes of his first year. He can’t afford to let the right hang the Katrina label around his neck.

The spill is not Obama’s fault. It’s the result of corporate irresponsibility, ineffective regulation and the government’s lack of disaster planning, decades in the making. But, as Obama said, the cleanup is his responsibility, and polling suggests that people are growing unhappy with his handling of it. Two weeks ago, a Pew Research Center survey found that 36 percent of people disapproved of his handling of the spill. This week, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 51 percent disapproved.

Such has been the narrative of his presidency: being treated like the janitor in chief — mopping up messes made by others and being chastised for leaving streaks.

Mr. President, I know that you have a self-professed aversion to appearing angry, but in this case you have every right to be angry and to openly empathize with the anger of others. Otherwise, by running from one label, you risk earning another — incompetent. You feel me?

Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.”

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