President Obama has often been compared to Jimmy Carter. But lately it occurs to me that there’s a lot of resemblance to presidential candidate Mike Dukakis, who failed a basic emotional test in his response to a hypothetical asked during the 1988 presidential debates.
For those who don’t remember it, here’s a description of the event and the question that killed Dukakis’s candidacy. Some excerpts:
[CNN journalist Bernard] Shaw, looking commanding and stern, began: “By agreement between the candidates, the first question goes to Gov. Dukakis. You have two minutes to respond: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
In the press room, there were gasps from the reporters. “Whaaaa?” “Did he really say that?” “Un-BELIEVE-able.”
…Dukakis answered instantly and smoothly. “No, I don’t, Bernard,” he said. “And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.”
He had been on the record for years and years on that subject. Massachusetts had no death penalty and also had one of the lowest crime rates of any industrialized state in the country. Dukakis didn’t believe in capital punishment. He had seen all the studies and he didn’t believe it deterred crime…
In the press room, the murmurs over Shaw’s question now turned to mutters over Dukakis’ answer. “He’s through.” “That’s all she wrote.” “Get the hook!”
The reporters sensed it instantly. Even though the 90-minute debate was only seconds old, they felt it was already over for Dukakis. He had not been warm. He had not been likable. He had not shown emotion. He had merely shown principle…
Susan Estrich, his campaign manager, was in despair. “It was a question about Dukakis’ values and emotions,” she said later. “It was a question that was very much on the table by that point in the campaign. When he answered by talking policy, I knew we had lost the election.”
I’m not saying that Obama’s first statements about the Flight 253 bomber were up there with Dukakis’s faux pas in the suddenness of their effect. For Obama it’s been a cumulative thing, this morphing from “cool” to “cold.” But the transition has been accomplished.
Typical of the reaction to Obama’s remarks on the Knickerbomber is this column, which begins with: “This is no time for the return of Professor Obama.” Americans dislike being lectured to in a condescending manner by a president who seems removed and distant, uncaring and above-it-all.
But Americans don’t approve of an overly emotional president, either, as candidate Edmund Muskie learned to his sorrow in the snows of New Hampshire in 1972, when it was perceived that he wept too readily. And even the somewhat teary-eyed Bill Clinton was very careful about when and where he cried, and for what reason, and wife Hillary had only one carefully positioned lachrymose moment in an otherwise steely performance.
It may seem unreasonable of the public to demand of its presidents such a finely calibrated balancing act between too much expression of feeling and not enough, with the voters in the position of a bunch of all-too-fussy Goldilockses.
But these fine-tuned requirements are not arbitrary. We need a president who cares enough to understand our needs and concerns and to speak our language and send the right messages both in the domestic and foreign arena, but who is tough enough to not break down under the considerable stress of the office. Strangely enough, Obama seems to be lacking in both departments. In this, once again, he resembles Mike Dukakis, who not only failed the warmth test in answer to the rape question, but was perceived as not having the proper intestinal fortitude to be able to survive his photo-op in a tank.
Like it or not, one of the duties of a president is to be commander-in-chief. People need to believe on a gut level that a candidate or a president is capable of performing well in that role. But in Obama’s public addresses in response to the two most recent terrorist attacks, he has come across more as the country’s lawyer-in-chief than its commander.
[NOTE: And those on the left who say that Bush's response to shoe bomber Richard Reid was similar (see today's memeorandum page for several, such as this and this) are missing the point. By then, Bush had proven himself to the American people through his behavior during the crucible of 9/11, the subsequent anthrax scare (remember that?), and the Afghan aftermath, all coming in rapid succession. He had shown the requisite combination of caring and determination throughout, once he got over the first few moments post-9/11.
The Reid episode occurred in December of 2001, and it seemed very small at the time in comparison to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. The Knickerbomber incident looms much larger today, especially after the many quieter years for terrorism against the US during the latter part of the Bush administration. Obama has yet to prove himself in the same way; on the contrary, his reaction to the Knickerbomber is merely the latest in a pattern of troublesome low-key responses on his part to a host of events, including his initial reaction to the Ft. Hood shooter, as well as the riots in Iran during and after elections there.]
[ADDENDUM: When Obama's lost Maureen Dowd, he's in trouble. She compares him to Star Trek's Spock, in a piece entitled, "As the nation's pulse races, Obama can't seem to find his." Ouch.]