Most of the time when I hear about how President Obama lacks the emotional disposition that most Americans would like to see him demonstrate, I am disinclined to make much of the point. What I want from someone in the role of the presidency is good thinking and not sensitivity.
Nonetheless I have been paying a bit more attention to this criticism of the President because as I have been following his efforts to bolster the chances of Democrats to remain in power in Washington, DC, I have noticed that there is something amiss with how he comes over emotionally.
As a start, Mr. Obama is always glib, as if nothing on earth could phase him, as if it is all old hat to him, he is way ahead of everyone. This comes through, for instance, in his repeated dismissal of anything that members of the Tea Party complain about. And that's just the beginning.
One related steady emotional theme in the president's talks is the effort to be accommodating toward critics and enemies of America. Indeed, the very idea that Mr. Obama would identify anyone as an enemy of the United States of America seems off base. This is because it looks like he is mostly interested in building bridges between us and them, however barbaric they may be.
Mr. Obama is one of those American intellectuals who appears to be stopped from criticizing anyone abroad because, well, this country has had slavery and segregation and poverty so how could it justify being critical of anyone. It shows a spirit of perpetual self-criticism and mea culpa, attitudes that appear to dominate the president's conscience (and we are here talking about appearances).
There is no black and white for the man – no one, not even a vicious terrorist and a leader of a country in which women are systematically and barbarically oppressed, justifies for him any sort of firm moral condemnation. Like those ever-permissive parents who always have an excuse for what their offspring are doing, no matter how mischievous or outright evil it manages to be, for Mr. Obama those who attack America, actually attack innocents everywhere, just could not be all bad, unworthy of understanding.
This mentality of turning the other cheek, no matter what, appears to underlie the widespread distrust people have of Mr. Obama's emotional makeup. Emotions, although they are ultimately unreliable guidelines to action, are pretty good clues to what system of values someone has internalized. If one has to force oneself disapprove of or condemn vicious conduct and people and it doesn't arise naturally, people who do have a sense of just how bad some others can be will become suspicious.
President Obama and his cheerleaders must realize that eloquence is no substitute for emotional balance, for being in tune emotionally with what those deserve who comport themselves villainously. Being well spoken is not enough. One must also have a sense of what needs to be said, have substance to communicate, a sense of justice, if you will.
Or perhaps Mr. Obama just despises being disliked by people, even by vicious rulers abroad. But that, too, reveals his emotional priorities. Mr. Obama needs to open himself up to the possibility that some people should really be hated, that they are evil and not merely misguided, sick, or deranged.
Human life is distinctive in the world precisely because human beings have a moral nature and they can act irresponsibly, morally deplorably, contemptibly, as well as admirably, demonstrating moral excellence. And while that idea has always had its detractors, the moral skeptics, they simply cannot sustain their denial that people are moral agents and capable of doing vile things for which they ought to be condemned. They do not deserve sympathy but contempt.
And this is evident from the fact that the one exception to the skeptics' ambivalence about morality is their own utter contempt for those who do take morality seriously. They tend to be dismissed, even derided, as fundamentalists or moralizers, which is clearly and paradoxically something (morally?) contemptible to the skeptics!
Moral skeptics usually are hoisted on their own petard. Their amoral stance isn't philosophically sustainable because human beings are indeed moral beings, unlike the rest the members of the living world. And one result of having a moral nature and admitting to it is that one will openly cope with moral evil as well as moral excellent.
If one denies this, as it seems President Obama does when it comes to America's enemies, it will eventually stand in the way of reaching out to ordinary people.