The anger of Barack Obama

The Washington Post | December 7, 2010
By Chris Cillizza

President Obama, long criticized by many in his own party for lacking appropriate passion, delivered a blunt and confrontational message to his liberal critics during a press conference today.

Faced with increasing criticism from liberals over his decision to compromise with Republicans on a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, Obama openly chastised the party's base -- warning them of being "sanctimonious" and reminding them that "this country was founded on compromise".

He also rejected the idea that he had failed to make good on a series of promises he made to the left (and the country) during the 2008 campaign. "There is not a single thing that I said I would do that I have not done or tried to do," Obama asserted.

Obama, to be fair, didn't only single out Democrats for criticism. He compared negotiating with Republicans to negotiating with hostage takers and said he only did so because of the danger that the hostage -- aka the American public -- would be harmed.

(You can check out the full press conference and our live blog of the proceedings if you missed a moment.)

Taken broadly, this press conference was a true rarity for Obama: the president as populist -- and an angry one at that. 

The president repeatedly sought to frame the compromise on tax cuts as a choice between playing politics and looking out for the American people. "My number one priority is to do what's right for the American people," Obama said at the start of the press conference.

The image of a visibly irritated -- if not outright angry -- Obama was a stunning contrast to cool, calm and collected persona that he has long cultivated.

Allies of the president insisted his tone was justified and winning -- that he was channeling the frustration of the American people with a government unable to solve big problems.

But, anger is a dangerous emotion in politics. 

Used tactically, it can help convey a sense of shared concern/upset with the American people. Used less skillfully, it can make a politician look small and petty.

The best -- and the worst -- of the anger equation can be found in former president Bill Clinton. 

At his best, Clinton used his anger to channel the best of the best southern populist politicians -- turning an issue into an "us versus them" argument that he almost always won.

At his worst, Clinton would turn his fire onto the process itself -- the media, the rules of Congress etc. -- which almost invariably ensured political defeat either of the temporary or permanent variety.