About That ‘Obama-Can’t-Be-Angry’ Meme.

President Barack Obama watches the Vice Presidential debate aboard Air Force One with staff, en route to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, from Florida, Oct. 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: President Obama can’t show too much anger or passion in public because it could make him look like an angry black man and scare away skittish white folks. After last night’s vice presidential debate, some people said that Obama could never behave the way Joe Biden did — the snarky laughter, dismissive rebuttals, and showy disdain for Paul Ryan‘s responses — because he would read as “arrogant” and “rude.”

But, you know, that’s kind of the way Biden’s been characterized by Republicans the day after, anyway. Sure, Obama’s skin color would “irradiate” that reading of him, to use Ta-Nehisi’s phrasing. And while there’s probably no way to quantify just how much of a difference that irradiation would make in terms of poll numbers or some other tangible metric, this counterfactual also has a bunch of caveats. Their relative offices matter here; Obama is the president and can’t really kirk out on folks. But their long-formed public personas matter here, too; Biden has been kirking out on people for decades. (Remember how he got props in 2008 because he didn’t go ham on Sarah Palin in their debate?) Just how do we control for Obama’s race in this hypothetical?

But this line of reasoning also assumes that President Obama even has the capacity to act the way Joe Biden did. Obama has always been the ruminative, measured professor during his time in public life. Maybe barking on people with whom he disagrees just isn’t how he’s built. Just because he’s a black man doesn’t mean that he has angry black man in his toolkit.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Linda

    “Just because he’s a black man doesn’t mean that he has angry black man in his toolkit.” — very true and i agree. i don’t think POTUS is repressing his natural angry self or anything nor do think Joe Biden did what POTUS cannot. As you say they’re just two different men. But stepping away from that and discussing racial politics alone i personally believe that there is a different dance a black man or woman has to follow when expressing him or herself in public/professional spaces.

  • Xay

    Have we forgotten when Obama had that Q & A with the House Republicans? I think that was as salty as we have ever and will ever see President Obama because he just isn’t the “angry black man” people want to see. He lectures, he corrects, he’s sarcastic and pointed (remember “you’re nice enough”) but he is not going to act like Biden because he is not that kind of person.

    • I was just thinking of that, actually. He was really, really good in that space, in command, etc. But that setting played to his strengths, his wonkiness, his calm. He picked apart their arguments, parried and thrusted, like, well, like a law professor.

      When one of the House Republicans asked him if he was comfortable, he responded, obviously feeling himself: “oh, I’m having a good> time.”

      It was the type of performance that Obama’s supporters have long demanded and that his own aides have been eager to deliver. The question-and-answer session at the end wasn’t initially supposed to be broadcast, but the White House pressured GOP leadership to bring the cameras in. They knew the optics it would generate, a source with knowledge of the planning relayed. Hours before the event began, Republican leaders finally relented.

      What resulted was what one Democratic strategist described as “amazing theater” — certainly for cable news. Standing on a stage, looking down at his Republican questioners, Obama assumed the role of responsible adult to the GOP children, or, at the very least, of a college professor teaching and lecturing a room full of students.

      He chastised Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) for calling his economic agenda radical and poked fun at the GOP’s own platform. “I am not an ideologue, I’m not,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense if somebody could tell me, ‘You could do this cheaper and get increased results,’ then I would say, ‘Great.’ The problem is, I couldn’t find credible economists who could back up the claims that you just made.”

      He rebuked a questioner who insisted that the monthly deficit is higher now than Bush’s annual deficit. “That’s factually just not true,” he said. “And you know it’s not true.” He lampooned Republican lawmakers seated in front of him for portraying his health care legislation as “some Bolshevik plot.” He mocked Republicans for railing against the stimulus package and then showing up at “the ribbon-cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities.” And he did it all while calling for “a tone of civility instead of slash and burn will be helpful.”


  • Xay

    The format definitely played to his strengths in a way that debates never have. I’ve never been as impressed as others by Obama’s speaking ability, but it is undeniable that the debate format of short, sound bite friendly responses is not his strength. He prefers a lecture or a dialogue. He is never going to laugh in someone’s face when they tell a flat out lie. That’s not him.

    I don’t think his lack of anger was his problem in the first debate. His problem was that he wasn’t ready. Period. Biden’s performance was effective not just because of his demeanor but because he was ready for everything Ryan had to say.