Gulf psychology: My own private oil spill

Soon after Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, the press got whiff of a rumor that the 39th president was personally handing out court times for the White House tennis court. He soon got a reputation, earned or not, for being a micro-manager who failed to see the big picture. Dan Ackroyd of “Saturday Night Live” was merciless: He parodied the cardigan-wearing executive’s radio chats with the American people, in which he adroitly fielded questions on everything from knotty plumbing problems to bad acid trips.

Nobody wants their president to be a micro-manager. It’s not plausible that any leader of such a complex nation could have all the answers, with Xs and Os. On the other hand, in times of crisis people want a few Xs and Os—not ideals and morals and abstractions. Last night we learned from Obama that his energy chief has a Nobel Prize, and we heard some lofty rhetoric about the importance of alternative energy sources for the future. We heard about how irresponsible BP is, and how a new sheriff at MMS is going to make things right. What we didn’t hear is how a particular Navy submariner is going to dive down and stop the goop from spewing. That’s really all people care about right now.

New York Times columnist David Brooks picked up on this in his commentary after the speech. He compared Obama’s speech to wartime radio broadcasts of FDR, who urged citizens to get out their world maps as he walked them through concrete strategies he had planned for particular locations in the war effort. FDR was very capable of lofty rhetoric when that’s what he needed, but he also knew when to can the rhetoric and unfold the game plan.

Brooks is an intuitive cognitive psychologist. One of the most robust ideas to come out of psychology labs in recent years is what’s called “personal geography.” In broad paraphrase, this means that we see our world not literally but through the lens of our emotions, so that things at a distance are cool abstractions and vague generalities; things that are close have immediacy and power. That’s why a jet airplane crashing in our neighborhood is so much more upsetting than the same jet crashing on the other side of the country. Conversely, talking coolly and abstractly about an event makes it seem not urgent but theoretical and unthreatening.

Obama got elected in large part because of his brilliant rhetoric, his sweeping promises and broad vision. Nobody wants their candidate to talk realistically about the nitty-gritty and day-to-day details of actually enacting such a vision. Obama is no doubt right that we need to think about the Gulf oil spill through the perspective of our overall energy needs—but long-range perspective is not what Americans want from their president right now. This isn’t an energy problem to the shrimpers of Louisiana; it’s a survival problem. And Obama’s challenge is to make it a survival problem for all of us. Now is the time for war maps and concrete strategies and getting down in the muck—anything that makes this distant Gulf oil spill part of every citizen’s personal geography.

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