David Brooks knows what will make you feel better

DAVID BROOKS KNOWS WHAT WILL MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER…. The media herd has decided: President Obama is probably doing all he can to deal with the BP oil spill disaster, but he’s falling short of their emotional expectations.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the “he’s too poised” complaint in recent days, but the NYT‘s David Brooks is the latest to tell America what Americans think about their president: “They demand that he hold press conferences, show leadership, announce that the buck stops here and do something. They want him to emote and perform the proper theatrical gestures so they can see their emotions enacted on the public stage.”

Putting aside the inherent conceit that comes with claiming to know what Americans “want” and “demand” based on nothing but a pundit’s assumptions, the first half of Brooks’ expectations seem to have been met. The president really has talked to the press, shown leadership, declared that the buck stops with him, and taken many steps to launch an aggressive federal response to the crisis.

The second part is more condescending — we apparently want “theatrical gestures,” Brooks tells us, to satisfy some psychological urge for public wish-fulfillment and verisimilitude.

But Brooks’ shallow suggestion is unpersuasive precisely because it’s a standard that no one can meet. As Greg Sargent explained today, “no matter how angry or emotional [the president] becomes, he will always have fallen short.”

The point is that this is an entirely arbitrary yardstick with which to measure Obama’s performance, and the bar will inevitably rise ever higher…. Mike Allen is onto the absurdity of this dynamic. Today he made the half-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that before long Obama would appear in the Gulf on a boat.

Yes, appearances are important. Surely the public does look to the president for some kind of reassurance amid crises. But my bet is the public will judge Obama’s performance almost exclusively based on the substance of his response: Whether he holds BP meaningfully accountable. Whether the administration does what it takes to exert real control over the response to the disaster. Whether Obama uses this crisis to push for a larger solution to the vast underlying problem that produced it.

It’s harder to talk about these issues than it is to dash off a column comparing Obama to Spock.

Quite right. Right now, the media’s evaluations boil down to two absurd standards: has Obama successfully plugged the oil-gushing hole and has he openly wept and/or banged on his podium enough. The president comes up short on both counts, in large part because “theatrical gestures” are dumb benchmarks.