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We got the president we elected

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger says Obama was elected because his calm, cool approach contrasted with Bush
  • She says the oil spill is a crisis and people are looking for someone to express their anger
  • Obama is trying to show a sense of urgency on the issue, she says
  • Borger: "We elected Barack Obama. Now we want to change him."

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°" and "State of the Union," as well as participating in special event coverage.

Washington (CNN) -- The news about Al and Tipper Gore deciding to separate after 40 years of marriage shocked Washington -- and those who know them -- into a kind of frenzy: How could this be? They have always been the genuine political couple. The ones who were affectionate and caring; the ones who had fun. The couple who dared to smooch onstage at a national political convention.

Al and Tipper were like Peanut Butter and Jelly. Always better together.

And maybe they were. And what we saw was true. And maybe now -- because it once was true and isn't anymore -- they've decided to split.

We don't know, and it's not our business.

But the shock it sent is about us, not them. It's about the way we perceive (and choose to perceive) what's put in front of our eyes, especially when it comes to the political world.

All of which leads to President Obama. He was elected because he is cool, calm and analytical. That's what we wanted to see after George W. Bush, so we made him president. But now the disaster in the Gulf has made many of us want to see someone else -- with plenty of anger, emotion and bravado. We want him to yell at BP. We want him to loudly tell us he's whipping the cleanup effort into shape.

We can't tell BP ourselves, so we want him to do it for us.

Fair enough. But that's not the person we elected.

So we want him to morph into something he isn't -- which is exactly what we hate about our politicians. We want him to be another Barack Obama, an actor. Maybe we want him to be George Bush with the bullhorn after 9/11. Only he isn't.

And he isn't the first president to have his empathy gene questioned, either. Remember Bush 41, who had to flatly tell us, "Message: I care," when we didn't think he did care? Or his son, who had to declare his concern for the Gulf Coast when playing catch-up on Katrina.

There is one president, of course, who never had to be prodded into the empathy zone: Bill Clinton. He felt our pain all the time. Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell put it this way: "If Bill Clinton was president, he'd have been in a wetsuit, trying to get down to see the spill." He's right, of course, but think back for a moment: That's exactly what Americans came to distrust about Clinton. By emoting too much, they never knew what to believe. What was real and what wasn't?

Perception is important, of course. Maybe if the president had gone to the Gulf sooner -- and met with fishermen instead of functionaries -- we would have eased up on him. Surely we would have felt better. It's important for a president, as a leader and national pastor, to let Americans know he gets it, so an early trip to the Gulf matters. That's why the White House sprang a leak-a-thon when it told reporters that the president had gotten angry in private, telling advisers to just "plug the damn hole." Message: I emote.

But the real problem, of course, is that the "damn hole" isn't getting plugged, with junk or anything else. The oil continues to spew out of the well, a daily reminder in the corner of our cable screens that there is something out of control that we cannot yet stop. And Obama rightly suffers: As president, he's in charge. He's the one who told us he wanted to preside over a smart government that can work. And he finally accepted responsibility for dealing with the mess last week, and we approved. But the hole remains unplugged.

So as the oil continues to flow, Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder to the Gulf to announce massive criminal and civil investigations into the disaster. The president himself now tells us almost daily that the spill is his highest priority, as is the cleanup. And his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, responded to a question about the president's emotional state by saying, "I've seen rage from him."

Good to know, I guess. But if Obama were full of rage, he wouldn't have been elected.

True to form, we want it all. We want a leader who can feel our pain while rising above it. We say we don't trust government, but we look to it for answers and cleanups. And we elected Barack Obama. Now we want to change him.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.