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Obama Should 'Man Up' Columnist Explains What He Meant

Some people want President Obama to express more passion. Others say he must show greater resolve in dealings with Republicans in Congress. Still others complain that he's indecisive and often too slow to act.

The criticisms have resonated with many Americans of color, who say they also face a minefield in the workplace. They identify with the fine line that Obama must walk to avoid misperceptions: assertiveness taken as aggressiveness; passion interpreted as anger; confidence as arrogance; or poise as passivity.

Minorities say another of their challenges is meeting the expectations of members of their own race or ethnicity. One of the most scathing criticisms of Obama came in a recent column written by The Washington Post's Courtland Milloy, an African-American, who dubbed Obama "the Great Placator" and demanded that he "man up."

In a recent Q&A with NPR, Milloy said: "I've never seen a black guy like President Obama before." Read excerpts of that conversation, part of an exchange between Dade, Milloy and Beverly Edgehill, who also is African-American and president and CEO of The Partnership Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit that trains minority managers to become corporate executives.

Corey Dade: Courtland, you wrote a column that questioned not only President Obama's vision but how he was performing against that vision. One of the things that stood out, to me, was the fact that you put yourself out there as—and, obviously, you're African-American—one black man to another: "Man up." What did you mean by that?

President Obama was very clear during his campaign about the things he stood for. So it became somewhat disconcerting to find the compromises or, in some cases, the caving in on things that were regarded as principle. That was combined with a particular look that he had. …I have expectations of the president to show a wide range of characters and expressions, and President Obama just seemed to be the same all the time.

In your column, you describe him as the Great Placator. How does he balance these competing interests but, at the same time, show some authenticity as a black man, which is what you were basically asking for?

I don't want to change Obama's personality. I'm told that in private he's a different kind of person. He gets angry, he shows emotion. On the basketball court he swings his elbows and talks a little trash—

Or gets elbows swung at him.

I would like to meet that guy. The person who's in the White House now…I don't really know, I don't think. In my experiences growing up in the South, and then here in the Washington area, I've never seen a black guy like President Obama before.


No. Never.  … There's a person who appears on the podium; who you see walking from the helicopter to the White House that's clearly not the sum total of President Obama. There is a black guy who apparently talks stuff; who shows emotion. I'd like to see that guy.

I'll tell you, he'll be the first…president in my lifetime who had to be that constrained. When he goes out of his way to please those who can't be pleased—meaning the Republicans—and wants to make nice with the Tea Party and is willing to compromise on things that he campaigned on as principle, combined with this demeanor—which is almost a shrinking violet, in some ways—then it becomes problematic.

I remember when the congressman from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, shouted out [to] President Obama "You lie" and President Obama looked at him almost like a schoolmarm would a kid.

Tell me, what does it look like to see more of his personality? When you say more, I'm hearing you say more of a black man's personality. What would that look like?

That's for him to come up with. I'm just saying that what he did struck me that way. …I'm thinking if someone had done that to Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan would probably have something to say that would put him in his place.

I think we found out in the aftermath of this tax cut deal that President Obama made with the Republicans that he can show emotion and feeling. But in this case it was directed toward the Democrats or the "professional left." So it's not like he's not capable of showing [emotion]….The question for me is why doesn't he do it more often why, when he does do it, it's aimed at the people who basically supported him.

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Corey Dade is a national correspondent for the NPR Digital News team. With more than 15 years of journalism experience, he writes news analysis about federal policy, national politics, social trends, cultural issues and other topics for NPR.org.