About two-thirds of the way through President Obama’s speech, leaves and twigs twitched erratically amid late-spring gusts of wind outside the windows of the Oval Office. Symbolism is integral to a presidential address, and Tuesday night was no exception, with solemn flags standing behind the history-heavy and timber-laden Resolute desk. But faltering branches was not the imagery desired for the moment.
In his opening comments, the president reassured the public:
From the very beginning of this crisis, the federal government has been in charge of the largest environmental cleanup effort in our nation’s history.
It hasn’t felt that way. Obama didn’t personally visit the Gulf until May 2, more than 10 days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the catastrophic mile-deep oil gusher. Original estimates on the extent of the oil spill drastically underestimated the enormity of the damage: in late April the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put the estimate at 5,000 barrels a day, a number which originated with British Petroleum scientists. Within short order, government officials were scrambling for more accurate assessments, and this week’s estimate places the damage at 60,000 barrels a day (2.5 million gallons).
President Obama either badly misunderstood the scope of the calamity, or he deliberately downgraded threat assessments so as not to upset the grand-scale ambitions of his administration. Perhaps it was a combination of both. By late May the political backlash was bipartisan, the most memorable outburst when former Bill Clinton strategist James Carville blew his top on Good Morning America. Responding to George Stephanopoulos, Carville excoriated the president:
George! George! George! The president of the United States could have come down here. He could have been involved with the families of these 11 people. He could have commandeered the things. … He could be with the corps of engineers and the Coast Guard with these people in Plaquemines Parish, doing something about these regulations. These people are crying. They’re begging for something down here. And it just looks like he’s not involved in this! Man, you have got to get down here and take control of this! Put somebody in charge of this and get this thing moving! We’re about to die down here!
Carville’s passion was absent from Tuesday’s Oval Office address. Instead, President Obama sought to “securitize” his response to the crisis, with martial rhetoric fitting of a commander-in-chief ordering troops into battle: the administration had a “battle plan”; Obama pledged the “deployment of over 17,000 National Guard members along the coast”; he promised to have the “governors in the affected states to activate these troops as soon as possible.”
If only the White House had such a fighting spirit when Gen. Stanley McChrystal sought 40,000 additional troops for the Afghan deployment throughout 2009!