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!
It wasn’t exactly clear what kind of “battle” these troops would be fighting. As long as the BP gusher remains unplugged, clean-up operations will be a band-aid on a wound from a sniper rifle. What’s the plan, Mr. President? Appearing on the The O’Reilly Factor, Sarah Palin argued that Americans “haven’t had the assurance by the president” that capping the BP gusher is job #1:
Instead, what his top priority is, Bill, is cap and tax.
While the hard-left progressives at Firedoglake and Media Matters took heavy exception to Palin’s instant analysis, it’s not easy for anyone to discount how animated — almost messianic — the president becomes as he starts talking about “America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.” Here is where President Obama’s clearly not willing to let a crisis go to waste. The president implored the nation to ” … embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.” He assured the public that his administration was committed to “a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill.” Clearly returning to the rhetoric of his perpetual campaign, Obama attacked “oil industry lobbyists” and pledged to push for “increased efficiency standards for the automobile industry.”
And to top it off, Obama elevated his pitch by hearkening back to the glories of the Greatest Generation:
I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny — our determination to fight for the America we want for our children.
Well, at least he didn’t ask us to go without air conditioning this summer. Or, maybe he did. Any change away from a petroleum economy will impose short-term costs on the economy and could potentially lower the American standard of living. Perhaps by December the president will don a cardigan and ask us to lower our thermostats to 68 degrees.
Humor aside, folks are now making serious comparisons between President Obama and President Jimmy Carter. It’s easy to dismiss attacks on Obama as “Jimmah” as cheap political points, but when newscasts are opening with counts marking the crisis’ longevity — “Gulf Oil Spill, Day 57” — can it be long before one of the major networks gives Ted Koppel a lifeline for the original Nightline?
It is, of course, a solemn time in American politics, and the president may have missed an opportunity to demonstrate genuine leadership and originality. Economic uncertainty is unabated across the land, and American forces continue fighting foreign conflicts of uncertain resolution. Perhaps the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has become the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Unfortunately, bland speeches offering refurbished climate change initiatives probably aren’t going to thrill a lot of pressed and worried voters.
And in that sense, Americans will increasingly see this administration as no more steady than those wavering branches.