President Obama said many of the right things last night in his speech on the Gulf oil spill, but there was no sense of satisfaction, much less elation. There was nothing soaring, not even reassuring. It had the feel of an after-school conference with your guidance counsellor.
As Joan Walsh points out in Salon, the imagery and energy were off. Notwithstanding the battle verbiage, the President was speaking from an airless setting. He couldn’t remove from my mind the pictures of the oil continuing to gush, the wildlife covered with and dying from contaminants, the fishermen out of work, the tourists staying away in droves.
The tutorial reminded us of the steps his administration has taken (the assembling of a team of experts and the deployment of personnel and ships. He laid out broad goals for restoration and recovery, but the closest he came to seemingly authentic emotion was when, referring to the destruction of fishing and tourism, he spoke of “wrenching anxiety” that a way of life would be lost.
Clearly the speech would have been more effective had it been delivered weeks ago. That it came only last night and didn’t add anything new to what has been out in the public domain conveyed the sense that (as Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously said about the war in Iraq) “it’s going to be a long slog.” President Obama’s oil spill battle plan also seems to be little more than a long slog.
It is inevitable that he would be criticized both for government over-reaching and for not doing it boldly enough. People in the direct path of the spill wanted him to be more specific about how their claims will be settled; others wanted him to be more passionate about the need for a comprehensive energy bill, apparently moribund in the U.S. Senate.
The President himself seemed depleted. In the past, he has said he’d rather be a great one-term president than an okay two-term president. The mid-term elections seem implicitly to be a drag on his communication. I still think he can succeed as President. I still want him to succeed. But he can’t do it without passion. He must be able to rally the American people. He has set his course on the oil spill, on dealing with BP, and, to a lesser extent, on comprehensive energy reform. He needs to catch the wind and move the ship of state forward smartly and forcefully, tack to the right and left as necessary, and sail to the finish line.
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