By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A political speech that fell short

I wasn’t sure why President Obama decided to deliver his first Oval Office speech on the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m even less sure now. If he had been in the habit of giving regular White House news conferences, this would have been an ideal occasion for him to make a 10-minute statement and take questions. Instead, he raised expectations and failed to meet them. It was an entirely political speech, driven by perceived political need.

Understand that I’m talking about rhetoric, not reality. In fact, I don’t have a huge problem with the way the federal government has responded for two simple reasons: It didn’t cause the explosion, and it can’t stop the gusher. Those are the facts. Everything else pales in importance.

I’ll be rounding up media reaction for the Guardian tomorrow morning. No doubt the right will hammer him. Based on the initial reaction of Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Howard Fineman on MSNBC, it looks like liberals are going to hammer him as well. It’s going to be an interesting morning.

Go Celtics!

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34 Comments

  1. Kenin Drum of Mother Jones made the following Tweet (sorry to offend any standards editors) about the speech:

    “What a terrible speech”

    (http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/06/obamas-oil-spill-speech-weak-and-empty )

    And this from a liberal Obama supporter that defends him tirelessly.

    Not sure who he pleases with these remarks. He wasn’t as bad as the Celtics in the first half (it is half-time as I write this), but it was uninspiring, for sure.

  2. BP Myers

    While watching, I couldn’t help but recall Mitt Romney’s response to the Big Dig tunnel collapse.

    Accused (rightly) of simply coasting much of his term, I thought that was his finest hour, rolling up his sleeves, getting involved in the engineering details, conducting all the press conferences, and reassuring the public.

    It’s going to be a very interesting next Presidential election cycle.

  3. Mike Benedict

    @BP: Of course, it’s not like Mitt was fighting two wars, fixing the economy, dealing with a trade war with China and an immigration war with Arizona, and formally integrating the military.

  4. B.A. DuBois

    When you’ve lost the NYT editorial board (see today’s biting editorial for example), Maureen Dowd, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, the left leaning MSNBC commentators, James Carville, Kevin Drum and many others…

    You are in one world of political hurt.

    I didn’t vote for him but last January he became my president, and I wished him well… and I still wish him well, because the nation and the world can’t afford a weakened, failed president. Which I’m concerned is the path we’re on.

  5. L.K. Collins

    It was an entirely political speech, driven by perceived political need.— Dan Kennedy

    All of his speeches on this disaster have been purely political, and that, in and of itself, has become an impediment to the success that the Gulf area so desperately needs.

    Throughout this catastrophe, the Obama administration, and the permanent civil service functionaries working for him, have failed to recognize the only role that Government can take in a situation like this.

    That role is to assure that ALL resources that can be made available to assist ARE available, and the organizational and bureaucratic impediments to progress are eliminated or mitigated.

    Whether or not the administration ultimately succeeds is for history to judge.

    The impression that is and has been given, however, is that they have not. They still seem to have no clue as to how to accomplish what is required of them.

    Prospects for real leadership on this issue remain dim.

    But it is a surety that the political posturing will continue.

  6. Mike Benedict

    LK is right! We need real leadership! Like when George Bush stood on the deck of a carrier and proclaimed, “Mission Accomplished!”

    Oh wait …

    We can’t complain that Washington is all about posturing and needless callings-on-the-carpet, then turn around and whine that the President isn’t making a huge scene.

  7. BP Myers

    @Mike Benedict says: Of course, it’s not like Mitt was fighting two wars, fixing the economy, dealing with a trade war with China and an immigration war with Arizona, and formally integrating the military.

    All worthy excuses.

    But excuses nonetheless.

  8. Mike Benedict

    An excuse is what you give your wife when you blew off taking out the garbage.

    I don’t see that here.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: To which I would add, the biggest problem with Obama’s speech is he gave in to the notion that he has somehow failed. He didn’t cause the blowout and he can’t fix it. To borrow a line from the right, he should stop apologizing.

  9. BP Myers

    @Mike Benedict said: An excuse is what you give your wife when you blew off taking out the garbage.

    Heh. Begs the rhetorical question . . . why did you bring any of it up?

  10. BP Myers

    @Dan Kennedy says: the biggest problem with Obama’s speech is he gave in to the notion that he has somehow failed.

    Hilarious.

    So, the MMS was all cleaned up as of 58 days ago? All of the activities in that well-known cesspool were reviewed and analyzed? Confirmation that inspections that supposedly had been done were in fact done?

    Or is this still Bush’s fault?

  11. Laurence Glavin

    There has been a recurrent postulation by the Far Right that President Obama spends all his time “apologizing” for one failure or another…something that a rock-ribbed Conservative would never do. Oops…Tory PM of Great Britain David Cameron, um, “apologized” for the behavior, I mean behaviour of British soldiers (NEVER call individual soldiers “troops”; it’s trope some grammarians dislike)on “Bloody Sunday”, 30 January 1972 (also called the “Bogside Massacre”). I wonder if there’s a Rush Limbaugh in England to call out Cameron for such a base apology.

  12. L.K. Collins

    Absolutely correct, Dan, Obama did not cause the blowout, and it is very perceptive of you from your academic perch to note that he can’t fix it.

    What is a failure, and the failure is his and his administration’s, is his not creating the bureaucratic and logistic environment where the resources necessary to do the job can be brought to bear.

    His rhetoric and inaction has made achievement of that environment difficult.

    For that failure he is accountable and and must be regretful.

    Mr. Benedict, your apology for Obama has all earmarks of a “too much on his plate” excuse.

    Sorry, that just doesn’t fly.

    But for one who is seeking any safe haven for a beloved politician, it is not surprising that you would put an excuse on the table.

    If he has too much on his plate, it is incumbent on him to take things off the plate that are of a lesser priority.
    Given what he has to face, that may not be possible. So his task must be to figure how to juggle ongoing priorities so that each gets the attention it deserves and so that failure is not achieved by inattention or rushed judgment.

    The public has every right to judge him on that basis, and to judge him on it at any time and as often as they chose.

    Life happens, even for a President. At this point he is struggling with not much sign of progress. The public sentiment is reflecting that lack of progress.

    Maybe he should he try a Holiday Inn for a night or two?

  13. Bill Duncliffe

    He didn’t cause the blowout. He can’t fix it.

    But he can make sure to, as LK described, bring to bear the entirety of the federal machinery on interdiction and cleanup. Which he doesn’t seem to have been in too much of a hurry to do.

    I’ve spent some time on the Gulf Coast. That is what those people want to hear about. Not the future of energy policy in this country.

    Imagine if President Bush had used his Jackson Square speech post-Katrina to talk about climate change legislation.

  14. Mike Benedict

    @BP: “Begs the rhetorical question . . . why did you bring any of it up?”

    Huh? Obama has what anyone, regardless of ideology, would agree are about million priorities. That he doesn’t drop everything to focus on an oil spill that those who have been paying attention realize he CAN’T do anything about, lest he basically put the taxpayers on the hook for what should be BP’s expense is actually a good thing. You’re calling it an excuse. A reasonable person would call it common sense.

    LK: I think you’ve been spending too much time swimming in the Gulf. You are making even less sense than usual.

  15. BP Myers

    @Mike Benedict says: That he doesn’t drop everything to focus on an oil spill that those who have been paying attention realize he CAN’T do anything about, lest he basically put the taxpayers on the hook for what should be BP’s expense is actually a good thing.

    I don’t accept there is anything my government, with all of its resources, can’t do anything about. Didn’t accept it after Katrina. Don’t accept it now.

    Perhaps that’s where we differ.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: I think what @Mike Benedict and I are reacting to is that there is no evidence the federal government could have done something to prevent the explosion, nor can it do anything to stop the gusher. I don’t really see that people along the coastline are being neglected, either. Gov. Bobby Jindal did call for more sand berms, but as I understand it, some experts with the Corps of Engineers believe his plan would make things worse.

      Given all that, it seems that what people really want from Obama is for him to say more, to scream and yell and stamp his feet. Last night he gave in to them, and hurt himself politically as a result. But none of this is about substance or reality.

      Some pundits are comparing this to Jimmy Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis. Ludicrous, but maybe there’s one parallel. Carter publicly committed to spending most of his waking hours trying to end the crisis, thus setting himself up for failure. That’s not a mistake Reagan ever would have made. But it’s a mistake Obama is now flirting with through foolishness such as last night’s speech.

      One caveat: He clearly got a commitment from BP for the $20 billion ahead of time. That, at least, is smart politics. If he’d walked away empty-handed today, it would have been disastrous.

  16. Mike Benedict

    @BP: You might not accept the government’s response to date, but it’s informed by both federal law and the sad engineering truth. See here: http://www.denverpost.com/ci_15149720

    Now, perhaps your stance boils down to your definition of “anything.” In more than just semantic terms, Obama clearly has done all any member of the executive branch could. As I’m sure you noticed, today came the announcement that BP would put $20 billion into an (uncapped) escrow fund to pay for damages, plus another $100 million to support out-of-work oil rig workers and — how unprecedented is this? — an apology(!) from BP’s CEO. None of this precludes civil suits from going forward of course, which means in the end, BP is highly likely to pay considerably more. Finally, and this is important, BP still exists. Imagine the result if the company went the way of Bear Stearns. You got it: The US taxpayer would be on the hook.

    So Obama got the absolute best possible result Americans could get, given that the government has neither the technology nor the expertise to handle such a spill itself.
    What is not “anything” about that?

  17. Nial Lynch

    PolitiFact finds that “the federal government — thanks to the [Oil Polution Act of 1990] — ultimately has authority over how the clean-up proceeds… In fact, the Oil Pollution Act specifically gives the federal government the authority to decide who’s in charge of the clean-up — the polluter or the government. The company, in this case BP, will pay for the clean-up response. But the federal government can give the orders if it chooses.”

  18. BP Myers

    @Dan Kennedy says: there is no evidence the federal government could have done something to prevent the explosion, nor can it do anything to stop the gusher.

    I’ve read about inspections that were conducted by BP in pencil, later penned in by government regulators.

    I’ve heard that the rig itself was flagged in the Marshall Islands, to avoid American scrutiny.

    I’ve heard that help from other countries to help skim the oil has been turned down due to something called the “Jones Act” which the President can no doubt disavow.

    I’ve heard that there should be hundreds of ships in the Gulf skimming oil but for some reason, they’re not there.

    But maybe you–and by extension, the Tea Party–are right, and the Federal government is indeed feckless and unable to solve or ameliorate any of our problems.

    I’ll have to think on that.

  19. Mike Benedict

    @BP: We’re going round and round.

    Everyone from the government’s top official on down has said the feds don’t have the technology to handle the problem. And federal law precludes the government from going in and taking over the project.

    So why do you keep insisting that the government should ignore the laws? And where would these hundreds of presumably properly equipped ships come from? And who would oversee it all? Because BP isn’t handing over the reins, and the feds can’t take them.

  20. Neil Sagan

    I’ve heard that help from other countries to help skim the oil has been turned down due to something called the “Jones Act” which the President can no doubt disavow.

    Disavowing duly enacted legislation from Congress is an executive office practice made popular during the Bush administration. Perhaps you meant he could ask Congress to repeal it? Obama’s job is to enforce the law not subvert it … which is how the department of the interior ended up in such an upside down posture in the first place. Obama should have fixed it, and the rest of the regulatory agencies that were defanged and staffed with industry insiders eith the intent to subvert the effect of regulation.

    Bush and Cheney had eight years to corrupt agencies with regulatory capture, I think Obama deserves a few years to fix them all. If however, he intended to not fix it, we should hang him by the balls (metaphorically speaking of course.) If you ask me, Cheney and Bush have not been assigned nearly enough accountability for this disaster.

  21. L.K. Collins

    Mr. Benedict, your beloved messiah is getting pilloried left, right and center for his administration’s inability to create the environment where technical solutions and economic and environmental remedies can be developed and implemented expeditiously.

    And you do not like it, so you spin like a very tiny dreidel.

    Well does he deserve the criticism.

    It’s his watch; it’s his ship to maneuver.

    Only now, after more than eight long weeks of moves in knee-jerk response to the political waves that hit his ship broadside, is there there a hint, mostly cosmetic, of change. The ship, our ship really, speeds relentlessly towards a rather large, menacing, and very unforgiving reef. It’s commander is paralyzed by his inexperience and his fear of what lies ahead.

    (He may now have realized that kicking ass does not accomplish much, but better late than never.)

    Why wouldn’t people be concerned, even critical, of the direction being taken? Are you going to allege their treason for disrespecting your messiah and his acolytes??

    Your constructive response, as always, is to attack personally those who see things more clearly and rationally than you.

    Not unexpected, and still not contributing to rational discussion.

    No, Mr Benedict, ’tis you that is going ’round and ’round.

    Sad, but typical.

  22. BP Myers

    @Neil Sagan asks: Perhaps you meant he could ask Congress to repeal it?

    No, I meant he should disavow it:

    The Secretary of Homeland Security can waive the Jones Act requirements on a case-by-case basis during times of national emergency or in the interest of national defense.

    http://tinyurl.com/25efggg

  23. mike benedict

    Once again, LK, you spend all your time obsessing over me and none on the matters at hand. That’s just weird.

  24. L.K.Collins

    Once again, Mr. Benedict, your go on obsessing about yourself. Typical.

    You are neither the news nor the son of the messiah.

    Stop pretending that is is so.

  25. Neil Sagan

    Then you would be wrong on two counts

    The Secretary of Homeland Security can waive the Jones Act requirements…

  26. BP Myers

    @Neil Sagan says: Then you would be wrong on two counts

    Had about nine different reactions.

    Settled on a smile.

  27. Mike Benedict

    @LK: If I were the son of the messiah, I can guarantee you wouldn’t be selling antiques on the Cape!

  28. Neil Sagan

    @BP Myers You have an exciting emotional life. If I can make you smile, you made my day.

  29. L.K. Collins

    Any your point, Mikey, is?

    Or has affirmative action reached its limit for you?

  30. mike benedict

    So Obama is the messiah, and I am son of the messiah. I would say LK has a messiah complex, except I think that’s only scratching the surface of the problem.

  31. L.K. Collins

    Carry on, dear fool, carry on!

    Your contributions to the discourse have been extraordinary

    We are all still awaiting the exhibition of brilliance that you have told us you possess. Time passes, mu friend, and you adoring public is becoming impatient.

    If you don’t deliver soon, we will have to advertise for a replacement.

  32. Mike Benedict

    And your obsession with me continues unabated!

    Perhaps it’s time to start an LK Collins Watch.

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