A Curiously Depressing Speech from the President

I was doing my radio show during the president’s speech last night so I had to play catch-up this morning and read it online.

I’m not sure that’s such a bad idea anyway with these set-piece speeches. Speaking from the Oval Office is dramatic, but much less so than if given in front of a joint session of Congress, or some other milieu like Point du Hoc, or Oklahoma City where Reagan and Clinton delivered blockbuster addresses. When speaking to the American people in such an intimate way, as Obama did from the Executive Mansion, the words matter more than the delivery. And scanning the president’s remarks, I found them wanting in many places; specifically, his failure to impart the extreme gravity of the situation we are facing, as well as what John Hinderaker refers to a as a “petulant” blame game he is playing with BP.

It still appears to me that the president is trying desperately to get out from under the political damage that is threatening his effectiveness. He’s not going to do it by attempting to convince us that we have other, more pressing problems than the oil spill:

Good evening. As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges. At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al Qaeda wherever it exists. And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.

The catastrophic potential of this spill to destroy the economies of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and perhaps even Florida would seem to me to be the “top priority” domestically of this or any other administration. Why it is apparently not as far as the Obama White House is concerned speaks volumes about the president’s leadership in this crisis. I am not referring to plugging the hole itself, which is largely a technical problem beyond the ken of non-technical government employees and leaders. But the steps that should have been taken weeks ago to mitigate the worst effects of this spill that are just now being implemented smacks of, what the New York Times referred to as “chaotic” management:

From the beginning, the effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials, as well as BP. As a result, officials and experts say, the damage to the coastline and wildlife has been worse than it might have been if the response had been faster and orchestrated more effectively.

“The present system is not working,” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said Thursday at a hearing in Washington devoted to assessing the spill and the response. Oil had just entered Florida waters, Senator Nelson said, adding that no one was notified at either the state or local level, a failure of communication that echoed Mr. Bonano’s story and countless others along the Gulf Coast.

“The information is not flowing,” Senator Nelson said. “The decisions are not timely. The resources are not produced. And as a result, you have a big mess, with no command and control.”

What did the president have to say about this analysis last night?

Because of our efforts, millions of gallons of oil have already been removed from the water through burning, skimming and other collection methods. Over five and a half million feet of boom has been laid across the water to block and absorb the approaching oil. We’ve approved the construction of new barrier islands in Louisiana to try to stop the oil before it reaches the shore, and we’re working with Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to implement creative approaches to their unique coastlines.

As the cleanup continues, we will offer whatever additional resources and assistance our coastal states may need. Now, a mobilization of this speed and magnitude will never be perfect, and new challenges will always arise. I saw and heard evidence of that during this trip. So if something isn’t working, we want to hear about it. If there are problems in the operation, we will fix them.

But we have to recognize that despite our best efforts, oil has already caused damage to our coastline and its wildlife. And sadly, no matter how effective our response is, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done. That’s why the second thing we’re focused on is the recovery and restoration of the Gulf Coast.

Nobody expects the response to be perfect. But when the governor of Louisiana requested the construction of these barrier islands weeks ago, and when a million feet of boom lie unused in a warehouse in Maine (even after the boom was brought up to spec by changing the connectors), and when assistance was offered by the Dutch and the British within hours of the spill, only being accepted recently, one can note that the mistakes and confusion fall far short of an enterprise that is perfect, and begins to resemble incompetence.

Beyond the response to the disaster, the demonization of BP raises questions of blame shifting: Give the people a target and maybe they’ll be distracted from the mistakes and ineptitude. It’s easy to make BP a villain in all of this, but one wonders why the over-heated rhetoric about placing a “boot on the neck” of the oil giant while finding someone’s “ass to kick.” That, and the theatrics of sending Eric Holder down to the gulf to “investigate” whether criminal charges should be brought against BP (the idea he couldn’t have done this from DC is silly). Threats to deny shareholders a dividend (how are they responsible?) as well as the administration’s constant tearing down of the British company (that has damaged relations with Great Britain) are not helping anything, and only serve to highlight the White House’s desperation as the disaster drags down the president’s approval numbers.

Does the president think those numbers will improve if he compares the disaster to 9/11, as he did in an interview last weekend?

The first thing that needs to be said is this: The only thing the oil spill and 9/11 have in common is nothing.

Yes, 9/11 was very important and so is the spill. But many terrible things happen, are important — and are unalike. The Haiti earthquake of 2009 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 were both important, but they had nothing whatever to do with each other. Nor did the tsunami of 2004 and the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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What the deployment of the 9/11 analogy suggests is that Obama would like to treat BP as though it were al Qaeda, at least rhetorically — a villain for him to confront on behalf of the wounded American people.

That may seem politically shrewd to Obama and his team, but it will have parlous consequences. The analogy muddies and obfuscates.

By comparing an unwanted disaster to a conscious act of war, Obama is adding an improper moral dimension to the effort to clean up the Gulf — a moral reckoning that will make it harder rather than easier to focus on the task of actually plugging the damn hole.

By likening the murder of 3,000 people and the efforts to take out the US government to a series of mistakes that added up to a catastrophe, Obama has defined evil down in a fashion that does immense violence to good sense, good taste and good leadership.

The fact that the president then went out and played golf for 4 hours pretty much gave the lie to his comparison to 9/11. This has been the pattern of the administration’s response since day one; solemnly declare how bad the crisis is and then have their actions fall short of the rhetoric.

What about the president using the disaster to push his ruinously expensive energy plan:

The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.

This is not some distant vision for America. The transition away from fossil fuels is going to take some time, but over the last year and a half, we’ve already taken unprecedented action to jumpstart the clean energy industry. As we speak, old factories are reopening to produce wind turbines, people are going back to work installing energy-efficient windows, and small businesses are making solar panels. Consumers are buying more efficient cars and trucks, and families are making their homes more energy-efficient. Scientists and researchers are discovering clean energy technologies that someday will lead to entire new industries.

According to leaked reports from the Spanish government, who have implemented a similar plan that Obama wants to try here, there will be two jobs lost for every job gained in the “green” sector of the economy. It may be worse here, given the size of our coal and gas industries. In the meantime, there is no renewable or “green” technology that will offer a breakthrough in industrial production of energy for decades. It isn’t even a question of cost, as much as it is practicality. Solar, wind, and other green power generating industries cannot possibly compete with oil and coal for efficiency in generating power. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow and no amount of government subsidies will change that fact of our existence.

Weaning ourselves from foreign sources of oil is fine. But we are the only nation on planet earth that deliberately refuses to drill for oil in places where it is not only easy to get, but where it is plentiful enough that it could have a sizable impact on our domestic reserves. Such stupidity leads to consequences, and until “green” technologies are developed that can compete with oil, coal, and gas in the free market, Obama can wish all he wants but it won’t generate one single erg of “green” energy.

Even those friendly to the president were disappointed in his speech last night. Anytime analysts write glowingly of how much “in charge” Obama seemed, you know they’re reaching. What else should a president be but in charge?

The president attempted to change the narrative of the story last night. He failed. The narrative now has a life of its own and will be determined in the future by the mounting environmental and economic damage done by the spill.

In this respect, it can only get worse for the president and his administration.

The copyrighted cartoon by Nate Beeler, The Washington Examiner, is licensed to run on TMV. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.

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