Emerging Question: Is Barack Obama Politically Tone Deaf?
Our political Quote of the Day comes from Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson who notes something that several commentators on the left and right have noted: Barack Obama and his administration seem fixated on hyping a cabinet member’s credentials in talking about the Gulf Oil spill – and those credentials a)are not important to the people, environment and wildlife threatened by the oil spill, b)reflect a troubling inability to realize this for people who once upon an increasingly seemingly distant time were actually considered savy political professionals:
Less than a minute into President Obama’s Oval Office address, my heart sank. For the umpteenth time since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill began, an anxious nation was informed that Energy Secretary Steven Chu has a Nobel Prize. Obama’s speech pretty much went down hill from there.
For weeks, administration officials have been trumpeting Chu’s distinction at every opportunity. Earlier in the day, White House environmental guru Carol Browner cited the Nobel in a television interview. Presidential adviser David Axelrod talks about the Nobel all the time, as does Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. If there’s an official list of administration talking points about the response to the oil spill, “Chu’s Nobel” has to be at the top.
We can all applaud Chu’s accomplishment. But here’s the thing: Chu is a physicist, not an engineer or a biologist. His Nobel was awarded for the work he did in trapping individual atoms with lasers. He’s absurdly smart. But there’s nothing in his background to suggest he knows any more about capping an out-of-control deep-sea well, or containing a gargantuan oil spill, than, say, columnist Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel in economics. Or novelist Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel in literature.
In fact, Chu surely knows less about blowout preventers than the average oil-rig worker and less about delicate coastal marshes than the average shrimp-boat captain. His credentials, in this context, are meaningless. So do the president and his aides cite Chu’s beside-the-point Nobel to reassure Americans that the team handling the oil spill knows what it’s doing? Or are Obama, Browner, Axelrod, Gibbs and the others constantly trying to reassure themselves?
That’s a valid point — particularly in light of how Obama’s speech was generally panned by most political observers. But was he in one sense “set up” by them?
MSNBC’s first read team NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro make an important point:
*** Fighting ‘powerlessness’: Here’s what may now be an undisputed fact: President Obama isn’t going to be perceived as having a “good day” handling this oil spill until the oil stops spewing out of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. As for the pundit hand-wringing over [Tuesday] night’s speech, the New York Times’ Peter Baker probably put it best: Obama has been “fighting his own powerlessness.” Everyone is frustrated, everyone is upset. And right now everyone in the Conventional Wisdom world/chattering class, etc. is taking it out on this president, good speech or not. What’s particularly telling is that the pundit class pretty much demanded that the president give last night’s speech (the White House caved to that pressure, perhaps before they had something more to announce), and some of them immediately criticized it. Talk about a no-win situation.
That, too is a valid point. Politics is now joined at the hip by a 24/7 political media that clamors, dissects and judges. Negativity is the most common and popular response — particularly among parts of the media that are essentially unofficial political party appendages trying to advance their party’s agenda and tear down the other party and anyone connect with it (you can add some key MSNBC and Fox News shows to that category and many weblogs).
But this speech truly seemed to create a fleeting national consensus — by garnering an across-the-boards thumbs down.
And the sinking suspicion that perhaps the Obama team that was so good at winning elections might be politically tone deaf is beginning to spread. Now the question is emerging: what if there is no real learning curve for them — that what America sees is what it has and will have?
To be sure, Obama has been down in the Gulf and the news about the BP escrow fund was definitely progress.
But the way the speech was handled has become an issue in itself.
For instance GO HERE and read Dick Polman’s piece where he compares lines from an energy speech Jimmy Carter gave as President 30 years ago to Obama’s showing how the two Presidents both talked about getting America off an oil-addicted menu. He titles his post “The Past is Prologue”.
Here’s his ending:
Obama, last night: “The one answer 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.”
Carter, 31 years ago: “We are strong. We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence…We ourselves are the same Americans who just ten years ago put a man on the moon.”
Obama, last night: “We know we’ll get there….What sees us through, what has always seen us through, is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it.”
Carter, 31 years ago: “I firmly believe that we have the national will to win this war.”
Oh really? We do? What are the odds that, 30 years from now, yet another president will offer up a third version of the same speech to an oil-addicted electorate.
Paul Begala, writing in The Daily Beast, argues that Obama simply has a different political style that most people don’t grasp. And, indeed, I’ve often wondered if Obama may operate on a political FM while the conventional wisdom is on a political AM and that the new and old media pundit jury reach their verdicts not realizing the case against him is not yet over. Begala writes, in part:
This has become a pattern. In 2007, Sen. Obama was dead in the water in Iowa (well, dead in the cornfields anyway), his supporters began to panic. Obama listened to his internal clock and told his nervous followers not to worry – I’m a strong closer. And close he did. When the game was on the line he took his game to another level, and handily defeated both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
Thus began what is now a familiar play. He hangs back, holds back, resists fully engaging. His supporters get nervous, then edgy, then panicky. And then he swoops in to save the day. It happened in the campaign, on health care, and now, can we dare to hope it’s happening on the BP disaster?
As one who has been critical of the president’s response to the disaster so far, I was enormously impressed with this speech. Obama communicated his personal commitment, and the commitment of the entire country, to the people of the Gulf region. He called for a new energy economy – one that creates more jobs and costs fewer lives. Perhaps most important, he made accountability a presidential priority. BP must be punished; the people of the Gulf must be made whole; the American coastline must be reclaimed.
Or is that Begala is being the quintessential partisan and spin master? Can it really be that Obama is looking this bad by design?
The problem for Obama is: early in his term, before there was really any evidence of it, GOP partisans were trying to paint him as “another Carter” — as someone seemingly in over his head. They tried to define him as a Carter, a label undermined when health care reform passed. Why? Because defining the opposition, its figures and policies in the most demonizing manner is increasingly the style in 21st century America, which raises the question about precisely where this trend will take us 20 years from now.
However, the unsettling feeling in the land now is that Obama is beginning to resemble Carter in another way:
Carter ran a great campaign, promised people he would never lie to them, and proved out of his league on several fronts. His campaign-winning skills were not matched by his ability as an administrator and once in office his political instinct seemed to abandon him.
Obama still has time to prove this isn’t his fate.
But seemingly having a tin ear to what’s important isn’t a good sign. And in this crisis a Nobel Prize means zilch.
Will the White House now get it?
Or will they keep using this talking point that is creating talking points in their disfavor?
Just as the Gulf Oil spill keeps spewing forth, will the White keep spewing forth “Nobel Prize…Nobel Prize…Nobel Prize”?
If so, Obama is destined for a political booby prize.
NOTE: For a totally different take on Obama’s speech, and one that is quite logical and makes its case well, be sure to read THIS POST.