I really didn’t want to write another rant this week on the now yawn-inducing fact of Barack Obama’s irrelevance and presidential impotence (when, that is, it isn’t something far worse), but watching his first Oval Office address to the country the other night, I’m just amazed at the deterioration of this presidency and the new heights of abysmalosity (to coin a term) the guy has managed to scale.
Next to the state of the union address, such speeches are about the most powerful arrow that presidents have in their quiver, used for doing the most important thing associated with the modern presidency – namely, persuading. The speech was absolutely pathetic, to the point where even those of us sick and tired of being sick and tired with disappointment at this president still need to pay attention.
First of all, it was ridiculously late. Why has it taken this guy two months to directly address the country on what he is himself calling the worst environmental disaster in our history?
Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern with him. Paul Begala, one of the folks who gave us Bill Clinton, absolutely slobbers over Obama and his speech, seeing in its tardiness the wonder of The Great All-Seeing One (With A Plan) in action: “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?”
Whoa, babe. Be still my heart. There’s just one problem (well, really, more like six, but we don’t have all day here) with this dribble that is being passed off as analysis: This behavioral pattern that gets Begala a little, ahem, too excited, is actually a total disaster. Both for the country and for the president. Begala looks on the healthcare initiative, for example, as some great victory. To my mind, it was an utter fiasco. The legislation produced is anemic at best, and at its core exacerbates the medicine-for-profit destructive system that we are currently foolish enough to employ. By stupidly negotiating with his antagonists, who then shockingly unanimously failed to vote for his legislation, Obama was rightly seen to have lost control of the process. By failing to articulate a moral vision, by declining to specify enemies to the well-being of the American public, and by deferring to the cesspool that is Congress to fill in the details, Obama also succeeded in winning a legislative ‘victory’ that has produced no political benefit for him or his party, and probably considerable baggage instead.
If this is what Begala means by “saving the day”, then I’ll go ahead and stick with having my days unsaved, thanks just the same. He’s right that this is Obama’s style, he’s just wrong about its implications. Obama did the same thing with his stimulus bill and his Afghan war policy, as well as less prominent issues like (not) pushing Israel towards peace or advocating for the unemployed. In every case, the substantive product is pathetic, and the president and his party are further damaged in the process. Poll ratings for both have gone down precipitously in the last year and a half, twenty points lower for the president, who came to office on inauguration day with enough goodwill to launch a minor new religion. His hang back, frosty-cool aloof, style of governing accounts for a considerable chunk of this dissipated support. Call me crazy, but that is not a modus operandi to be emulated, as Democrats will surely learn in November.
It is, however, one that has also been applied to the oil hemorrhage in the Gulf. Here, I think someone like Begala must have a truly excellent drug dealer in order to obtain the amazing hallucinogens he’s obviously been imbibing. Even if Obama donned his superman briefs and cape tomorrow, swam to the bottom of the Gulf, and tied the pipe into a knot, in what sense would this constitute saving the day? Eleven people are dead, untold numbers of birds, fish and other critters are suffering and dying, fishing and tourism industries have been hammered in four states, and the economy is likely to plunge in a region still suffering from the effects of the last president who couldn’t be bothered. Even assuming he could shut the thing off right now, how out of it would you have to be to consider that a victory?
A second problem with Obama’s speech is that he just flat-out lies. When he tells us to “make no mistake, that were fighting this spill with everything we’ve got”, he neglects to mention that his administration has been assisting BP in covering up the magnitude of the crisis, in blocking press coverage, and in handling it whatever way the company wants. The United States federal government under Obama didn’t even bother to prevent BP from using highly toxic dispersant that is banned in BP’s home country. The administration just sort of asked them not to do it, whereupon BP reminded them of who was really in charge, and then went out spewed the damn poison. Obama also lies about his own complicity in turning the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department, and the federal government into agents of corporate plunder. They knew what was going on in MMS, and they didn’t fix it. Indeed, you don’t appoint a guy like Ken Salazar to the cabinet if you remotely intend for that garbage to be fixed. Obama also repeated his lie about the drilling moratorium in his big speech this week, just as he lied about the known dangers of offshore drilling a few months ago when he announced his new “Drill, baby, drill” policy. We know that, since the moratorium has been in place, his administration has already issued at least seven new permits and dished out at least five environmental waivers for more projects like the Deepwater Horizon. Moratorium? Not even close. Moribund? Yeah, that’s more like it.
In his speech, Obama was brazen enough to say, “A few months ago, I approved a proposal to consider new, limited offshore drilling under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe – that the proper technology would be in place and the necessary precautions would be taken. That obviously was not the case in the Deepwater Horizon rig, and I want to know why.” It’s hard to even know where to start with that construction, so packed is it with dishonesty. Apart from the most significant lie – the fiction that he was duped – he doesn’t tell us who lied to him or why. He doesn’t tell us why he didn’t do sufficient due diligence as president to know better, before risking our lives and livelihoods on private oil profits taken from national resources. He doesn’t explain why, two months after Deepwater Horizon blew up, he supposedly still hasn’t by now obtained an answer to his own question of why it happened. He doesn’t tell us why he didn’t clean up the government agencies charged with making offshore drilling “absolutely safe” (don’t even get me started on that one), why he has been allowing drilling permits without required environmental impact reports, and why he continues to issue new permits even under his faux moratorium, and even though he doesn’t yet know what went wrong. This is pathetic. Like many a president before him, Obama has been reduced to stacking lies upon lies to justify his policies and hide his crimes and those of his sponsors.
And then he lectures us in this speech for our “lack of political courage and candor”?!?! Is that supposed to be funny?
This is a speech, third, that was just dripping in empty platitudes and filled with Obama’s recent and pathetic attempt to cowboy up and demonstrate presidential machismo. How is it possible that a presidential speech in 2010 could still make use of the most shop-worn of rhetorical devices in existence, the hoary ‘we-landed-a-man-on-the-moon-so-we-can-do-this-too’ assertion? Man, was sick of hearaing that one And just when you thought no president could look more idiotic than George W. Bush trying to convince us (and especially himself) that he possessed a courage that was instead so manifestly lacking, here comes Barack Obama to ‘kick some ass’. Are there actually political strategists in the White House – people who draw a salary paid by you and me – who believe that this pathetic speech will rally the country to adopt a new energy policy and change personal behaviors? If so, I say give that money to charity instead of paying for decision-making of this quality. As with the healthcare legislation or the stimulus bill, the president failed to specify one particular policy that he demands Congress adopt, or one particular behavior he expects members of the public to change. He gave us nothing to rally around, and did not ask us to rally around anything. Nobody even knows what he would do if it were entirely up to him to do what he wanted.
But what we do know, remarkably, is that President Deference will be delighted to chat with anybody to consider their policy prescriptions, a fourth set absurdities that emerge from the speech. Somehow, Barack Obama still believes that it’s a good idea to negotiate with people who are flat-out enemies of the public interest, and even announced enemies of his presidency, including all forms of corporate marauders and a political party that has overtly indicated its intention to oppose everything Obama does, regardless. So we have to listen to more mealy-mouthed, knock-kneed, do-nothing, embarrassing tripe, like this blather from the speech: “So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party – as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development – and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development. All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fear hearing in the months ahead.”
Oh, please. Is there any possibility you could just shut up and govern? Any chance you could take your mandate and put it to work protecting the public, while permitting the Republicans to fulfill the mandate they got to go sit in Siberia for a while? Any chance that you could for once not bring predators to the negotiating table while leaving those who fight for the public interest standing at the White House gate? Any chance you could do away with negotiating tables altogether, and just take some serious actions to benefit the country – you know, like actually using the powers of your office?
After all, it was you yourself who said: “But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. You see, 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 thus we see that in addition to his fifth problem – that a once great orator has now been reduced, in his only Oval Office speech to date, to the most tired of analogies – the truth is that great things happen in America in significant measure because of gutsy leadership by presidents. Neither of those words seems remotely in his vocabulary, however. He might want to try them out, though. If it’s not too late for him by now, that is, having spent his political capital on ardently maintaining the status quo.
Obama’s speech the other night was abysmal for all of the five reasons catalogued above, but it wasn’t until he got to the end that I truly wanted to hurl. His sixth crime was unbelievably obnoxious. It wasn’t enough to end his speech, as they all do, calling for god to bless America. Instead, Obama spent the last major chunk of his speech riffing on the wonders of religious faith. This included the bizarre concept (but then, hey, it’s religion) regarding even the limited nature of what we expect from the magic deity: “The blessing is not that God has promised to remove all obstacles and dangers. The blessing is that He is with us always.” So, do I have this straight? We’re not asking god to make the bad things go away, but instead just to experience them with us together? Silently? And invisibly?
Obama ends his great turn to the spiritual with these words: “Tonight, we pray for that courage. We pray for the people of the Gulf. And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.”
So this is what it has come to now, huh? A Democratic president, with all the power of the presidency at his disposal, refusing to act, refusing to be bold, refusing to lead, and now praying for the courage that he lacks, and calling on us to pray to some unseen fantasy in the sky for a solution to turn off this oily catastrophe in the Gulf? (Why the deity turned it on in the first place is, of course, not discussed.)
If I had to draw a portrait of the absolute depth of presidential impotence, that would be it. Hammered by adversaries, never punching back, afraid to seek real solutions to major problems, slow to even speak, and reliant upon the lamest of historical analogies to make a case before a tuned-out nation. And now, for the coup de grâce, kneeling on the train tracks, asking for Zeus or Ba’al or Jesus or some other mythical dude in the clouds to come rescue us from our drought or pestilence or famine.
Christ, if we’re down now to begging our deities for solutions to our problems, what’s the point of having a president anyhow?
We can be stupid and frightened pagans on our own.
We’re actually quite good at it.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.