I watched President Obama deliver his first speech from the Oval Office last night about the BP oil clustasrophe in the Gulf. I thought he struck a pretty good balance between telling the public some things it might not know about the event, telling us what would be done to clean it up, and putting the responsibility for paying for it in the place where it belonged. His appeal to think beyond the spill and move us to an alternative energy future showed that yet another in a long line of presidents, both Democratic and Republican, can at least acknowledge that we’re not going to have oil to depend on forever and this disaster is one more argument to find other ways to run things.
The reactions of the pundits are all over the place if you really care about what they think — any more than you care what I do — so I suppose you can draw your own conclusions as to how effective the president was. Frankly, unless we’re talking about a speech that breaks real news such as President Kennedy’s announcement in 1962 about the missiles in Cuba or President Nixon resigning from office in 1974, this setting of the president addressing the nation isn’t much more that theatre and an attempt to put their own spin on the story. That said, Oval office speeches shouldn’t be taken lightly; for some reason the press and the public seem to imbue them with more weight than they’re worth, and if they’re overused or done for no apparent reason, they can really bomb. Just ask President Carter about his “malaise” speech. (By the way, I watched that one, too. I didn’t detect any.) Certainly the situation in the Gulf was worth a presidential speech, but since it was not a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake where the president has an obligation to be the Comforter in Chief or a wanton criminal act like September 11, 2001, where he must become the Commander, the BP spill is a combination of negligence on behalf of a corporation that did everything it could to skirt the law and maximize return and lax oversight by a government bureaucracy that spanned several administrations and basically went through the motions. Add to that the fact that the disaster is still unfolding, and the president has a tough job to sound the right tone, which, apparently, is more important than actually doing something.
In the long run, this speech will be noted not for what the president said he has done, what BP will do, how many commissions he sets up, or how he invoked a higher power to see us through the muck. For better or worse, it will be remembered for the kind of leadership the president displayed and how he reacted to the crisis. Because he didn’t stand on his desk and go Hulk-smash, some are going to say it fizzled and demonstrates once again that he doesn’t get it. To me, the sense I got from the speech is that it was one of the obligatory things a president has to do to fulfill our expectations of “doing something.” He’s been to the Gulf four times, he’s talked to the governors, the people doing the clean-up, the people in charge, he’s read the riot act to BP, and we have YouTube clips of him in his shirtsleeves picking up tar balls on the beach. None of it will make a whit of difference in the oil gushing or washing ashore or getting the oil companies to change the way they do business, and neither will the speech.