In the Arena

The Obama Speech

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I didn’t think it was so terrible, although I pretty much agree with many of the points that Jim Fallows makes here. I know that there was a strong argument for Obama to make a JFK “We’ll go to the moon” sort of speech, declaring war on fossil fuels and so forth. But let’s put this into some perspective: Obama has already done an awful lot in 18 months as President, pushing against a know-nothing deficit reduction tide out in the country (and also among the Concord Coalition elites). He has doubled-down on George W. Bush’s TARP fund (a success), produced an historic $787 billion stimulus package (also a success, but perhaps insufficient), signed an even more historic universal health insurance plan (too soon to tell about how successful) and is about to pass necessary financial reform legislation.

That’s a lot .

And while I’m on record in favor of placing a stiff price on carbon, and moving as quickly as possible toward alternative fuels, I suspect that yet another major Obama policy crusade would put the public on government overload just a few months before a significant election. So what he did last night and today–especially the $20 billion BP escrow account–seems good enough for now and I have no doubt that if the sky doesn’t fall on his presidency, he’ll be as persistent on green policy as he’s been on everything else.

One other thing: I’ve been finding it hard to get as wrapped up in this oil spill story as most of my colleagues. A good part of it is my obsession with other things: the war in Afghanistan, the middle east and the coming elections. But it’s also attributable to a sneaking sense that this situation is truly BP: beyond politics. It is an outrage, to be sure. British Petroleum is irresponsible, reprehensible and any other -ible you want to throw in. The Minerals Management Service was a Bush-Cheney swamp of corruption and lassitude. But I’m not sure–beyond a better brand of atmospherics–that Barack Obama could have done all that much to alter the gush once it started. (He does lose points for not moving against the MMS more quickly; the only way this situation could have been handled better is pre-emptively–better regulation and a closer look at whether deepwater drilling should be allowed at all.)

Watching the work of my colleagues–and the embarrassing rantings of James Carville–at a semi-distance, I find myself wondering how often I’ve allowed myself to join in, pounding a President about something beyond his control; how often I’ve criticized a President–including this President–for his p.r. performance rather than his substantive actions to solve a crisis.

The atmospherics, the sense of confidence and focus that a President conveys, is surely important–in fact, it is absolutely crucial in political terms. But it isn’t everything: George W. Bush displayed insane confidence and focus about his Iraq war policy from 2003 to 2006, and the public gradually came to believe he was out of touch with reality. If the public loses its faith in Obama, he will surely be defeated in 2012. And so I’m not sure that those of who have pressured the President to appear more passionate are barking up the correct tree. He’s never going to emote like Bill Clinton–but his sense of calm can be a valuable attribute in a time of crisis, as it was during the financial meltdown in the autumn of 2008.

In recent memory, the President who was treated most at variance with his record by the public was George H.W. Bush, another non-emoter, who misplayed a recession by seeming to ignore it and was turned out of office. But a record of solid presidential judgment usually wins at the polls. Given the brazen foolishness of most of the Republicans lining up to run against him–Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is an exception; there may be others–I don’t think this President has all that much to worry about politically, so long as he continues on the rigorous path that he’s been following.