Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Speech flop puzzle

It seems to be a near unanimous verdict among commentators that the President’s speech last night was a flop. Just look at Huffington Post and you’ll find at least a half-dozen posts on the speech, all negative and all from people on the moderate to liberal side of the spectrum.

In addition to disappointment you are also hearing another reaction: befuddlement. Huffington’s own Dan Frumkin probably gets this aspect best: “The most depressing thing about President Obama's profoundly underwhelming speech Tuesday night was that the White House thought it would change everything, when there was no good reason to think it would change anything.” Frumkin is worried this shows an administration seriously disconnected from reality and I think he is right. The speech showed Obama to still be behind the curve on the Gulf oil disaster.

I’ve been thinking it was strange that Obama had not yet given an Oval Office address. The most obvious candidate would have been the announcement last fall of his Afghanistan strategy. Giving it as a speech to West Point cadets, to me, actually seemed gimmicky and almost like a way to avoid talking to the country as a whole. Last night the Oval Office came across as a prop to try to give the speech the weight it was obviously lacking.

Obama supporter and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich is also blistering in his critique of the speech: “[Obama’s] words hung in the air with all the force of a fundraiser for your local public access TV station.” Reich wonders what’s going on when a man with repeatedly demonstrated rhetorical talents lays such an egg. His suspicion is that this is further evidence of the administration’s inability and/or unwillingness to genuinely take on the business interests of the country. There is a serious danger to the country Obama is not addressing. Reich pounds it home:

Whether it's Wall Street or health insurers or oil companies, we are approaching a turning point. The top executives of powerful corporations are pursuing profits in ways that menace the nation. We have not seen the likes since the late nineteenth century when the "robber barons" of finance, oil, and the giant trusts ran roughshod over America. Now, as then, they are using their wealth and influence to buy off legislators and intimidate the regions that depend on them for jobs. Now, as then, they are threatening the safety and security of our people.

Another issue not addressed last night is the question of who to believe. During the Vietnam War, people began to talk about the Johnson administration’s “credibility gap.” As one journalist pointed out, this was a polite way of saying a lot of people thought the president was lying. Estimates of the flow have now ballooned far beyond the original figures. Few believed BP’s 5000 barrel figure in the early weeks yet the administration stuck to it until BP was forced to change it (latest estimates have risen to 60,000 barrels per day).

There are also a growing number of people, not all cranks, raising serious questions about the status of the well and BP’s efforts to plug it. (The Oil Drum is one of the best sites for not too technical information about the well blow-out.) Concerns have been expressed about how long it will take for a relief well to be drilled successfully (few seem to think it will work the first time). Others wonder if the well is seriously damaged below the sea floor and may be leaking in other places. Finally, the question is being asked whether BP is limiting its approach to methods that will allow it to reuse the well at a future date. Could an explosion (conventional or nuclear) seal the well or is the depth too great? These and other questions were ignored as was nearly the whole topic of the continuing oil hemorrhage, almost as if it had already been stopped. Again, one wonders if Obama is simply unaware how much his credibility has been dinged by this event or is he intentionally avoiding these questions because of the answers he would have to give.

No comments: