Our Impotent President

by Benjamin Domenech on 11:53 am June 16, 2010

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President Obama’s speech last night from the Oval Office was the most impotent statement offered to the American people from the White House since Jimmy Carter. What’s more, it failed the basic test of quality for any presidential remarks — to a degree that I’m surprised it ever made it through the clearance process — by containing a rather ridiculous contradiction of tone.

Here’s an easy example. On the one hand, when it comes to using skimmers and other methods to clean up oil, released about 50 miles from the coastline and even now getting into the Louisiana marshes, Obama throws in the towel:

“But we have to recognize that despite our best efforts, oil has already caused damage to our coastline and its wildlife. And sadly, no matter how effective our response is, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done.”

On the other, when it comes to a vague series of legislative solutions tied to reducing energy usage, he will not accept failure:

“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 somehow too big and too difficult to meet.”

Speechwriters are supposed to catch problems this obvious before text is ever loaded into a teleprompter — but perhaps, like Obama himself, they are so tired of talking about the issues in the Gulf of Mexico that they’re just mailing it in, hoping for the chance to get back to the kind of sweeping societal-changing programs they so adore. Obama’s rhetoric has always been able to inspire — but his writing staff apparently can’t handle offering inspiration and solutions in the same speech.

Solutions are what the American people want, and they won’t accept anything less. Obvious attempts to control the narrative are insufficient in situations like this one, especially when they’re so clumsy. If this really is a war, like Obama claims, they don’t want “we did our best” — they want “we win, they lose.”

This all serves as an easy example of why Senators make terrible Presidents. Executive experience demands a fundamentally different mindset than the constant impotence Obama brings to the job. Instead of action and responsible decision-making, Obama naturally turns to Congressional-staff crafted legislative solutions, commissions and committee-hearings — exactly the kind of approaches designed to insulate elected politicians from the ramifications of a vote or a decision. It’s the difference between a leader and a follower, between someone confident enough to make a decision and live with the consequences, and someone who wants to cover their ass, between an executive who says: “I decided” and a legislator who says: “They recommended.”

What’s worse is that in this circumstance, so many of the necessary solutions are so obvious. Accepting Obama’s war analogies on their face, what are we doing to win the battle on the ground? And what is he doing to eliminate problems so people who know how can get things cleaned up — and I’m not talking about academic debates about legislation, or statements, or interviews, I’m talking about solutions.

Consider three problems they’re having in the Gulf right now.

Problem 1: Not enough skimmers are out in the Gulf. Well, there aren’t enough available. So is Thad Allen ordering more skimmers? No, because they could take weeks to get there. Well, why didn’t you order them weeks ago — and regardless, why aren’t you ordering them now, because you’ll be having this conversation again in a month if you don’t?

Problem 2: Regulations and other requirements are preventing useful responders and vehicles from being sent to the gulf, because they have to be elsewhere. So why aren’t you temporarily relaxing regulations and repurposing more responders and material from other locations to deal with this spill? Well, there could be a spill somewhere else. Of course there could — and if there is one, you can move them back! But if this is a war, if this is 9/11, why aren’t you sending everything you’ve got?

Problem 3: Only so many air assets can be in the air at the same time to tell the skimmers where to go. Fine — but what about sending a bunch of boats out as non-skimmers to spot the oil and say, get over here and start cleanup? This is basic stuff, people — the so-called experts from the federal government come down, and it’s like they’ve never run disaster response before. Put enough resources in place, take command of the situation, and get this done right.

It’s called taking matters into your own hands. Governor Jindal illustrated the opposite approach to decisionmaking to the president yesterday, giving up on waiting for days for permission from Washington or action from BP to order a barrier wall to be built offshore. Cleaning up the Gulf doesn’t start with legislation or commissions or committee hearings — it starts with making decisions and being willing to live with the results. Drop the sandbags, send BP a bill, and if they don’t pay for it, we’ll get it out of them in court.

Some people might not like everything you do, and not every decision you make will work. But if you don’t decide, if you can’t decide, then you don’t deserve to be in that chair.

This oil spill is kicking Obama’s ass. And what’s worse, he knows it. Even MSNBC realizes it. Maybe if he just bows a little lower, it’ll stop? It works at the United Nations.

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