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.
White House aides had excitedly announced that the speech -- his first from the Oval Office -- would be an "inflection point," somehow turning eight weeks of growing anxiety about the disaster in the Gulf and the government's response in a positive new direction.
But vague generalities and empty, convictionless rhetoric just don't have that effect -- certainly not in the midst of a real, concrete national emergency.
How unmoored from reality are Obama and his top advisers to think that some pretty words with so little substance could accomplish so much? It makes me wonder: Was that ultimately the lesson they took from the 2008 campaign -- rather than that a nation was hungering for, you know, actual change?
And how much power do they invest in the trappings of the presidency, such that they thought the Oval Office setting would make his feeble call to action so commanding that it would suddenly, benevolently redirect the public's visceral outrage over the oil spewing from the sea floor, the perfidy of BP, and the sluggishness of the government response?
I don't blame the speechwriter. I blame Obama, or Rahm Emanuel, or David Axelrod, or whoever it was who ultimately decided that words, rather than action, were the best way to change the perception that the government isn't doing enough in the Gulf.
Eight weeks into an ongoing environmental disaster the likes of which this country has never seen, it was incumbent upon Obama to directly and specifically address some tough issues.
Does he believe the government response to this disaster has been good? If so, he should have defended it, in detail, against the ever-growing critiques. Instead, we got this: "If there are problems in the operation, we will fix them."
Does he recognize the response has been sluggish and flawed? I suspect that's more likely, in which case he should have said: Here is what we are going to fix, starting now. But that would have meant admitting mistakes (from the Oval Office, no less) and would have entailed confronting people and failed systems, something it turns out Obama seems strongly averse to doing.
Does he now recognize that approving more offshore drilling was a mistake? If so, he should have said so, rather than weakly blaming "assurances" he was given. If he doesn't, then he should have explained why (or at least tried to).
Does he think BP has acted responsibly and in a way deserving of trust since the spill? That would be a hard argument to make, but if he feels that way, he should have made it. If he doesn't, he should have explained exactly what BP has done wrong and how he intends to respond.
If he intends to make BP underwrite an independent claims fund, he was obliged to give some indication of how much he would insist BP pay into it and how it would work. Instead, he said he would ask BP to set aside "whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness." And he didn't say how the "independent third party" would make its decisions, either. [UPDATE: On Wednesday, the White House announced that BP has agreed to put $20 billion into such a fund, which will be led by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw payments to 9/11 families.]
If he is really proposing to "restore the unique beauty and bounty" of the Gulf region, he should have provided a clear direction, some unambiguous rubrics, and a budget, rather than just appointing a commission.
And if he wants to use this disaster to get the nation -- and Congress -- to rethink issues of energy dependence and climate change, then it was incumbent upon him to lead. Instead, he punted.
On clean energy, the one area where he can already claim significant accomplishments, he set out some broad goals -- then urged the public to "seize the moment" and "rally together." He limply (not even by name) encouraged the Senate to pass his energy and climate bill, as the House already has, but then said: "I'm happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party."
That, as we learned from the health care debate, simply invites the Republicans -- and pusillanimous Democrats -- to stall and obstruct. Saying "the one approach I will not accept is inaction," as he did, is more a relinquishing of power than an application of it.
And though it was the strongest part of his speech, his disquisition on weaning the nation from fossil fuels still wasn't even as strong as George W. Bush's patently insincere but rhetorically effective assertion that "America is addicted to oil."
Meanwhile, Obama left out any mention of the demand side of the equation, saying nothing about energy conservation. Too Jimmy Carter, I guess.
And there was no direct mention of climate change, or of the only measure knowledgeable people recognize stands a serious chance of addressing it, namely putting a price on carbon.
Talking about energy and not addressing climate change and the need to limit carbon is fundamentally dishonest -- and condescending. Obama knows better. He acknowledged as much in the presidential campaign. But apparently even the Oval Office backdrop didn't give him the guts to call it like he sees it.
I could go on and on. As I wrote on Tuesday, Obama seems oblivious to the vast damage the oil spill is almost certainly doing to the deep ocean. He spoke of reregulating oil drilling -- but not about all the countless other industries that, in his own words, have been "allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves."
Finally, his closing remarks were deadly: An overly flowery imprecation to courage that, ironically, made him sound utterly impotent:
This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again. What sees us through -- what has always seen us through -- is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it.
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. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.
Courage? Where has the courage been in Obama's response to the oil spill? Where was the courage in this speech? Courage would have been calling it like it is, holding those who have failed accountable, standing up for something, and charting a clear and detailed path to a better place.
The extraordinary barrage of vitriol and obstruction with which Republicans and the right-wing media have consistently responded to Obama, pretty much no matter what he says, has become a fact of life in Washington. So one of the biggest mysteries of Obama's still-young presidency is: Why doesn't he find that liberating?
If you're going to get savaged by your opponents, no matter what, why talk in half-measures and generalities that make even your supporters cringe?
It's also smart politics. One of the countless lessons of the Bush era is that the American people, for better or for worse, respond very positively to a leader who acts with conviction (unfortunately, that is the case pretty much regardless of what that conviction may be).
By contrast, Obama's ambivalent mush is getting ripped apart by both the right and the left this morning. Being attacked from all sides is, unfortunately, some people's notion of good political journalism, but it's nobody's idea of effective political leadership.
As for inflection points, there may have been one on Tuesday night after all, just not the one the White House was hoping for. This week could, ultimately, mark the point at which the public, and the media, start actively discounting what the president says, judging him instead on what he does and doesn't do.
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