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Elizabeth Bisbee Silber

Elizabeth Bisbee Silber

Posted: June 15, 2010 01:11 PM

Obama, the Oil Spill and the American Psyche

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President Obama is taking a lot of criticism, most of it valid, for his response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For once, it seems pundits on the left and the right agree in their assessment of the President's leadership and demeanor. He's distant when he needs to be hands-on; he's cerebral when he needs to be visceral; he's contemplative when he needs to be decisive. Those in the media, whether novice bloggers or well established journalists, are giving voice to the frustrations and helplessness Americans feel while watching oil gush relentlessly from the depths of the ocean.

But I think there is another phenomenon at work here, another layer in the unfolding drama of the president versus BP. Mr. Obama's failures with regard to leadership style, and his seeming inability to channel American ingenuity and moxie into a solution to this crisis, actually reflect the realities of the American psyche at this moment.

Take, for instance, President Obama's reluctance to wrest control of the cleanup operation from BP. The seemingly incongruous judgment mirrors Americans' own schizophrenic relationship with Big Oil. On the one hand, we depend on energy corporations to drive the economy, and to slake America's quenchless thirst for cheap, reliable fuel. We just don't necessarily want to know how that feat is achieved, and we demand swift, punishing retribution when our own energy demands wreak havoc on the economy and environment.

Washington players lambast the Obama Administration for regulatory negligence and government incompetence. They chastise the President's reluctance to draw a hard, bright line in the sand on the issue of deep water offshore drilling. But Americans don't want any action the President may take to cost jobs, increase energy prices, or alter our oil-dependent lifestyles. We want the oil industry to change the way it does business without any layoffs, painful transitions, or personal sacrifice. And we want to drive big cars, live in over-sized homes, drink water out of bottles, and choose plastic at the grocery store check-out without having to suffer images of oil-soaked pelicans or tar-stained beaches.

Critics have voiced consternation at White House disengagement, and have questioned why the President spends more time talking to experts than devising a bold plan to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But our representatives in Congress, and we as a people, focus on the politics, rather than the policies, of climate change, offshore drilling, and fossil fuel consumption and emissions. This argument has been raging for over 20 years, yet no visible progress can be measured. We are happy to argue about what should be done, but unwilling to make any of the hard choices that might save us from similar disasters in the future.

Finally, President Obama has raised eyebrows and invited derision for his perceived thin skin and testiness with regard to his media coverage in this crisis. He wants to blame the cable news culture and media preoccupation with stylistic and semantic faux pas for his inability to connect with the American public, and for the disastrous approval ratings of his administration related to the Gulf spill. Yet we, as Americans, are similarly prickly when forced to face our own complicity in this crisis. We are a good, generous, warm people, and we do not want to be associated with the insatiable greed and poor decision-making that led to this disaster. We, too, look for others to blame, and point the finger at BP, at the President, and at the federal government more generally. But we never take a moment to glance in the mirror and look at ourselves. We refuse to see that our lifestyles and livelihoods play an integral part in this drama, and that we, too, have made terrible choices in the recent past.

The President will address the nation today, and will attempt, I imagine, to offer Americans a vision of a man in charge. Many pundits speculate he will also (or should) avail himself of the opportunity to speak frankly about the need for a long-term energy plan that unchains the United States from its big oil addiction and spirits us forward into a clean energy future. It is being billed as his JFK moment, and one of the most critical in his still young presidency. I hope he delivers, but I also hope we, as American citizens, can be honest with ourselves about the choices that need to be made, and face them with courage and determination.