In his address this evening, the president came across neither as an empath nor a hothead -- both characteristics that critics have been calling for, loudly, since the beginning of this disaster in the Gulf. Yes, his attempts at optimism come across as somewhat boilerplate. And no, he didn't lash out at BP, and his reassurances don't have the hypnotic warmth that Bill Clinton might have served up, and that perhaps all of us are craving. But this is the president we have, the man we elected. We voted for his dignity and detachment and for a conviction that he knew and understood much more than the rest of us, and for our belief that if he didn't, he would find someone who does.
We can't expect to change the man to fit the crisis; we only need him to deliver on three pressing tasks: compensating the thousands whose livelihoods are affected by the disaster, making BP fully accountable, and a full-on, scorched-earth, spare-no-resources clean-up of the land, wildlife and water. Tonight, the president committed to all three in full. This is what matters; it is a both a domestic catastrophe and a potential national security threat. Nothing has brought our nation to its knees like the oil spewing its misery, fouling our continent, mocking us with those relentless, nauseating images. Each morning we all wake up to that same footage, wishing that some miracle had happened overnight. This crisis is surely testing the president. It is all on his shoulders: the response, the formation of investigatory bodies, the national outrage, and mostly the messaging. He has come forward as the point man in Washington and in the Gulf, so we should give him a chance to lead.
With the murk that has obfuscated this crisis since day one, it is also impossible to make any predictions about when, how and if things will be back to normal. Yesterday, President Obama stated that, for the moment, Gulf seafood is safe for consumption. Some of us who lived downtown after the World Trade Center attacks remember, too, when the EPA gave the air we were choking on a clean bill of health. Still, we hunger for these scraps of optimism, demand them even, and the President is under pressure to be the Comforter-in-Chief. He even strikes that down-home tone: using the word "folks" four times in a sentence, dropping the g's at the end of a word, as if trying to be the man he senses we want him to be. Back in 2008, liberals bristled when the right called him an elitist, as an epithet. He was. Wasn't that what we needed, given the shipwreck that he was about to inherit?
In the future, dozens of books will be written about the BP oil spill. Everyone will have a story to tell, from the roughnecks on the rigs to the volunteers who are washing birds feather by feather. But just as we study Churchill's fierce battles with his War Cabinet in the spring of 1940, and President Kennedy's every move during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Obama may well be defined by the decisions he makes in the next few weeks. That story -- the one witnessed by insiders, and studied by future students of crisis management and leadership -- has yet to be told. For the moment, it serves no one to judge a tepid speech as emblematic of his presidency. I would prefer to take the man at his word -- that he will lead the effort in the Gulf for all of our sake. And that he is as eager and anxious as the rest of us for this nightmare of a gusher to be capped, and for the world to be whole again.