by Victor Davis Hanson
The president recently addressed the nation on the oil slick, nearly two months into the disaster. He seems stunned that a single man in Washington is being held responsible for either a human error that is polluting the Gulf, or an act of God that led to a tragic chain of events, inevitable at some point when drilling from 5,000 feet above the ocean floor.
Do we not see the injustice of it all, of holding a green Mr. Obama culpable for either the blowout or the tardy and insufficient efforts at clean-up? Does Obama appoint another “czar?” Does he do to BP what he did to Las Vegas, the saw-happy surgeons, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News? Is the spill to oil companies what the 2008 panic was to GM? Is there some sort of cash-for-clunkers PR fix? A Bush memo to be found ordering drilling from a zillion feet? Perhaps another “wise Latina,” or an “Oooh. Van Jones, alright! So, Van Jones ” to recruit?
What to do? Where to turn? Whom to blame? Who unfairly established this strange post-Katrina precedent that the president of all people — not the mayor, not the governor, not private enterprise — is ultimately responsible?
We can all question that unfair premise, and did so in 2005, but critics like Obama himself made the federal response to Katrina a campaign issue. And so here we are with him hoisted with his own petard.
That old meany goddess Nemesis is at work again, causing havoc nearly in the identical spot as Katrina (but of course) — focusing on the young technocrat who so loudly blamed the “incompetence” of Bush during the New Orleans mess. Now our Oedipus is reduced to raging in his halls against BP, with thousands of hard-working Louisianans and other Gulfers, the losers for this divine reminder about the wages of hubris.
Given the dearth of Obama’s executive experience, and given what we know of community organizing, and in light of what we saw in the 2008 campaign, the president is pretty much acting to script. Readers, you know it well by now and saw it again last night.
A) Talk in soaring hope and change platitudes without saying much of anything: no review of the actual mechanisms to close the well; no specific systematic overview of various ways of cleaning up the mess; no references to future contingency plans should present efforts come up short. We are back to the Victory Column or Cairo speech, and have the gasbag Edward Everett Hale at Gettysburg when we needed a concise Lincoln.
B) Blaming “them” — as in, after 18 months, the Bush moles are still burrowed deeply into the regulatory agencies thwarting hope and change. Apparently it took the BP spill to remind Sec. Salazar and Obama just how ubiquitous the Bush incompetents and rascals were in their midst. Somehow Halliburton will find its way into the narrative (if it has not already). We get the script: each time Obama screws up, a new discovery is made that a Bushite was in deep cover and only now is found out.
C) Sue! Well before the oil stops, we are interested instead on how to punish BP. But this is the proverbial cart before the horse. There is plenty of time to force BP to cough up punitive damages; but one does not demonize the company who is, for better or worse, trying to clean up as the oil pours out. (This reminds me of a farmer who stood screaming over his son and his friends in a packing house yard. The boy in reckless fashion has flipped a truck with eight pallets of Santa Rosa plums on it. As thousands of plums were rolling over the asphalt, instead of organizing a pick-up, the irate dad kept screaming reminders to the son exactly how much he had lost and how he was going to have to come up with thousands of dollars in restitution (the son, of course, did not work too hard with his friends in finding salvageable fruit on the tarmac and repacking what he could).
Add in the British pique at having Obama call out “British Petroleum” (officially is it not “Beyond Petroleum”?) in tones that suggest a sort of 1812 raid on the White House (in the context of the gift-giving mess, the bust fiasco, the Brown slap downs, the neutrality on the Falklands, the put down about the “special relationship,” and on and on, all reminding the British that they are getting the Israel treatment).
D) “Never miss a crisis.” Let me get this straight: as oil gushes forth, we are to use this disaster as a teachable moment to go the wind and solar route. OK, but fairly or not, the message to the shrimpers and hotel owners of the Gulf is: “Your misery has some didactic value for the rest of us, since after your Gulf is destroyed, we will shut down your rigs to ensure permanent poverty follows your misery.”
If the president is going to try to manipulate a crisis, at least get the manipulation right: we should fast-track nuclear power to produce clean electricity to fuel a new generation of hybrid engines and electric motors; and we also should fast-track natural gas distribution to capitalize on new natural gas finds to power trucks, tractors, and large engines not suitable for hybridization with present technology; and we should exploit oil as a transition fuel wherever it can be more safely recovered (e.g., ANWR) without going 5,000 feet to get it.
But in general, an oil spill is a bad occasion for windmill wonkery. (Obama if filling in here: Al Gore’s domestic problems and his move to Oprah country have combined to silence him for a bit during the disaster.)
E) Straw men. Even the “some say” and “others say” got in there. Who says what and why? And the vague stuff about “we don’t know how precisely to get there” is like Patton telling the Third Army that they will reach Berlin some day but have no idea where the Rhine is or how precisely they will get across. In an odd, unhappy way, the president physically seemed to shrink behind the Oval Office desk. It almost looked as if a teenager were in the presidential seat trying to peep above the rim of the desk. Another cardigan sweater Carter moment.
The Political Mess
The BP spill is a nightmare for Obama for a variety of reasons. Let us count them, without delighting in his dilemma, given that we all are in a bad fix, since the spill is ruining an entire regional economy and the wild reaction to it threatens 20% of our oil supply.
Obama campaigned on competence and cool. But his technocrats, whether Van Jones, Dr. Chu, Larry Summers, or Eric Holder, are at best academic misfits and at worse simply unfit for executive responsibilities. Harvard Law Review may be of value for suing BP later and demonizing it in the press, and community organizing may be valuable in shaking down BP to clean up, but had only the president run an ACE Hardware store, or at least worked the night shift at Starbucks, he could have had some experience in delegating authority and demanding results from employees, while keeping in mind the bigger picture of economic survival. Right now we are being governed by a GS something, who has no idea where money comes from, but lots of ideas how to blow it. This crisis brings that out.
The left is restless. The shelf life of forbearance is ending. Obama so far has benefited from the liberal desire for power that has trumped even its own green advocacy. (Bush would have been cannibalized for this second one). But at some point, the pictures from the Gulf of dying birds, of oily beaches, of sticky fish will sink polls and so get even to the Malibu crowd. And after they scream at Bush, BP, Palin, hoi polloi for driving Yukons (instead of Lexus and Volvo SUVs), they are only left with Obama to blame.
The spill is a foreign relations metaphor and a dangerous one at that. Right now, Hamas, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, the Taliban, Turkey, Venezuela, and a host of others are testing us, three-quarters of them convinced (after 18 months of good evidence) that Obama either will not or cannot or knows not how to deter them all from making regional “adjustments.” When they see his polls fall during the Gulf crisis, and his tepid reaction to it, they by extension ponder whether another Gaza flotilla, another sinking South Korean ship, another Taliban offensive, another Syrian-Hezbollah missile sale, another slap at Eastern Europe, or another border incursion into Colombia might win the same sort of speech that we saw last night.
Add in the domestic turmoil over the bloody healthcare debate, the annual two-trillion-dollar deficits, the cap-and-trade and amnesty fights to come, and our enemies see opportunity as never before. (Note how Hezbollah prompted a July 2006 war with Israel, sensing a weakened George Bush — when his polls hit rock bottom, a midterm corrective election was coming up, and debate over the surge was tearing apart the country.)
Who is advising Obama? Are they afraid to tell the boss that hopey/changey is now stale and past expiration date — or do they sense that if they withdraw it from the shelf there is nothing to restock it with? Surely, there must be some sort of panic going on that they have an empty Armani suit?
A Final Media Note
Much has been made that the MSNBC and left-wing punditry crowd are turning on Obama, especially after last night’s non-speech. Sorry, I don’t quite believe they adjudicate Obama on competency, since the spill speech was no worse than the pathetic “I could no more disown Rev. Wright” riff of yesteryear, one that gave them a collective tingle.
Instead, Obama is now 42% to 48% in most polls, not soaring to 65% or demolishing Hillary. In other words, if right now Obama were still beloved, his former hagiographers would find a way to turn his Gulf performance into another ‘”I wasn’t there all that much at Trinity” excuse. But Obama, whom they all so invested in, is the most polarizing figure since Nixon, and has the unique ability to destroy liberalism for a generation: lose the House and maybe even the Senate; turn the public off on government, divide the country over healthcare, cap-and-trade, race, and amnesty; and completely discredit a shamelessly partisan media.
No, the sudden damning of Obama’s leadership is a symptom that Obama is turning radioactive, and not even Chris Matthews wants to be the last zealot in Washington crafting yet another narrative of how brilliant and tingly a soon-to-be 30% president “really” is.
In a weird way, the green issue is a gift from the gods for the liberal media: it allows them “on principle” (cf. Maureen Dowd) to distance themselves from Obama (as in “we don’t compromise with the environment” when, in fact, they compromise on everything from Predator assassinations, windmills off Martha’s Vineyard, solar panels in tortoise country, Guantanamo, etc. as long as there is power to be had or amplified).
But again, oil in the Gulf, like blood in the water, suddenly makes it “principled” for an opportunistic shark to take a bite out of a bleeding and floundering Obamafish.
URLs in this post:
 Oooh. Van Jones, alright! So, Van Jones: http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YjJkZmU1YjRiZTdjNWQxY2NmOGExMGRiNjIxZTg3MWQ=
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson