Maybe he shouldn’t have smacked that fly.
President Barack Obama made his zen-like move in June 2009, during an interview with CNBC reporter John Harwood. He carefully watched as a little pest landed on his hand, then put a crisp palm to it. In that moment, he was Yoda, Our American Ninja, the guy who, unlike the previous president, was bringing serene and competent leadership to Washington.
A year later, Yoda has been recast as Mr. Spock – the guy columnist Maureen Dowd and a chorus of pundits and even Democratic supporters are howling has a problem showing emotion.
Obama, whom Americans elected in part because his calm was a welcome contrast to Sen. John McCain’s crazy old grandpa image, is now our national emotionally unavailable boyfriend, unwilling to communicate, and incapable of channeling our outrage as we watch BP’s oil well gush globs of greasy crude into our ocean, our fisheries, onto our beaches, and all over the wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama is being pounded daily over the Gulf oil crisis, which is alternately his Katrina, his Iranian hostage crisis, and his 9/11. Why won’t he do more? Why is he wasting time talking to “experts?” Where is the government? (And that last one is from the people, such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who supposedly wants less “government.”)
As one columnist put it, paraphrasing the one emotive moment the president has given up over these long weeks, when he told a news conference that his daughter, Malia, confronts him with the question (later mocked by Glenn Beck): “Daddy, have you plugged the hole yet?”
Now, we are all Malia, asking that same question.
And yet, my email inbox, and I presume those of other “media people,” is filled with daily updates on “the administration-wide response to the Gulf oil crisis.” It has been since April. The media knows exactly what the administration is doing in the Gulf, and when it’s doing it. Unless, of course, they’ve stopped reading their e-mail.
BP is responsible for the spill, and at the end of the day the company has the technical expertise to address it. BP also bears complete financial responsibility, and the administration must hold the company to it.
Polls show most Americans now fault the administration’s response, and to be sure, Team Obama should have been more visible, should have sent the president to the Gulf more often and for longer, should have communicated more succinctly to the public what they were and are doing, and shouldn’t have allowed the president to become captive to events and to the media cycle.
That is a problem for the Obama political and media operation, but it says nothing about what the president should, shouldn’t, or can do about the Gulf oil gusher.
Media critics (and reflexive critics of this president) have brayed that the administration response should have been swifter and stronger. Indeed, when the administration learned how serious the spill was going to be in April, it could have deployed National Guard troops and Environmental Protection Agency personnel in hazmat suits to make a visible show of force against the oil.
Obama could have made a primetime address, pounded the podium, and declared that America would fight the oil with the same zeal with which our Greatest Generation pushed back the Nazi menace or felled the Empire of Japan.
He could have called upon the nation’s young people to put down their iPods and go to the Gulf, forming a national Peace Corps dedicated to the rounding up of tar balls.
What’s not clear is that any of that would have done a single thing to stop the oil lapping up on the Louisiana coastline, or onto Pensacola beach. More likely, all of those people would have gotten in the way, or, as we’re now seeing with fishermen drafted into the cleanup effort with inadequate masks and other protection, some might have gotten sick.
The public may feel helpless, and may need the catharsis of having our president channel our rage. BP clearly lied for weeks, and the administration failed either to see it or to call them on it. And, the administration should never have trusted the Bush administration’s corporate crony regulators to let BP and Halliburton drill that well.
That said, having Barack Obama smack down BP the way he whacked that fly might make America feel better (and Obama has now launched a quest to figure out “whose ass to kick,”) but at the end of the day, it’s not going to cap that well.
Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media/political strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign.