I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill. This is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president’s political judgment and instincts.
There was the tearing and unnecessary war over his health-care proposal and its cost. There was his day-to-day indifference to the views and hopes of the majority of voters regarding illegal immigration. And now the past almost 40 days of dodging and dithering in the face of an environmental calamity. I don’t see how you politically survive this.
The president, in my view, continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. This is a terrible thing to see in a political figure, and a startling thing in one who won so handily and shrewdly in 2008. But he has not, almost from the day he was inaugurated, been in sync with the center. The heart of the country is thinking each day about A, B and C, and he is thinking about X, Y and Z. They’re in one reality, he’s in another.
The American people have spent at least two years worrying that high government spending would, in the end, undo the republic. They saw the dollars gushing night and day, and worried that while everything looked the same on the surface, our position was eroding. They have worried about a border that is in some places functionally and of course illegally open, that it too is gushing night and day with problems that states, cities and towns there cannot solve.
And now we have a videotape metaphor for all the public’s fears: that clip we see every day, on every news show, of the well gushing black oil into the Gulf of Mexico and toward our shore. You actually don’t get deadlier as a metaphor for the moment than that, the monster that lives deep beneath the sea.
In his news conference Thursday, President Obama made his position no better. He attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language—“catastrophe,” etc.—but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won’t see the big picture. The unspoken mantra in his head must have been, “I will not be defensive, I will not give them a resentful soundbite.” But his strategic problem was that he’d already lost the battle. If the well was plugged tomorrow, the damage will already have been done.
The original sin in my view is that as soon as the oil rig accident happened the president tried to maintain distance between the gusher and his presidency. He wanted people to associate the disaster with BP and not him. When your most creative thoughts in the middle of a disaster revolve around protecting your position, you are summoning trouble. When you try to dodge ownership of a problem, when you try to hide from responsibility, life will give you ownership and responsibility the hard way. In any case, the strategy was always a little mad. Americans would never think an international petroleum company based in London would worry as much about American shores and wildlife as, say, Americans would. They were never going to blame only BP, or trust it.
I wonder if the president knows what a disaster this is not only for him but for his political assumptions. His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality. But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: “Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust.” Then the oil spill came and government could not do the job, could not meet the need, in fact seemed faraway and incapable: “We pay so much for the government and it can’t cap an undersea oil well!”
This is what happened with Katrina, and Katrina did at least two big things politically. The first was draw together everything people didn’t like about the Bush administration, everything it didn’t like about two wars and high spending and illegal immigration, and brought those strands into a heavy knot that just sat there, soggily, and came to symbolize Bushism. The second was illustrate that even though the federal government in our time has continually taken on new missions and responsibilities, the more it took on, the less it seemed capable of performing even its most essential jobs. Conservatives got this point—they know it without being told—but liberals and progressives did not. They thought Katrina was the result only of George W. Bush’s incompetence and conservatives’ failure to “believe in government.” But Mr. Obama was supposed to be competent.
Remarkable too is the way both BP and the government, 40 days in, continue to act shocked, shocked that an accident like this could have happened. If you’re drilling for oil in the deep sea, of course something terrible can happen, so you have a plan on what to do when it does.
How could there not have been a plan? How could it all be so ad hoc, so inadequate, so embarrassing? We’re plugging it now with tires, mud and golf balls?
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What continues to fascinate me is Mr. Obama’s standing with Democrats. They don’t love him. Half the party voted for Hillary Clinton, and her people have never fully reconciled themselves to him. But he is what they have. They are invested in him. In time—after the 2010 elections go badly—they are going to start to peel off. The political operative James Carville, the most vocal and influential of the president’s Gulf critics, signaled to Democrats this week that they can start to peel off. He did it through the passion of his denunciations.
The disaster in the Gulf may well spell the political end of the president and his administration, and that is no cause for joy. It’s not good to have a president in this position—weakened, polarizing and lacking broad public support—less than halfway through his term. That it is his fault is no comfort. It is not good for the stability of the world, or its safety, that the leader of “the indispensable nation” be so weakened. I never until the past 10 years understood the almost moral imperative that an American president maintain a high standing in the eyes of his countrymen.
Mr. Obama himself, when running for president, made much of Bush administration distraction and detachment during Katrina. Now the Republican Party will, understandably, go to town on Mr. Obama’s having gone before this week only once to the gulf, and the fund-raiser in San Francisco that seemed to take precedence, and the EPA chief who decided to cancel a New York fund-raiser only after the press reported that she planned to attend.
But Republicans should beware, and even mute their mischief. We’re in the middle of an actual disaster. When they win back the presidency, they’ll probably get the big California earthquake. And they’ll probably blow it. Because, ironically enough, of a hard core of truth within their own philosophy: When you ask a government far away in Washington to handle everything, it will handle nothing well.