Published June 18, 2010
The oil spill is an environmental catastrophe for the Gulf Coast and a political disaster for Barack Obama. It is doing significant, and possibly irreparable, damage to his presidency. That may not be fully clear now, since Obama's approval ratings have certainly not collapsed during the span of this crisis.
The deeper concern for the president, I think, is that what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now will accrete and soon metastasize, creating negative impressions that will be durable and difficult to undo. The oil spill calamity may become a metaphor for the Obama presidency.
For one thing, the oil spill has taken what were once considered the president's strongest characteristics — his cool demeanor and unflappability, his steady temperament and analytical mind — and turned them into perceived weaknesses.
Many commentators, including those who have been quite supportive of Obama, are now criticizing him for being “bloodless,” distant, and uncaring. They want him to show more emotion, more anger, even rage. They want passion, fervor, and heat. As a result, Obama has taken on an affect, declaring to NBC's Matt Lauer that he is in search of an “ass” to kick (but only after being told by experts which ass to kick). This has opened Obama up to mockery even from sympathetic liberals like Jon Stewart. When a president looks artificial and begins casting about for a new persona — when he begins to take stage direction from Spike Lee — he's in trouble. To thine own self be true.
The oil spill has also made the president look powerless. Earlier this week Obama used an Oval Office address — delivered 56 days into the crisis — not to announce any solutions or bold new actions; rather, he provided the country with an update, announced a new commission and announced a new bureaucratic appointment.
To have so little to offer during a nationally televised address to the nation would be foolish under any circumstances; it is doubly so when the president invokes the metaphor of war, as Obama did during his speech on Tuesday night. If you talk about “battle plans” and commit to “fight this spill with everything we've got,” you need to do better than announce that Ray Mabus has been tasked with designing a Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible.
Adding to Obama's problems is that as a candidate for president, he spoke about the powers of the presidency as if they were almost limitless. He promised not only to create millions of new jobs, restore prosperity and promote peace, he was also going to restore America's image in the world, end cynicism in our politics, banish the lobbyists from the temple, heal the planet and stop the rise of the oceans. (Turning water into wine and feeding the 5,000 would have to wait for a second term.) For a politician who promised all of this and more, impotence can be politically crippling.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster has also brought to the surface concerns about Obama's inexperience, which was one of the main concerns voters had about him during the election (In March 2008, after Obama effectively secured the Democratic nomination, an ABC/Washington Post poll reported that 46 percent of Americans found him too “inexperienced” to be an effective president, the highest number ever for a major party presidential nominee.) This crisis has shown Obama to be a person lacking in basic managerial skills and executive leadership. Anytime a public figure acts in a way that reinforces the public's pre-existing concerns, it is damaging and dangerous.
Finally, the oil spill has highlighted how clumsy and ineffective the federal government can be. Steps that should have been taken were not, leaving local officials furious at the bureaucratic delays and roadblocks.
It doesn't help that Obama, as both a candidate and as president, created the impression that the federal government has almost talisman-like powers. Under his watch, we were led to believe, the federal government would be lean, efficient, and competent. Obama has expanded its size, scope, and reach beyond anything we have seen since the Great Society. Yet, when the federal government has been called upon to act in a perfectly appropriate way in the oil spill catastrophe, it has failed by almost every measure.
This poses an acute problem for Obama, who represents the federal government during one of its worst hours. Prior to the crisis, the public's faith in government was at an all-time low; it will drop further still. That is not a good thing for this president.
It's too early to tell whether the Deepwater Horizon explosion and all that has followed in its wake will prove to be an inflection point for the Obama presidency. On the other hand, it's not too early to wonder whether, like Jimmy Carter, we have elected a president who is overmatched by events at home and abroad, who radiates weakness instead of strength, and who makes things worse rather than better for our country.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.