The turning point came when catastrophe struck Louisiana, and the President did nothing. As people lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands of others saw their world destroyed, he delegated the emergency to others. Instead of taking charge, he shot the breeze with celebrity baseball players. Across the political spectrum, commentators criticized his failure to project a sense of urgency. They accused him of being strangely disconnected - cool, indifferent, and out of touch. "He is hard put to sound convincingly like the leader of the nation, because he is, at heart and by instinct, the voice mainly of his ideological class," one critic wrote.
For five cents, which president does this describe? George Bush in 2005? Or Barack Obama in 2010?
You can be excused for guessing wrong. Americans expect their president to be the First Emotional Responder in times of crisis, as well as personally responsible for everything. And now that Mr. Obama has personally failed to stop the oil leak, he's trying to catch up. He has flown back to the scene of the disaster (yet again) to show he's empathetic but also in command. Tonight, for the first time ever, he will address the nation from the Oval Office, which is traditionally reserved for issues of the utmost gravity - the Cuban missile crisis, the Challenger disaster, 9/11.
Is the BP oil leak equivalent to 9/11? Evidently. "In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come," Mr. Obama said.
Back on Inauguration Day, Barack Obama walked on water. There was nothing this man couldn't do! As the world huzzahed (I did, too), I wondered how long it would take for him to become as reviled as the guy he replaced. Now we know.
Today, Mr. Obama is bogged down in an unpopular war, with vastly unreliable local partners who are corrupt beyond belief, in a place that experts say will take at least 20 years to stabilize. He has found that personal diplomacy doesn't matter much in foreign policy, because no matter what you say, everyone will hate America anyway. Everybody's dumping on him for failing to impose peace in the Middle East. Meantime, he can barely conceal his contempt for the media.
Welcome to reality. It bites.
As awful as it is, the oil leak in the Gulf is no 9/11. Don't get me wrong. I respond to images of oil-soaked pelicans as emotionally as anybody else. The oil leak is a technological, regulatory and environmental disaster of epic proportion. I think the regulatory regime needs to be thoroughly overhauled, and BP should be hung, drawn and quartered. Yet, BP did not launch a war against the West, and did not kill 3,000 people on purpose. Oil executives are not terrorists. The oil leak is not a metaphor for mankind's wasteful, sinful dependency on oil, any more than 9/11 was payback time for the crimes inflicted on the Muslim world by the United States. And in neither case did we, the West, deserve it.
A lot of people are now demanding a War on Oil, just as a lot of people demanded a War on Terror after 9/11. But some of the results were not so great - a ruinously misguided war on Iraq, overreach in Afghanistan, and billions of dollars' worth of airport security, most of which is ludicrous. Always beware the unintended consequences of too much righteousness.
A lot of people want Mr. Obama to use the Gulf catastrophe as the springboard for a grand strategy to wean ourselves off evil oil. And that's okay with me - so long as we remember that such an elemental transformation will take decades to materialize, and all energy strategies are invariably corrupted by politics, and like it or not, we will be dependent on oil for many, many years to come. I'm just saying what we should have said to George Bush: Please, Sir, don't make it worse.