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Representing the American people in its collective impotence is the last place a president wants to be (Spencer Platt/2010 Getty Images)
Representing the American people in its collective impotence is the last place a president wants to be (Spencer Platt/2010 Getty Images)

Clifford Orwin

Presiding over disaster Add to ...

Tuesday night Barack Obama faced the most pressing rhetorical challenge of his no longer young presidency. By choosing to speak from the Oval Office, he both put his most solemn foot forward and raised the stakes of the exercise. Mr. Obama, who has thrown many dollars at America's problems, has also thrown many words at them. This has brought inflation, a decline in the value of his verbal currency. Staging this talk in the Oval Office was an attempt to arrest this trend.

Whatever he said, Mr. Obama confronted an insuperable difficulty. It's hard for a President to speak effectively when there's nothing that he can do effectively. Mr. Obama's earlier likening of the Gulf disaster to the attacks of 9/11 only heightened this dilemma. When George Bush appeared at Ground Zero on 9/14 the attacks were over and retaliation was imminent. Mr. Bush announced that al-Qaeda and their Taliban protectors would "hear from us," and they did.

In the Gulf of Mexico, by contrast, the oil continues to gush, and there's nothing the President can do about it. Yes, a mythic Obama would have donned his wetsuit and boldly swum down to plug the leak. But that Obama has retired. Spiderman has become just Peter Parker. He can commiserate, he can fulminate, he can threaten, but like the rest of us he can't do a darned thing. Tuesday night he crawled out on the shaky limb of a 90% plugging of the leak within a few weeks - a prediction whose failure could come back to haunt him.

So Mr. Obama remains hostage to BP' s success at plugging the leak. The helpless finds himself dependent on the feckless. It's humiliating to be president and powerless before a grave and ongoing threat. It's even more so to rely on the notional enemy to resolve the situation. When you've declared war, you want to be free to level the bastard. Mr. Bush deposed the Taliban; Mr. Obama joins BP's shareholders in hoping sincerely that it will succeed in ending the oil spill ASAP. As one of few entities capable of both instigating and ending such a shambles, BP is just Too Big to Fail. (And, bless its corporate heart, big enough to place $20-billion in escrow to cover damages.)

Or is the enemy the oil industry as such? Here Mr. Obama must be awfully careful. For in the economy of the afflicted Gulf, whoever doesn't depend on fishing or tourism for their living depends on petroleum. New Orleans has become the Houston of the Gulf. This isn't the Old West, where farmers feuded with ranchers: the typical Gulf family includes workers in both industries. So the spill has shattered the local economy, but so has Mr. Obama's moratorium on offshore drilling. And the very governors of the afflicted states clamour for a resumption of drilling.

Ratchet up the issues still further, as Mr. Obama did in his speech, and the plot really thickens. Go ahead, make the enemy Americans' deeply entrenched habit of burning fossil fuels, not because they enjoy barbecues but because their economy depends on it. It's not entirely surprising that Mr. Obama should take this occasion to promote his comprehensive environmental program, the centrepiece of which is a particularly aggressive version of cap and trade. Cap and trade has gone nowhere as of yet, and will have no chance after January when a new more Republican Congress convenes. So Mr. Obama pushes for it now, but risks the blowback of seeming to play politics with a national disaster.

Increasingly Mr. Obama's rhetoric seems just one brick shy of a load. His Oval Office speech featured metaphors of war. Yet it didn't convey that confidence of the born commander that inspires confidence in his troops. By most accounts his administration's coastal protection and relief efforts haven't been particularly effective. True, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who radiates quiet competence, is a far cry from Michael Brown, Mr. Bush's stumblebum director of Emergency Management. Still, many post-Katrina problems have re-emerged, including poor co-ordination, an unclear chain of command, a lack of necessary equipment, and only slow progress where rapid is needed. Thank God human lives aren't at stake, as they were after Katrina, but otherwise the resemblance is greater than Mr. Obama's supporters would wish.

This situation holds political dangers for Mr. Obama. The administration's helplessness before the leak and failure to mount an effective cleanup will sap his prestige and so his power to pass environmental (as all other) legislation. Hence the gambit of invoking the debacle itself to vindicate Mr. Obama's program, as if the worse the one, the stronger the case for the other.

Given all the questions about this program (including its impact on a still struggling economy) this strategy is unlikely to fly. Cap and trade is radical enough so that not all Democrats (and few and faltering Republicans) support it. Republican Senator Richard Lugar has introduced a much milder bill, and the GOP (if it has any sense) will rally round him. Mr. Obama won't get his bill this session, or ever. As with health care, he may get a much diluted one.

Presidents lead. The last place a president wants to be is just "presiding over" a setback beyond his control, reduced to representing the American people in its collective impotence. That's Jimmy Carter territory, and that's where the oil spill is pushing Mr. Obama.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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