Deflection Point

What Obama’s speech on the BP oil spill was lacking.

Also in Slate, Daniel Gross argues that Obama did not act like the CEO America needs right now

The Gulf oil crisis, say White House aides, is at an “inflection point.” That’s why President Obama chose this moment to deliver his first Oval Office address. If you’ve forgotten this term from calculus, it means “turning point.” But it’s not a dramatic change in direction where the tires squeal—if you’re driving an S, it’s the moment when the steering wheel is straight. It means the situation is less bad than it used to be.

Something similar can be said of the president’s 20-minute speech: It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He offered the rhetorical flourishes we expect and was specific in some cases—he called for a fund to pay Gulf residents that would not be controlled by BP—he talked about deploying the National Guard and putting the secretary of the Navy in charge of restoring the wetlands not just to their condition before the spill but better. He charged BP with “recklessness” and promised that the company would pay. He promised that he wouldn’t forget the Gulf.

But there was something lacking. Maybe that’s to be expected when you use the terminology of mathematics while playing by the laws of politics. If you declare a turning point, one will duly arrive, and the president will be credited with creating it. The pivot will take place. The page will turn. The fever will break. There are only clichés for this phenomenon because it is essentially a magic trick that requires a lot of conjuring.

The president is constrained. He can’t stop the leak. And he doesn’t seem to be able to do much about the confusion reported on the ground. Reaction plans are being hatched on the fly. The speech felt like more of a management update of the crisis than an attempt to take command of it.

Maybe the call for a heroic moment of command is too much to ask for. Still, the president made the situation worse for himself. The use of the language of war created the imbalance. He talked of a “battle” and “siege,” but like all the other times when war has been misused—the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the economic war Joe Biden declared last year—the action taken didn’t match the words used to describe the menace. Prudent, methodical, and secure … Wait a minute. There’s a war going on. Shouldn’t we be doing something more?

In the context of war, the facts and figures—miles of boom, strength of National Guard troops deployed, number of ships at sea—feel meaningless. Sure, they sound impressive—but compared with what? Today, for example, we learned that the amount of oil flowing from the ground is between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day. Last week the estimate was between 20,000 and 40,000. The president did offer welcome specificity when he said that soon BP should be able to capture 90 percent of the oil leaking from the well.

There were hints earlier in the day that Obama might use the power of an Oval Office speech to make a push for robust climate change legislation. He talked a lot about it, using the kind of language we’re used to hearing when we’re being called to national action. But all of those words added up to less than what he’s already said. Several weeks ago in a speech in Pittsburgh, Obama was far more forceful. He called for an aggressive comprehensive legislative response. He said he would fight to find the votes to pass a bill that put a price on carbon.

During the health care debate, supporters of the public option learned how to spot a presidential endorsement that was no endorsement at all. Though the president claimed to support the idea, there was no oomph in his voice. He’s matching that strategy on this issue. He sounds like he’ll take just about anything, a recognition perhaps of how tough a comprehensive bill would be in this election year.

This is not the first time the White House has declared an inflection point on this story. On May 24, when Coast Guard Commander Thad Allen briefed reporters from the White House on all that the administration had done, it was intended to deflect the criticism that too little had been accomplished. A White House  official wrote an e-mail to me declaring the moment an “inflection point.” Three weeks later the president is still trying to show command—proving that even when you’re in an inflection point, it’s not clear whether things are getting worse or better.

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