The combination of Obama’s passivity over the Gulf oil spill catastrophe and his cynical political manoeuvrings could spell disaster for him, argues Toby Harnden
by Toby Harnden in Washington
Published: 6:32PM BST 29 May 2010
The first thing Barack Obama probably should have done was to order the livestreaming Oil Spill Cam to be turned off. As the President insisted to Americans that he was “singularly focused” on staunching the flow, there was that mesmerising image on their television screens of plumes of hydrocarbons gushing relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico.
When any political leader feels they have to declare that they are “fully engaged” in an issue, it is clear that they are in trouble. Talking about it undermines the very point you are trying to make – not to mention that pesky Oil Spill Cam showing that, 38 days into the Deepwater Horizon disaster, not a whole lot had been achieved.
George W Bush’s unpopularity and perceived incompetence was encapsulated by the way he dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Candidate Obama branded it “unconscionable incompetence”.
Central to Obama’s appeal was his promise to be truly different. His failure to achieve that is now at the core of the deep disappointment Americans feel about him. At the press conference – the first full-scale affair he had deigned to give for 309 days – he appeared uncomfortable and petulant.
His approach to the issue was that of the law student suddenly fascinated by a science project. He displayed none of the visceral indignation Americans feel about pretty much everything these days – two-thirds now say they are “angry” about the way things are going – resorting instead to Spock-like technocratic language and legalese. “I’m not contradicting my prior point,” he stated at one juncture. During those 63 minutes of soporific verbosity, about 800 barrels of oil poured into the Gulf.
Obama engaged in the obligatory populist bashing of Big Oil and, of course, demonstrated the Obama administration’s version of Tourette’s Syndrome, blaming the previous administration for the situation when, by my reckoning, it’s a full 16 months since Bush left office.
By Friday, he was sticking his finger in the sand at Grand Isle, Louisiana as part of a photo op self-consciously designed to contrast with Bush’s famous looking down on the Katrina devastation from Air Force One. It was Obama’s second visit to Louisiana in the 39 days since disaster struck. According to C’BS’s Mark Knoller, in the same period Bush visited the post-Katrina region seven times.
But perhaps the most dangerous sign during the press conference for Democrats fearful of an unprecedented electoral disaster in November’s mid-term elections was the evasion and opacity of the man who promised a new era of transparency and a different kind of politics.
When asked about the resignation of the director of the Minerals Management Service – an agency he had excoriated – he professed that “I don’t know the circumstances in which this occurred”. She had, of course, been fired.
Even worse was Obama’s refusal to say anything about the growing furore over White House attempts to persuade Congressman Joe Sestak to pull out of the Democratic Senate primary contest in Pennsylvania. Obama’s advisers had preferred the Republican turncoat Senator Arlen Specter – and Sestak inconveniently let slip that he’d been offered a government job to step aside.
That was potentially illegal and for weeks the White House stonewalled. When, even more inconveniently, Sestak beat Specter, the trust-us-nothing-untoward-happened approach would no longer wash. But still Obama declined to answer the question on Thursday, fobbing the reporter – and America – off with the promise that “there will be an official response shortly on the Sestak issue”.
This did indeed come the following day – conveniently timed for that Friday afternoon news void before the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Lo and behold, it turns out that none other than former President Bill Clinton was asked by Obama’s chief of staff and Chicago enforcer Rahm Emanuel to offer Sestak a place on a presidential board.
Whether or not the law was broken, the cynicism of this is breathtaking. Obama offered a break from the Clinton-Bush past and an end to the shoddy backroom deals of Washington. So what does he do? He tries to deny Pennsylvania voters a chance to decide for themselves by using his former foe Clinton to offer a grubby inducement.
It was perhaps a fitting end to one of the worst weeks of Obama presidency, in which a Rasmussen one poll pegged his popularity at a new low of 42 percent. In an environment in which Americans are disillusioned and cynical about Washington and all it stands for, the Clinton-Sestak manoeuvre could be a political calamity for Obama.
Perhaps he should be grateful after all that the Oil Spill Cam was still beaming up footage from the sea bed.
Published in the Telegraph: