President Obama's been under a cloud

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dr. Frankenstein: What a filthy job!

Igor: Could be worse.

Dr. Frankenstein: How?

Igor: Could be raining.

[It starts to rain.]

-- "Young Frankenstein"

The heavens must be angry at Barack Obama.

It had been probably the worst week of his presidency so far, his administration at the mercy of events: the failure to cap the oil spill in the gulf, the economic crisis in Europe, the new tensions with Iran and North Korea, the developing scandal over the White House's job offer to Joe Sestak and, finally, Israel's deadly interception of an aid mission to Gaza.

Then came the rain.

Obama was about to address a Memorial Day crowd at Abraham Lincoln Cemetery in Illinois (he had already angered some veterans by skipping the annual event at Arlington) when the skies lighted up with a fierce electrical storm. After that event was canceled, Obama's motorcade was forced to stop in the middle of a freeway when an SUV carrying White House advisers blew a tire. Finally, Obama delivered his Memorial Day address to a mostly empty gym at Andrews Air Force Base.

White House officials awoke to a mostly sunny day Tuesday -- at least until it was time for press secretary Robert Gibbs to give his daily briefing. Minutes before, the clouds above the White House darkened ominously. Within seconds of Gibbs's appearance on the podium, the skies opened.

Ben Feller of the Associated Press asked Gibbs why Obama had not made a "stronger statement" denouncing the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla. In the briefing room, a clap of thunder was heard.

Gibbs spoke about the failure of BP's "top kill" to stanch the oil flow in the gulf. Another rumble of thunder came with a torrent of rain. Through the briefing room window, White House groundskeepers could be seen hiding beneath plastic tarps.

"Is the president considering at least backing international calls to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces?" Thunder.

"There were Americans on the flotilla. Do you have any information about whether any of them were hurt?" More thunder. The driveway outside the briefing room had become a small stream.

You don't have to search for meaning in meteorological phenomena to conclude that the president and his team have been swamped by events beyond their control. This spring, the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's "pitiful, helpless giant" speech, has found the United States looking pitiful and helpless -- not because of communists in Vietnam but because it can't stop the oil leak, can't control Israel and can't contain the debt crisis spreading in Europe.

In each case, Obama is more a hapless bystander than a culprit, but that's small comfort as the crises cancel his agenda and weaken his presidency. After Obama's Memorial Day washout, certain members of the White House press corps likened the president's position to the above-cited scene in "Young Frankenstein," when Gene Wilder's character, grave-robbing with his assistant Igor, is caught in a thunderstorm the moment Igor mentions rain.

Obama was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, but Bibi canceled and hurried home to a crisis of his own. Instead, the president turned his attention to the oil spill debacle. Appearing in the Rose Garden with the leaders of his new oil spill commission, he offered tough new phrases about BP and the possibility of criminal charges. "We've ordered BP to pay economic injury claims, and we will make sure they deliver," he said, adding his vow to "bring those responsible to justice."

The president stuck faithfully to his script -- he read not from the usual discreet teleprompter but from two large TV screens. The text was so big his audience could read along. But reporters were more interested in the latest from Israel. "Any comment on the Middle East?" ABC News's Jake Tapper shouted after the retreating president. McClatchy News's Margaret Talev tried to entice Obama with a word-association game. "Israel!" she shouted after him.

Obama ignored the shouts, but Gibbs couldn't. Reporters pressed him on the muted response to the Gaza violence, the ineffective response to the oil spill and the inconsistent response to questions about the job offered to Sestak to keep him out of the Pennsylvania Senate race.

Gibbs even found himself drawn into a debate with CBS's Chip Reid over whether Obama was enraged by the oil spill or merely frustrated. "I've seen rage from him," Gibbs asserted, citing a "clenched jaw."

The first hint of good news for the White House didn't surface until the 12th questioner asked about the killing of a top al-Qaeda leader.

But the New York Times' Peter Baker quickly took things back to the spill, and whether it meant that "the rest of his agenda is hobbled."

"One of the things that we have learned throughout our time here," Gibbs replied, "is you do not get to pick what events you deal with, and the president doesn't have that luxury. Including rain yesterday."

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