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Forget Katrina: Is BP Obama's Waterloo?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; 8:26 AM

We have seen this movie before.

Barack Obama stays cool when the pundits want heat.

He's 30 points down and he isn't hitting Hillary hard enough.

He's not returning fire against McCain's attack ads.

He isn't leading the charge on health care, delegating the battle to his Hill allies instead.

Each time, Obama somehow prevailed. He got himself elected, and against all odds he passed the gargantuan health care bill.

But there has been a growing disconnect. I'm among those who believe that passion is often missing from his presidency.

No one doubts that the guy is whip smart, works incredibly hard and tries to master the policies he pushes. But he often lacks that visceral appeal. When he said he was mad at Wall Street bonuses or AIG, it felt like he was reading someone else's words.

Now, with BP, he has really fallen short.

I don't buy the notion that there was far more he could have done substantively. The federal government doesn't have the expertise or equipment to do what a deep-sea oil drilling company does (though it could hardly have done worse than the utterly clueless British Petroleum).

But in terms of the optics, the politics, the sense of outrage, well, no wonder James Carville was angry. The White House just bungled that part.

Last week's presser was an attempt to catch up, to seize control, at least in terms of public perception. Watching Obama, I thought, here's a guy who really understands this stuff. But he was flat and technocratic, at least until he invoked his daughter, which for me missed the mark.

Since then, the professional progonsticators -- left and right -- have really turned on him. They have set up the spill as the biggest test of his tenure, and one that he is flunking.

Obama sewed up the election when he remained calm during the financial collapse of 2008 and McCain seemed all over the map. But that style doesn't always work, not with dead pelicans washing up on shore and an oil company (which never should have been allowed to drill this well without a credible emergency plan) that has been utterly befuddled by this debacle. Obama has seemed unable to rise to the occasion, losing even his liberal media allies in the process.

When top columnists at the New York Times and Washington Post turn on a Democratic president, he's got problems.

Maureen Dowd goes with the Star Trek analogy:

"President Spock's behavior is illogical.

"Once more, he has willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it. . . .

"Too often it feels as though Barry is watching from a balcony, reluctant to enter the fray until the clamor of the crowd forces him to come down. The pattern is perverse. The man whose presidency is rooted in his ability to inspire withholds that inspiration when it is most needed. . . .

"Obama invented himself against all odds and repeated parental abandonment, and he worked hard to regiment his emotions. But now that can come across as imperviousness and inflexibility."

Frank Rich warns of an oil-soaked, devastated first term:

"For Barack Obama's knee-jerk foes, of course it was his Katrina. But for the rest of us, there's the nagging fear that the largest oil spill in our history could yet prove worse if it drags on much longer. It might not only wreck the ecology of a region but capsize the principal mission of the Obama presidency. . . .

"Obama's news conference on Thursday -- explaining in detail the government's response, its mistakes and its precise relationship to BP -- was at least three weeks overdue. It was also his first full news conference in 10 months. Obama's recurrent tardiness in defining exactly what he wants done on a given issue -- a lapse also evident in the protracted rollout of the White House's specific health care priorities -- remains baffling, as does his recent avoidance of news conferences. Such diffidence does not convey a J.F.K.-redux in charge of a neo-New Frontier activist government."

Dana Milbank watched the presser with a sense of amazement:

"In a sense, it's refreshing to have a president who is candid about shortcomings. Yet Obama's news conference may have been the weakest hour of his presidency.

"As I sat in the fourth row on Thursday, I was struck by the weirdly passive figure before me. He delivered lawyerly phrases and spoke of his anger about the oil spill but showed none in his voice or on his face. He was, presumably, there to show how aggressively he has handled the disaster, but he seemed cool, almost bloodless."

At the WSJ, Peggy Noonan predicts doom and gloom for 44:

"I don't see how the president's position and popularity can survive the oil spill. . . .

"There was the tearing and unnecessary war over his health-care proposal and its cost. There was his day-to-day indifference to the views and hopes of the majority of voters regarding illegal immigration. And now the past almost 40 days of dodging and dithering in the face of an environmental calamity. I don't see how you politically survive this.

"The president, in my view, continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. . . . He has not, almost from the day he was inaugurated, been in sync with the center. The heart of the country is thinking each day about A, B and C, and he is thinking about X, Y and Z. They're in one reality, he's in another. . . .

"He attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language--'catastrophe,' etc.--but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won't see the big picture. The unspoken mantra in his head must have been, 'I will not be defensive, I will not give them a resentful soundbite.' But his strategic problem was that he'd already lost the battle. If the well was plugged tomorrow, the damage will already have been done."

At the hometown paper, Clarence Page finds nothing to praise in Obama's response:

"The president's numbers could easily slide in Bush's post-Katrina fashion if he fails to get ahead of this story. As President George W. Bush found in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we may not blame a president for causing a disaster, but we do expect them to do all they can to prevent disasters from getting worse.

"If Bush looked inactive, Obama has looked powerless. His news conference was intended to set the record straight or, at least, more favorable to his administration. Yet as political theater, news conferences have not been his best stage. This time he seemed about as awkward and self-contradictory as his last news conference, which misfired in ways that led less to a resolution of the health care debate, as intended, than to an odd 'Beer Summit' about racial profiling.

"This time Obama took 'responsibility' for the leak and its deadly gook in the Gulf Coast wetlands while leaving the blame with BP. . . .

"His worst moment for showing his command of things came when he told a reporter he did not know whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, who resigned that morning from the directorship of the Minerals Management Service, had resigned or been fired, even though she was catching blame for failing to overrule the oil industry's environmental and safety shortcuts.

"Now it is up to Obama to show he is fully engaged with this homegrown Gulf crisis without being held captive by it like, say, President Jimmy Carter with the Iran hostage crisis."

When commentators start invoking Carter, that is very bad news indeed.

The latest news, as the NYT reports, might have more to do with politics than crisis management:

"The Obama administration said Tuesday that it had begun civil and criminal investigations into the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as the deepening crisis threatened to define President Obama's second year in office. . . .

"Mr. Holder's comments, which echoed those of Mr. Obama earlier in the day in the Rose Garden, reflected deepening frustration within the administration at the inability to stop the spill, along with wide concern that the government and the president appear increasingly impotent as oil laps at the shorelines of Louisiana, and now Alabama and Mississippi."

What else would the press have the president do? There's no easy answer, says David Corn:

"He's in a bind. People want him to remedy what may be beyond his power to remedy. (The long-term response of drilling those relief wells is no sure shot.) Obama can crack the whip at BP -- and he should. But that won't necessarily lead to results. These fools messed with Mother Nature and didn't bother devising any effective plan for dealing with a potential screw-up (which is also the fault of the federal agencies and administrations that allowed for such drilling without sufficient safeguards). One sad lesson of all this may be that some problems defy solutions. And some even defy punditry."

In a Huffington Post piece, Robert Kuttner sees a pattern:

"What do the oil catastrophe and the Wall Street collapse have in common? Three big things, I'd say.

"In both cases, a powerful, politically protected industry invented something that could not easily be repaired when it broke. We seem to be entering an age when complex technologies, whether financial or physical, sometimes literally have no solutions when they go haywire in unanticipated ways. We thought this might happen with nuclear power (and it still could); but for now deepwater drilling is the bigger menace.

"Secondly, in both cases the proverbial ounce of prevention was not applied. Had existing laws been enforced, and had the political process not corrupted the regulatory process, these man-made calamities didn't need to happen."

The Gore Split

The news really touched people, and not just because we'd all seen The Kiss, from the 2000 convention, replayed so many times.

There were the inevitable jokes about the Clintons' marriage lasting longer than that of Al and Tipper. But I think what drove the reaction was a sense of, even them? Even these people who we thought were happy, who've been through the political wars together, couldn't make it?

"They were the happy exceptions -- high school sweethearts whose passionate romance led to a famously stable marriage in a capital perpetually rocked by tawdry scandals and sleazy affairs," says the L.A. Times.

"But on Tuesday, less than a month after they marked their 40th wedding anniversary, former Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, announced they were breaking up. . . .

"If many Americans were disappointed, longtime friends seemed stunned and saddened. A couple that had lived much of their lives in the public eye apparently had kept their heartbreak quiet."

The following was put out to more than one news outlet: "A close confidant who said he had spoken recently with both Gores dismissed the inevitable speculation about infidelity. 'There's nothing to that,' he said. 'Nothing whatsoever.' "

A Question of Modesty

There's been a showdown at al-Jazeera over five female anchors, the

Telegraph reports:

"In a row which has split the channel, the five complained about harassment from a senior editor, whom they accused of making 'offensive remarks' about their appearance. After the channel refused to back them, the five women, some of the best-known faces in the Middle East thanks to the channel's popularity, quit. . .

"An internal inquiry has since cleared the official, the deputy editor-in-chief Ayman Jaballah, and asserted that the channel had the right to dictate how its presenters appeared. . . .

"The five appeared with their hair uncovered, in contrast to some of Al-Jazeera's other women presenters, as well as heavily made up."

That's really something--the very things that would get you hired on American TV.

Name, Please

Plenty of Web sites have struggled with commenters who unleash vicious slurs and bring down the tone of the neighborhood. As Jeffrey Weiss explains, that has changed the approach at Politics Daily:

"Here's a free lesson for any of our commenters who want to squall about the new sign-your-name (or at least your AOL or AIM screen name) policy being launched by Politics Daily, along with similar changes at many other major websites: Electing not to publish attacks is not censorship. Nor does it mean the end of effective and interesting discussion; on the contrary. . .

"I totally get the attraction of anonymous comments. Sometimes the freedom to speak without fear of retribution allows us to say important things that would not otherwise be said. But to get back to my earlier metaphor, the Internet now has settled towns and even some cities. In those settings, 'don't fence me in' is losing, inevitably, to the need for a bit more law and order. . . .

"It's possible to shame people who post anonymously. Folks who are otherwise civil, but fall briefly over the line, can be jerked back into appropriate behavior -- often they even apologize. But shame works a lot more effectively and broadly if the person who is rebuked is acting in his own name."

I'm all in favor of that. Newspapers don't print letters to the editor without names; why should commenters be able to rail from behind a curtain of anonymity?

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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