Obama's war footing

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; 9:01 AM

What was striking at first was the familiar, flag-bedecked Oval Office backdrop, the scene of past presidential addresses on Vietnam, on 9/11, on Iraq.

What was equally striking was that Barack Obama seemed to be on a war footing. He spoke of a "battle plan," of a "mobilization," a "siege," of a menace "assaulting our shores." He spoke of a "national mission." He spoke of building planes and tanks during World War II. He said that "we will fight this" with "everything we've got for as long as it takes." Defeat was not an option: "We cannot consign our children to this future."

But the president was, of course, talking about plugging an oil leak, not firing weapons and dropping bombs.

On the plus side, the president seemed focused and engaged, not like a lawyer analyzing a case. He communicated determination and empathy, able to cite his meetings with shrimpers and fishermen and family members of the victims. He tapped a deep rhetorical well of American optimism, a JFK-moon landing spirit, as he vowed not only to clean up this disaster and make BP pay, but to lead the country toward energy independence.

On the negative side, with what plan are you leading us toward that elusive goal, Mr. President? The cap and trade bill that is going nowhere in the Senate? He didn't say. The words were uplifting, but at times sounded like wishful thinking.

Obama took a shot at the Republicans and what he called a "failed philosophy" that "says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves." But he did not own up to failing to change that approach in a year and a half in office, other than slipping in a phrase that the pace of reform had been "too slow."

Oh, and on what basis did he declare that 90 percent of the oil will be cleaned up in a few weeks?

One point seems clear: Had Obama given this address three weeks ago, he would have been seen as getting out in front of a burgeoning problem. Now he looked like he was playing catchup.

On Fox, Bill O'Reilly's first guest was Sarah Palin, who said that unless the president acknowledged that we still need oil, "we will be brought to our knees and bowing to the Saudis and places like Venezuela."

But it wasn't just the conservatives. Here was the reaction on MSNBC:

Keith Olbermann: "What did you think of the speech?"

Rachel Maddow: "Sigh."

"His enemies were oil industry lobbyists and corrupt regulators, foreign energy suppliers and conservative policy makers, and a stubborn gushing well at the bottom of the sea," says the New York Times. "And ultimately, he was fighting his own powerlessness, as a president castigated for failing to stop the nation's worst-ever oil spill tried to turn disaster into opportunity."

L.A. Times: "In a bow to political reality and the still-troubled economy, however, he stopped short of spelling out specifics for dealing with a problem that has bedeviled presidents since Richard Nixon in the 1970s and goes straight to the heart of such bread-and-butter issues as consumer prices, jobs and the viability of major industries."

Slate's John Dickerson: "It wasn't as bad as it could have been. . . . 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 clich├ęs for this phenomenon because it is essentially a magic trick that requires a lot of conjuring. . . . The speech felt like more of a management update of the crisis than an attempt to take command of it."

Atlantic's Josh Green: "The president went a good way toward reasserting that he is in charge and BP is trouble. The no-nonsense tone, martial imagery ("battle plan"), the three-part plan, the identification of a bad guy (BP's CEO) who is going to be dealt with sternly, who was scolded for "recklessness," and whose company will be paying for the cleanup and damage--not asked, but told to pay, evidently--all of this was good theatrics, and moderately reassuring. But the address struck me as notably defensive in places, such as when the president tried to explain away why he so confidently, and rather arrogantly, proposed to expand offshore drilling while waving away concerns just three weeks before the explosion."

National Review's Daniel Foster:

"I have to admit I was somewhat surprised to see President Obama use his first Oval Office address to repeat populist platitudes about 'making BP pay' and hit the bullet points, for the umpteenth time, of the Democrats' ill-advised cap-and-trade scheme. Oval addresses are best reserved for wars and resignations."

As this USA Today/Gallup poll makes clear, the country is ready for a more aggressive presidential approach:

"Nearly six in 10 of those surveyed say BP should be forced to pay for financial losses, including lost wages, even if it drives the British oil giant out of business.

"What's more, 71% say Obama hasn't been tough enough in dealing with BP, though by a narrow margin Americans are inclined to keep the company in charge of efforts to control the spill rather than having the federal government take over."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, however, paints the administration as an anti-business colossus, starting with "the president's suggestion that BP suspend its dividend, which is crucial to the retirement of thousands of shareholders. BP may decide it is prudent to suspend its dividend while it gets a better handle on its ultimate liability. But the White House has no legal basis to compel such a decision. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are preparing to lift their own $75 million liability cap and apply that retroactively to BP, another move of dubious legality.

"No wonder Britain's Prime Minister and other officials are alarmed about the fate of one of their country's foremost corporations. This is the kind of treatment that Americans would protest if it were applied to U.S. companies by Venezuela or Russia. . . .

"None of this is to absolve BP for any bad judgments or shortcuts that contributed to this disaster, but there is not a chance of that happening. The more pertinent question is whether BP will survive, despite its ample cash flow, once the U.S. political and liability systems are done making the company pay. Neither punishment-by-bankruptcy nor extralegal looting will help Gulf victims."

As for Obama's insistence on an escrow account, "the White House knows it has no legal authority to demand such a corporate ATM card, but it is counting on public anger to coerce BP to go along."

Another way to look at it is that this is not punishment but accountability for a company that assured the feds it had plausible plans in case of an accident.

Racial rhetoric

This is really something, as Washington Monthly's Steve Benen points out:

"If only Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) were a White House correspondent, he might be forced to resign over ugly rhetoric like this.

"During an appearance on G. Gordon Liddy's radio show this morning to discuss Arizona's immigration law, King suggested President Barack Obama was a racist and 'favors the black person' while carrying out his presidential duties. . . . King added: 'But the president has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race -- on the side that favors the black person.'

"As a factual matter, King's race-baiting is just absurd. Looking over the president's staff, cabinet, appointments, and policies, there's simply nothing to suggest Obama discriminates against those who aren't black. King's odious attacks are the result of paranoia."

My question is more basic: Has the congressman offered a shred of evidence to support his incendiary charge?

Temper tantrum

Bob Etheridge's apology for accosting two young men who approached him on the street with a video camera has done little to quell the furor -- even as questions remain about the incident involving the North Carolina congressman.

Powerline's Scott Johnson says that "Rep. Etheridge could easily have ignored it and gone on his merry way. Instead Etheridge went ballistic. Perhaps the single most obvious point demonstrated by the video is that Etheridge is unfit for high office."

Politico's Ben Smith obtains "the Democrats' talking points:

"1. There is always the part of the story that you can't see in these gotcha style videos -- what were these folks doing, how did they approach him, how were the cameraman and/or others off camera acting?

"2. Why would any legitimate student doing a project or a journalist shagging a story not identify themselves. Motives matter -- what was the motivation here? To incite this very type of reaction?

"3. This is clearly the work of the Republican Party and the 'interviewer' is clearly a low level staffer or intern."

Well, it's not so clear who is responsible. But if it had been ordinary students unconnected to any political or ideological operation, we'd undoubtedly know that by now.

Betsy's Page says it's irrelevant, and invokes the macaca moment:

"Who knows if these two guys were indeed working on a school project or for some conservative or Republican organization. That is the talking point that the Democrats are putting out. That shouldn't matter, just as it didn't matter that the guy filming George Allen worked for his opponent, Jim Webb. No one in the media bought into the idea that a video made by one's rival should be illegitimate if it showed a politician in a bad light."

Sharron Angle's message to media

One word.

Lawrence live

Lawrence O'Donnell, who gained visibility while frequently filling in for Keith Olbermann, is the newest addition to MSNBC's lineup. He'll host a 10 p.m. Eastern show, pushing back the "Countdown" replay till 11 and the Rachel Maddow re-airing until midnight.

O'Donnell keeps intact the liberal tilt of the Matthews-Schultz-Olbermann-Maddow lineup, but the onetime "West Wing" writer and producer also brings an insider's knowledge: He was a Democratic committee staff director on Capitol Hill.

Beck's admission

Mediaite chats up the Fox News host about his new novel, and he has this to say:

"I have taken inventory of my words over the last five, eight years. And if I could do things over again I would be more temperate on everything that I said only because, you know, people will misunderstand, or I will misspeak, or I will just say something stupid, or people will take out of context and twist."

Tweet retreat?

The NYT's deputy news editor, Philip Corbett, says he's been getting a bum rap on Twitter language:

"After I distributed the in-house version of After Deadline to my colleagues last week, word leaked out that I had supposedly 'banned' use of the word 'tweet' to refer to messages posted on Twitter.

"I had suggested that outside of ornithological contexts, 'tweet' should still be treated as colloquial rather than as standard English. It can be used for special effect, or in places where a colloquial tone is appropriate, but should not be used routinely in straight news articles. . . .

"Reaction outside The Times was swift, widespread and often negative. . . . One interesting note: Of the dozens of blogs and Web sites worldwide that weighed in, exactly two actually contacted me directly to ask about the issue."

Good point. I'll have to tweet about that.

Perez in peril?

Online gossip Perez Hilton may have gotten himself in a jam with a paparazzi shot of "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus that some are calling child porn. That, at least, is the view of Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory:

"Perez Hilton has built a thriving career out of offensive behavior: He's called countless female celebrities bitches, hos, whores and sluts. . . . But these things merely violate good taste -- not federal child porn law that carries a mandatory sentence of 15 years. The same cannot be said for his latest shocker: Tweeting a link to an alleged upskirt photo of a pantyless 17-year-old Miley Cyrus.

"The facts as we know them: On Sunday, Hilton's Twitter account sent out the following message: 'If you are easily offended, do NOT click here. Oh, Miley! Warning: truly not for the easily offended!' The photo in question has since been yanked down, but the image is allegedly of Cyrus climbing out of a car wearing a dress and no underwear. . . .

"Jeffrey Douglas, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who specializes in child pornography cases, told Salon that Hilton's liability is 'extraordinary and intense' and that it was 'suicidal for him to do this.' "

We can certainly ask why she's wearing no underwear, but that's hardly an excuse for splashing her private parts across the Net.

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

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