By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; 10:10 AM
President Obama has finally united the country.
Everyone hated the speech.
Now when I say "everyone," I am talking about the people who pop off about public affairs for a living. It is entirely possible that many Americans thought the Oval Office address on Tuesday evening was a perfectly fine appearance by a commander-in-chief struggling with a difficult problem.
But the pundits found Obama's performance as pathetic as the lame effort by the Boston Celtics that followed in Game 6 of the finals.
The usual prime-time predictability -- panned by Fox, praised on MSNBC -- was missing. Chris, Keith and Rachel all ripped the speech with varying degrees of fervor.
As someone who thought the speech wasn't all that bad, I ask this question: What was Obama supposed to do?
If he had been less upbeat about the future, he would have been criticized for being too pessimistic and dragging everyone down.
If he had attacked BP more vigorously, he would have drawn flak for being anti-business.
If he had raised his voice and banged the desk, he would have been called too angry.
If he had failed to talk about an energy plan for the future, he would have been chided for having no vision.
If he had laid out what he wants in an environmental bill, he would have been faulted for boring the country with legislative details.
And maybe that was the problem. With the spillcam showing oil still pouring into the Gulf, nothing Obama said could be truly reassuring. He was notably short on detail. And he didn't really make much news, beyond the new head of MMS and yet another blue-ribbon commission. There was no takeaway for journalists to move the debate beyond you still haven't plugged the hole, daddy. So maybe the Oval Office setting and the request for network time simply raised expectations too high.
Of course, if Obama hadn't given a nationwide speech, he would have been criticized for that, too.
We begin our survey of disappointed liberals with Salon Editor Joan Walsh:
"I was underwhelmed by President Obama's first Oval Office speech, as I expected to be. From the moment he began, hands folded on his desk like a well-behaved student, the imagery and energy was off, inadequate to the visual, horror-movie scope of the Gulf oil disaster. . . .
"I'm not sure anyone walked away from the speech clearer on what Obama will do to hasten the clean up and prevent future disasters. And while I was happy he did make a short pitch for 'a strong and comprehensive climate and energy bill,' if you blinked, you missed it."
At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum pulls no punches:
"What a terrible speech.
"Unfair? Maybe! I mean, compared to Sarah Palin's (literally) incomprehensible burbling on Bill O'Reilly's show afterward it was a model of straight talk and reassurance. But that's a pretty low bar. . . .
"This gives pablum a bad name. Obama wants a bill. Pretty much any bill will do. But he didn't say a single word about what he himself wanted. A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Nuclear subsidies? Electric cars? Who knows?. . . .
"This is, by a long way, the most negative reaction I've ever had to an Obama speech."
Tina Brown says the speech failed on several levels:
"He didn't do what was needed: convey the sense that the CEO is back from offsite and now deeply, viscerally engaged in the messy process of management. The speech showcased what he has always shown us he is good at--articulating the overarching goal, and ramping up the rhetoric to meet it. But he cited too many names that have already lost our vote. Salazar, you're doing a helluva job! Obama's supposedly stellar secretary of the Interior strikes the rest of us as doing a good impersonation of being all hat and no cattle--the guy who called himself the 'sheriff' but put few of the miscreants at MMS under arrest. . . .
"Obama's speech begged the question of why, if America always pushes its bounds to what it can do, 57 days into it the Gulf clean-up is still in such head-scratching chaos."
Politico's Roger Simon tees off on Obama's line that "even if we don't yet know precisely how to get there, we know we'll get there":
"How? Why? Because we won World War II. And we landed 'a man safely on the surface of the moon.'
"All we need now is 'courage.' And a 'hand' to guide us 'towards a brighter day.'
"And that was pretty much President Obama's entire speech to the nation Tuesday. . . .
"Nobody is more impressed than I am in the president's ability to inspire. But I am not sure his speech was all that inspirational.
"Maybe the location was wrong. Maybe using the Oval Office -- and it was the first time the president has used it for a speech -- upped the ante too much. Maybe we expected too much.
Details. These pundits want everything.
The address draws ridicule on the right, from the likes of Ed Morrissey at Hot Air:
"This speech was suited for Day 1 of a catastrophe, not Day 57. It had no answers at all. None. It's as if Rip van Obama awoke after eight weeks of slumber and had been told just that morning about a massive problem in the Gulf of Mexico. For a man who has repeatedly claimed to be 'fully engaged since Day 1,' and who repeated that claim last night, Obama gave every impression of still being in the spitballing stage of crisis management. . . .
"During the 2008 campaign, we repeatedly criticized Obama's lack of executive experience, but perhaps even Obama's critics might be surprised to see how badly Obama has performed in this crisis. He has nothing left to offer; Obama is running on empty."
Message: We told you so.
Red State's Erick Erickson invokes the 39th president:
"Whatever the reason, Barack Obama gave the most depressing Oval Office speech since Jimmy Carter's malaise speech. He didn't just embrace defeat, he wore it on his suit as a substitute for an argyle sweater. He tried to sound upbeat in the way a cop in a movie might sound when his partner lay mortally wounded and the cop needs to get the partner's wife to the hospital without letting her know her husband is dying. It was a false optimism with Barack Obama distracting Americans in a game of three card monte."
The president gets no slack from Atlantic's Clive Crook either:
"I agree with much of the instant TV commentary: Obama's address was surprisingly bad. He and his people made such a big deal of it--Oval Office and all--then when it arrived there was no there there. Nothing new. Hard facts were sparse, and in every case already well-known. I expected some new information. I expected at least a detailed, authoritative account of what was being done, and who was in charge of what. I thought there would be a more precise statement of what was being demanded of BP. He gave us none of this.
"Then it got worse, with a lame, formulaic, campaign-style call for a clean energy policy."
Finally -- finally! -- I found someone who likes the speech. Says Steve Benen at Washington Monthly:
"Maybe I approached the remarks with lower expectations -- it's not as if Obama was going to announce that everything in the Gulf is suddenly fine -- but I thought the speech got the job done in a workmanlike kind of way. . . .
"I realize that government plans, agencies, and committees make for underwhelming rhetoric, and are awful vehicles for a stirring address that gets the crowds on their feet. But this is what governments do. It's what the administration has to do to mount an effective response to the catastrophe. . . .
"The policy details were lacking, and that seems to be a driving factor in much of the criticism. . . .
"This wasn't exactly a break with Obama's m.o. We saw the same thing during the health care debate. The president sets out a larger vision, signals a willingness to compromise, adds a sense of urgency, and calls on legislators to fill in the gaps and do what they're supposed to do."
I guess that will have to pass for faint praise.
Some kind words from an unexpected conservative corner, NYT columnist Ross Douthat:
"Nobody liked it. Well, of course nobody liked it: Until the oil well stops belching crude into the Gulf of Mexico, there's nothing that the president of the United States can say about the crisis that will make anyone feel better about it. So maybe the speech shouldn't have been given at all -- except that it had to be given, because for weeks and weeks the White House has been pilloried by the cult of the presidency's true believers (and the occasional opportunist) for not doing enough about the spill, not talking tough enough or acting engaged enough or something, anything, whatever, just do something, Mr. President! And so the White House did what White Houses do, and especially White Houses with a lot of confidence in their occupant's oratorical powers: They scheduled a prime-time address, and hoped for the best.
"Given this impossible context, I thought the speech was reasonably well-crafted."
There's the headline: Obama Fails to Accomplish Mission Impossible.Time to pay up
The reaction to the speech might have been different had the president been able to announce this:
"The Obama administration has reached a preliminary agreement with BP executives that would see the oil company pay $20 billion over several years into an independently controlled escrow account to be established to compensate Gulf of Mexico residents affected by the disastrous oil spill, and BP's board of directors has eliminated the company's stock dividend, at least temporarily.
"The agreement on the escrow account was negotiated in a meeting at the White House on Wednesday morning, the first face-to-face gathering between President Obama and senior BP leadership," the L.A. Times reports.
What a relief to learn that BP cares about the small people.Armey opens fire
Dick Armey, the Republican House leader turned tea party crusader, says Rand Paul made a "rookie mistake" by going on MSNBC:
"Any legitimate newsperson would be embarrassed to see them pretending to be newspeople. They're not news people. They're political hacks. I'm sorry. I watch that network. I watch that Keith Olberby guy-- cracks me up. I know very well he's never gotten over the Americans beating the Russians in '80. And he's got this mean nasty side to him, and it's entertaining, but don't tell me he's a newsperson. It's a disrespect to the profession."
Olbermann said Armey "is, as ever, perfectly, wonderfully tone deaf. I actually attended the USA upset of the USSR in Lake Placid in 1980 and it remains one of the most joyous memories of my life as a proud American. I also wonder about why Mr. Armey so happily took money to appear on my show during his days as a paid MSNBC contributor."
I would remind Armey that Rachel Maddow didn't ask Paul one unfair question in their lengthy discussion about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and even the Senate candidate from Kentucky acknowledged it had been fair.Missed my chance at wealth
"The S&P 500 circuit breakers, which began operating this week, were triggered for the first time on Wednesday afternoon when shares in the Washington Post Company doubled in price inside the space of one second," the FT reports.
"Shares in the publisher were trading at about $460 at 3.07 pm yesterday when an order for 400 shares and 200 shares were both executed at $919.18, followed by 166 shares at $929.18."
Turns out it was a mistake. If only I'd moved more quickly!Beck bites back
"It's weird how many people read The Washington Post and take your fiction as fact. Isn't that strange? We at least admit ours is fiction."Reconciliation?
I was skeptical when Us Weekly reported that Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston may be getting back together, at least according to an unnamed friend.
But now Bristol says on "Good Morning America": "I believe that wherever possible, if the parents can cooperate and co-parent in a positive way, the child will benefit. Levi and I are turning a new page here as co-parents to this wonderful boy and putting aside the past because doing so is in Tripp's best interest."Perez plays defense
Amid accusations that he engaged in child porn by linking to a paparazzi shot of Miley Cyrus sans underwear, Perez Hilton says she was wearing something under her dress:
"Do you think Miley is that stupid to be out in public without panties? Sure, I may nickname her Slutty Cyrus, but she's not a moron. . . .
"Do you think I'm stupid enough to post a photo of Miley if she's not wearing underwear down there?. . . . Sure I like to be controversial, but I don't want to go to jail."
So his defense is that he linked to a photo of a 17-year-old girl's underwear?