As critical as I am about various aspects of the Obama Presidency, I think this moment where he's getting slammed is just a bit unbelievable. From the "I don't like his response to the oil spill" to the "he should be doing more/getting angrier" to the "why couldn't they have done more to prevent this", I just can't see the logic behind the criticism.
Of course... I wasn't that impressed to begin with, so I think my disappointment gauge is set to a different level than many.
So, on one level, I'll agree: the perceptions of mistakes and missteps and how bad all of this is have everything to do with the Obama team's initial setup of a false expectation. He was sold as too much to too many with too few specific benchmarks, and he's paying, in no small measure, for unrealistic standards he helped to create. And a good bit of the unrealistic expectations he helped create are damaging fantasies that Americans need to have confronted if anything, really, is to be changed or improved in the short run.
Also, in the short run... nothing will change if, well, nothing changes.
More than anything, what mystifies me about the supposed genius of Obama and his team is their resistance, even defiance, in the face of missteps. With each setback, each negative response... they seem determined to retreat further into the insular circle. This is one reason I've thought lately, and really all along, that the real overselling of Barack Obama wasn't the vague descrption of hope and change everyone could glom onto... but selling a two year Senator with little real world business experience as a capable executive able to adapt quickly and intelligently to ever changing circumstance. More than anything, when Obama talked about "what it takes to be President," I'd think, that man is talking through his hat. It sounds good... but it doesn't have the weight of actual knowing what it's like when bad things are unfolding and hard choices have to be made.
I don't feel let down, as a Democrat or an Americna generally, by President Obama. I do think he's not doing things as well as he could, or solving problems as creatively as I'd like, but I'm not sure it's fair to expect more on that. What I find disappointing though is that an Administration which seemed to have some sense of PR and advertising and messaging seems incapable of changing its own.
And that's why, yet again, I find myself saying... is anybody watching Mary Landrieu?
The heart of the oil splll and its response lies in a basic contradiction: as upset as everyone is about environmental damage and corporate inaction, there's drilling in the Gulf of Mexico because we need oil, a lot of it, obtained by essentially any means necessary. Say you're opposed to the drilling and the destriction of the environment... but if you say it by tweeting and e-mailing and blogging, I think you're required to admit that, more than a little... you are part of the problem. We all are.
Love her or hate her - or more likely, both - Mary Landrieu has, for my money, embraced this dichotomy and found a way to talk about the spill and how it affects her state in the most realistic, and even unsentimental terms. As only she can, she has been a fierce advocate for doing what's needed to help the environment, save the fishing industry, help salvage what remains... and at the same time, admit in a forthright manner that her state depends on the oil industry for jobs and the energy needed, right now, for our country. Landrieu's made a case for better oversight, better environmental cleanup... and at the same time, insists that, for now and into the future, we can't simply abandon drilling for oil (even Sarah Palin, really, hasn't articulated this inherent tension as well). It's that kind of reality - not altogether pleasant, what few people, really, can even admit they want - that has to be faced if we plan to deal in a complex, yet realistic way, with the oil spill, how we got here, and where we go. And it's the sign, as I said before, of a really savvy politician.
It's only in the past couple of weeks - and indeed, it's hard to realize, even now, just how long we've already been living in the world of post oil spill politics - that many senior Louisiana advocates have begun to try, as Landrieu does better than most, to finesse the incongruous balance of Louisiana's choices. As somene who went to, and fell in love with, New Orleans before Katrina, I can tell you it was always ths: a lot of pious intonation about the beautiful land and their "way of life", while simultaneously selling most anything they could lay their hands on to the highest bidder. The rep of New Orleans as the south's Las Vegas - lax rules, anything goes, party on - wasn't acquired innocently, and touches, basically everything.
And now they stand on Louisiana beaches, and around New orleans ports, oil rigs and ships in the background, to tell us how terrible it is that no one did enough to prevent environmental calamity. But, hey, let's not kill the oil industry, or that would be economically ruinous, too.
Master that dichotomy... and I think you can be called a marketing genius.
Since the spill, I think Obama and his team have underscored a point that's been there all along: that they are limited, most fundamentally, by a class problem within their inner circle, an overweighting of educated, elite professionals from the same narrow economic class, without a good feel for experiences outside their own. That explains both the reflexive liberal tilt towards a pro-environment, anti-drilling mindset that has made criticism of BP and the spill seem preachy and distant, and the upper middle class tilt towards "working with" corporate entities whose interests are not always the best interests of the public or communities in jeopardy. And because of the "trust us, we know best" element of conifdence/arrogance in their own knowledge, there's a resistance to admitting that mistakes are being made, that all has not been handled well, even as it's necessary to admit that, with all the knowledge we have... all of us are at a loss to know what to do about an oil well a mile below the sea leaking oil at a copious, probably unknowable rate.
No one in the Administration can seem to strike the balance Landrieu has, to reset expectations in a complex world, and force Americans to see that a whole set of choices - whether it's about how much government intrusion we want into regulation, or how much we want to limit our own energy consumption, or how much risk we are willing to accept to get what we want - are choices that have consequences. In a search for someone to blame we both blame too many and not enough, because ultimately, in many ways, we are all to blame. And fixing the real problems that lead to oil spills is changing some very basic things about America, and how we live now. And plan to live, still.
I don't think Obama has all the answers for this; but I don't think he's going to make much headway responding to the criticisms he's getting until he opens up his inner circle, gets some trusted advisors who don't share, as so many do now, this basic idea of their wonderfulness and expertise against all odds. I've always thought Robert Gibbs is a terrible press secretary and I wish Obama would shake up his communications operation first and foremost (my mom made a fasicnating suggestion, to me anyway, that Obama could solve a lot of problems bringing in Gwen Ifill. Think about it). But I think the point is: start somewhere. Don't make minor changes around the edges of the problems (does anyone seriously think that a new Manager of the Minierals and Mining Service can solve years of bad regulation and supervision?), but shake up the Inner Circle. Make it less white, less male, and less Ivy League most of all.
Is this something I hold out a lot of hope for? No. I think, as I've thought, that while Obama has the potential to be a remarkable, even transformative President - in the sense that he could transform how the Presidency works, and how it's seen - the reality is that, most likely, he is somewhere between adequate and average; that he will look disappointing both because American culture expects succesful blacks to be exceptional and can't accept ordinary, and because his own team failed him in setting up realistic expectations and proposals that would have gone a long way to establishing a better, clearer sense of what can and can't be done. If Obama can, by midweek, figure out how you explain to Americans that we can't expect a short term fix for the oil spill and we can't have long term changes in drilling and energy policy without a lot of personal adjustments... then maybe he'd at least begin to reset expectations. I doubt he can... but then, I never signed onto the dream to begin with; I agreed to live in that world Mary Landrieu describes, the one where you balance a lot of complex realities and make hard, unpleasant choices. And live with the results, if you can bear it. Or change something... if you can't.