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President Obama’s Oval Office Address Fails To ‘Cap’ America’s Frustrations

The tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico forced President Obama to dive into what were previously uncharted waters for him last night: the Oval Office address. Alone, with no crowd to save or jeer him, nothing but the prestige of his title as a safety net, it was his responsibility to remind Americans that, no matter how out of control any situation may seem, he was fully in charge. If you’re not feeling particularly reassured this morning after, you’re not the only one.

Americans have spent the past 57 days looking to the President as if into a mirror, and wondering where their reflection has gone to hide. When the people needed anger, he offered placidity and, when attempting to convey anger, sounded hollow. Days later, they demanded action; he offered “commitments.” When they pressed their ears to the walls of Washington in search of at least the echoes a rallying cry, the President failed to deliver. This is the attitude conveyed in his address—the one time when sounding cool just wasn’t going to cut it, and, indeed, the Presidential Address this evening was woefully crafted and poorly delivered.

The tone of the President’s Address – conveyed both in diction and delivery – lacked the strength and indignation the BP debacle demands. The semantics were equivocal and non-committal: “In the coming days and weeks, [clean-up] efforts should capture up to 90% of the oil leaking out of the well.” Putting up a concrete number (90%) without a concrete date is meaningless.

Moreover, his words failed to capture the anger not only of those affected on the Gulf Coast, but of the nation as a whole. The chairman of BP need not be “informed” of his obligations, but rather rebuked and ordered to recompense the victims. And the President’s efforts to appear calm strayed dangerously close to nonchalance; his tempered and composed delivery instead conveyed dispassion. It recalled Bill Maher‘s interpretation of Obama’s compassion: “I’ve been briefed on your pain.”

Beyond style, the substance of the speech too was disappointing and weak. As nearly sixty thousand barrels of oil spill into the Gulf each day and as livelihoods wash away with the tainted tides, President Obama offered “a commitment to the Gulf Coast,” “a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan” and (a military favorite) “lessons learned.” It was all he could do, it seemed, to keep himself from calling the nightmare situation in the Gulf a “teachable moment” and offering Tony Hayward a beer. Instead, as president he needed to catalog specific actions and actors, to identify leaders, to explicitly detail those resources devoted to the clean up. Excruciating detail – while not conducive to flowing rhetoric – implies action and organization. In essence, strong leadership.

To end with quips regarding partisanship (“I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party – as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels”) and aspirations for a cleaner tomorrow – well meaning and enlightened though they may be – are misplaced in this speech. The pregnant unmarried teen doesn’t want to hear about condoms and abstinence, but instead a plan for her future. Clean-energy technologies do little to plug the spewing well. “Energy-efficient windows” can’t salvage the shrimp fishery.

President Obama promised transparency and, indeed, these errors in his style were so transparent that, if this analysis seems familiar, it is because everyone from Chris Matthews to Sarah Palin—and, more coherently, Keith Olbermann and David Vitter—perceived these flaws and reacted with a mixture of indignation, hopelessness, and/or partisan motivation. But the general frustration with his words is not partisan, and it promises that his address last night will only further incense the America people and undermine trust in his leadership during a time of national crisis. Here’s hoping the President’s actions speak louder than his words.

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