For a year and a half, President Obama has been taking pitches on issues of great scope, effect, and deliberation. As I Bloviator-ed about last year, he’s passed on opportunities to address the nation from the Oval Office. No recession or Stimulus bill address. No health care reform address. No Afghanistan troop escalation address. Whether or not he has a good eye is up for debate. But it’s pretty hard to argue today that he doesn’t have a full count now.
Well, tonight is the moment: mono-a-nation. It’s significant for the tragic damage and repercussions of the BP oil spill but also because it is the first time he is truly and simply, without middlemen or journalists in the way, going to speak to the American people, calmly and up close. Perhaps those topics above were all things visible on the horizon, and he wanted to save the Oval Office address for an unexpected calamity. It really is as if he’s been waiting to cash this in, as if he and his inner circle said a while ago, “There’s a lot of big stuff on our plate, but put this card in the drawer and save pulling it out for the possibility of something unforeseen and massive happening.”
Or there is the possiblity that, perhaps, he’s simply been avoiding it. Take a look at this list of all national addresses in the era of television. Obama is way behind schedule. For all his oratory prowess, he is not well tested in this intimate setting. There are many that perceive his even temperament as detachment, so perhaps there is fear he won’t come across well. By the way, how lucky are we that HDTV wasn’t around during the days of Nixon and LBJ? Those guys would look like an old baseball glove on today’s technology.
Either way, it’s been too long. It’s a psyche issue for many Americans to have that confidence, that comfort, and that unmistakable recognition upon seeing the leader of the country at the helm of the place we most associate with him: behind the desk in the Oval Office.
So, clearly I was enthused to see the top story in The Times’ (that is, before we announced to Afghanistan that it’s a giant gold mine) was tonight’s national address on the oil spill.
It’s unfortunate that the speech comes as we near 60 days since the spill began on the Deepwater Horizon rig. But Obama needs to change the dialogue, both for himself and for the health of the nation. Now, I don’t expect the oil flow to ebb simply because he speaks on 27 different channels, but it is important. It brings the environment and clean energy to the fore, on a stage they have never been on, in a way Obama has suggested is changing the way we consider them akin to the way 9/11 did for national security.
It’s late, but maybe he can convince us he was on top of this catastrophe in ways we didn’t know before. And, if he was not, do we know what he could have done, technically speaking, for the first few days that was not done? Would the first six failed attempts at stopgapping the oil at least have occurred a few days sooner?
Hopefully, he can strike a fireside chat tone, something it felt like his podcasts as Senator about four years ago felt like a modernized version of.
Pundits are weighing in and that is fine. But George Stephanopoulos interviewing James Carville on his expectations felt like a comedy bit. The two guys who ran Clinton’s presidential campaign (and happened to also star in a documentary about it simultaneously) talking under the auspices of one anchoring a morning news program? Bizarro World.
Some have suggested that despite his efforts to confront the disaster publicly and head on, as was evident in the early-going, the continuing long-term “occurrence” of this story, for lack of a better word, and the many facets of it that are simply out of his control, present a parallel to the helplessness of Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis. Obama’s people have blanched at comparisons to Carter’s presidency from his inauguration, preferring the Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy narrative.
Whatever he is going to say, most speculators agree that the remarks will entail two main topics: addressing (and redressing) the spill and proposing impactful changes to energy policy (if the votes are even there). Conservative radio show host Michael Smerconish, who broke ranks with his party and a lifetime of previous personal voting in backing Obama, has called on the president to propose a modern-day Manhattan Project for alternative energy, composed of guys like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (just a few problems I can see off the top of my head between those two) to get down to business on solving our paralyzing oil reliance. Perhaps the president will ask something of us, the citizenry?
Rahm Emanuel became well-known for saying, “Never let a crisis go to waste,” but as The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza said to Andrea Mitchell yesterday, it could be a tough pivot to make, moving from the immediacy of this specific and devastating crisis to policy and legislation. So tune in. Oh wait, you won’t have to: most channels will do it for you.