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Last updated: June 6, 2010 11:18 pm
Until recently, if you were listing the strengths of Barack Obama and his administration, you would have emphasised the president’s calm, controlled demeanour and the competence of the people around him – a welcome contrast, in both respects, to the previous administration. In the blink of an eye, this has turned upside-down. Friends and foes are accusing Mr Obama’s White House of multi-dimensional bungling and are holding the president’s temperament up to ridicule.
Much of the criticism is unfair. Some of it is ridiculous. But this does not mean it will not stick.
The still unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is the main cause, though not the only one. It is too soon to know how effective the latest attempt to stop the leak will be, but the likely environmental damage from oil that has already escaped is causing ever mounting alarm. The situation has been worsening for weeks, critics point out, yet the White House has seemed only semi-engaged. They complain that Mr Obama’s leadership has been ineffective and indeed barely visible. He should have pushed BP aside; he should have put the military in charge; he should have conveyed a greater sense of urgency; he should have shown he “gets it”.
Once a theme of this sort is established, entirely different setbacks can be slotted in. Before you know it you have a syndrome.
The White House is being harried for offering jobs in the administration to a couple of contestants in upcoming elections, with the aim of making things easier for its preferred candidates. Nobody denies that this is standard practice in Washington. Still, depending on how the offers were pitched, it is possible that there were technical breaches of the law. Also, it looks bad when a White House that promised to be open and straight with the electorate does what every other White House has done and uses patronage to influence an election.
No doubt this is why Mr Obama’s team has been reluctant to come clean. Confirming the US political adage that it is not the act that counts but the cover-up, the administration has squirmed and prevaricated about its job offers. As a result, these petty scandals have dragged on and assumed exaggerated importance as part of a supposed wider pattern of indecision, obfuscation, popular disconnection and political incompetence.
And so it goes on. Quite what the administration should have said or done about Israel’s attack on the protest flotilla attempting to break the blockade of Gaza was unclear, at least in the first instance. For one thing, the facts were in dispute and needed to be established. But for purposes of commentary there was no need to wait. By now the narrative was laid down. Where is the president? What is he going to do? Why is he vacillating?
The criticism of Mr Obama’s handling of the oil spill has been especially and flamboyantly unreasonable. So far as capping the leak is concerned, the relevant expertise resides with BP and the other oil companies. The notion that they should be “pushed aside” is risible. In any case, of course, the administration is in charge – overseeing the operation, as opposed to directing it in detail, which is as it should be. A deepwater drilling moratorium is in place and a thoroughgoing review of the regulatory regime is under way. The White House has been active in mobilising resources to contain damage to the coastline.
Could more be done? Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal deplores the delay in building sand barriers to act as an extra line of defence – but there are differences of opinion about the utility of that approach, which even advocates admit will take months to execute. Good-faith disputes over priorities and what is feasible cannot support accusations of negligence or indolence.
Actually, many critics admit that their complaints are unfounded even as they lodge them. They say, in so many words, “I’ve no idea what more the president can do. Why is he not doing more?” Over the past week or so, the opinion pages of US newspapers have raised this fatuous ventilation almost to the level of mass hysteria.
The view seems to be that staying calm in a crisis is all very well, except in a crisis. Then, the president must radiate rage and fear, pretend to direct operations, race about uselessly, weeping and hugging as he goes, doing stuff that will not help and might make things worse. In addition, as Maureen Dowd of the New York Times recommends, Mr Obama must pay attention to “the paternal aspect of the presidency”. Does Ms Dowd want Mr Obama to be her daddy?
The interesting question is how far such sentiments reflect the views of US voters at large – and whether, looking farther ahead, this sudden deluge of media criticism might change the country’s opinion of Mr Obama. According to polls, support for the president has fallen a lot over the past year, as his policies have divided the country and sent independents to the Republican camp. Nonetheless, his approval rating had recently levelled off at a little under 50 per cent and the most recent Gallup poll, for instance, shows no sudden new collapse.
This could change. Given the recent intensity of criticism from all quarters, one might expect it to. We shall see. Without meaning to set the bar too low, one hopes that US voters are more grown-up than some of their commentators.
More columns at www.ft.com/clivecrook
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