Monday, June 14, 2010

Leadership? Or Showmanship?

Barack Obama plans to address the nation tomorrow night about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The speech is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. (Central), after Obama returns from a two–day visit to Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, the president's fourth trip to the region since the oil rig exploded in April and triggered the events with which Obama and the government's emergency responders have been trying to deal ever since. It is said Obama will speak for about 15 minutes about the disaster.

This is a pivotal moment in the Obama presidency.

After nearly eight weeks of this, Americans have a general idea what's happening, and they don't want to hear an update. Well, that isn't entirely true, I guess. They'd like it just fine if Obama could tell them exactly how much oil is pouring into the Gulf every day. There seems to be a distinct discrepancy between BP's figures and everyone else's.

Beyond that, though, they've got a pretty good handle on what's happening. What they want to know is the course of action that will be taken.

What sacrifice, if any, will be asked of them?

Personally, I feel that was one of the great failings of the Bush administration. After the attacks of September 11, the country was in a common cause frame of mind and would have been responsive to a presidential call for a shared sacrifice — but Bush told a few Americans to prepare for war, and he told the rest of us to go shopping.

Would it have been necessary for American troops to remain in Afghanistan as long as they have if all Americans, those at home as well as those in uniform, had been urged to make a common sacrifice for a common objective?
"Americans need to know that Mr. Obama, whose coolness can seem like detachment, is engaged. This is not a mere question of presentation or stagecraft, although the White House could do better at both. (We cringed when he told the 'Today' show that he had spent important time figuring out 'whose ass to kick' about the spill. Everyone knew that answer on Day 2.)"

New York Times

Perhaps in the early days of his presidency, when Obama's approval rating hovered at astonishing heights — and at a point in his term when, technically, there was nothing (or, at least, very little) of which to approve or disapprove — Americans, many of whom appeared weary after eight years of George W. Bush's mangled syntax, were content to listen in admiration, as they had during the presidential campaign, to Obama's smooth oratory.

But those days are gone. The bloom is off the rose. So, to borrow a phrase from Joe Friday, just give us the facts.

There is a symbolic quality to this that is hard to measure. When a president engages in straight talk with the American people about a particularly vexing problem, he enlists their service in solving it. There is an incalculable value in that, but what it comes down to is this: people like to feel like they are part of the process.

Actually, a character like Joe Friday, from a popular TV series, provides an apt analogy for the Obama administration — in truth, for any administration. Modern Americans see their president on TV every day. For a time, they are enthralled, but there comes a point when they become disenchanted. When that happens, the negative perception begins to harden, and it requires something really dramatic to alter the downward trajectory.

You could say that John F. Kennedy reached a similar point in 1962, the second year of his presidency, when U.S. surveillance revealed that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. When Kennedy addressed the nation, he didn't offer flowery language. He didn't try to impress the voters with his vocabulary and his extensive education. He told the American people how dire the situation was and enlisted their cooperation.

Engage us, Mr. President.

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