Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Message: I Care

"You cannot be president of the United States if you don't have faith. Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can't be. And we are blessed. So don't feel sorry for — don't cry for me, Argentina. Message: I care."

George H.W. Bush
41st president

Do you remember when the first President Bush was facing an unexpected challenge within his own party while the Democrats were uniting behind a charismatic Southern governor and a Texas billionaire was urging disgruntled Americans to sign petitions that would get his independent candidacy on the ballot in every state?

It was 1992, and Bush was speaking to some insurance employees in New Hampshire at the time. He had been criticized for seeming detached from the American people, and his advisers, who had been struggling to find a strategy to counter that perception, inserted a cue card in his remarks that said, "Message: I care."

It was intended as a prompt for Bush to ad lib something, tell a story, connect with people and assure them that, yes, he really did care about them and their problems.

But he read the cue card word for word, which only reinforced the public's perception of a detached, elitist president. He lived down to the public's expectation of him.

Now, it isn't my intention to suggest that Barack Obama is as clueless as Bush certainly seemed to be on that occasion. But I still got the feeling as I watched Obama's speech last night that this was his "Message: I care" moment.

Because it seems to me that the lesson of the original "Message: I care" moment — and all the subsequent "Message: I care" moments — is that there are times when a president absolutely must give the public what it needs — even if it isn't what he wants to do. And, yet, he proceeds to give them the opposite of what they need — perhaps because he knows no other way.

In 1992, the public needed a president who clearly cared, but all Bush's gaffe did was confirm for the voters that he really was as out of touch as he appeared to be. He reconfirmed that impression later that year when, during one of his debates with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, the camera caught him looking at his watch while Clinton was answering a question.

And it was over for the elder Bush. Game, set, match.

In many ways, Obama's speech last night was a "Message: I care" moment.

It's been nearly two months since oil started gushing into the Gulf. Over and over, in the last several days, I have heard people speak in anticipation of Obama's speech. We know what happened, and we know who is to blame, people said. We don't need to be told what happened. We see it every night on our TVs. Tell us what the plan is to stop the flow of oil and clean up the oil that's out there.

But Obama insisted on recapping what had happened, anyway.

To his credit, he did spend some time talking about the plan of action. But, as Andrew Malcolm observed in the Los Angeles Times, "that early portion of the address was robotic, lacked real energy, enthusiasm. And worst of all specifics. He was virtually detail–less."
"Obama was like a Harvard–trained nurse talking vacation to a new patient bleeding all over the ER floor. Hello, could we please stop the blood flow here before we discuss the long–term recovery?"

Andrew Malcolm
Los Angeles Times

How could that be? The news was full of reports yesterday about how much more oil was being released into the Gulf waters every day than anyone had believed.

It seems clear that BP was, indeed, guilty of reckless behavior. But, as the Boston Herald wrote, there was "convincing evidence" of the absence of "an early coordinated response to protect the coastline." Consequently, "while the president tried to convince a skeptical nation that he was indeed in charge now, this was too little, too late."

OK, a convincing argument can be made that the Herald has never really been in Obama's corner. It was, after all, one of the newspapers that endorsed John McCain in 2008. But the thing about the "Message: I care" moment is that a president isn't just criticized by his foes but also, however offhandedly, by his friends.

And one of Obama's friends, the New York Times, wrote, "We know that the country is eager for reassurance. We're not sure the American people got it from a speech that was short on specifics and devoid of self–criticism."

Maureen Dowd, who writes for the Times, just can't seem to break that tendency to fawn over Obama even when she scolds him.

But scold him she did.

"Of the many exciting things about Barack Obama's election, one was the anticipation of a bracing dose of normality in the White House," she writes. "So it's unnerving now to have yet another president elevating personal quirks into a management style. How can a man who was a dazzling enough politician to become the first black president at age 47 suddenly become so obdurately self–destructive about politics?"

Personally, I would argue that it wasn't as "sudden" as Dowd seems to think. That conclusion seems particularly baffling to me when I read what Dowd observes next — how his "emotional detachment" has "obscured his vision."

Frankly, it astonishes me when I hear people speaking of Obama's detachment as if it is a new thing. I've seen it in his response to the burgeoning epidemic of unemployment that has wrecked millions of lives. The fact that he seems detached when dealing with another catastrophe that threatens millions all along the Gulf coast is not a surprise to me.

What does surprise me is that a bright, articulate, Harvard–educated president doesn't get that there are times when a president must prioritize. We can hold BP accountable after we plug the hole and start cleaning up the mess in the Gulf. We can devote money and manpower to developing better energy sources once this crisis is over.

Until then, this disaster in the Gulf is plenty big enough to keep us busy.

Obama was "not particularly inspiring," said the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, which endorsed Obama in 2008 but can't quite seem to shake that decision, even though it feels compelled to proclaim that Obama "offered more than rhetoric."

Indeed? Well, the St. Petersburg Times also seemed to agree with Malcolm that Obama was short on specifics.

"[A]n anxious American public wanted to know, HOW are you going to accomplish all this?" Malcolm wrote.

But Obama spent half of his address — his first from the Oval Office — lecturing his listeners about the need to explore alternative energy sources.

Is Obama right that this is something America needs to discuss? Yes. Is it something that America has needed to do for a long, long time? Yes. Is it appropriate to be talking about it now? No.

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