Obama's Oil Speech Strong on Rhetoric, Short on Answers

The speech itself was long on imagery and short on data.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Barack Obama’s first ever Oval Office address to the nation Tuesday probably did little to improve his sagging political fortunes.

Starting off in the stratosphere, his public approval ratings have been heading steadily downward since he came into office. The public’s perception that he has mishandled the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, while perhaps unfair, nonetheless continues to push his numbers in a downward direction.

[See which members of Congress get the most from the oil industry.]

Tuesday’s speech was intended to make him look presidential and in command. It did not have the planned effect.

Much of the post-address analysis has been devoted to the fact that he seemed to have no idea how to stop the BP Deepwater Horizon well from continuing to spew tens of thousands of gallons of raw crude into the Gulf. America looked to the president for leadership. What it got was a confusing collection of promises, hollow assurances that he has been doing something, and vague commitments to do something in the future.

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the Gulf oil spill.]

At least one Democratic poll now shows that Louisianans give George W. Bush higher marks for his handling of Hurricane Katrina than they give Obama for the way he has dealt with the oil spill. This has had to have set off the alarm bells in the White House political office. Katrina was, after all, the effective end of the Bush presidency. While it is too early to say the same for Obama and the oil spill, it is possible to conclude that the hidden purpose of the speech was to mitigate the political damage by telling the nation, indirectly, that the inability to stop the leak is not the president’s fault.

The speech itself was long on imagery and short on data. While the president may have appointed task forces and study groups to come up with ways to address the problem, he failed to convey in any meaningful way that any of their work mattered. He was much stronger, rhetorically at least, when assigning blame--as he did to BP and to what he suggested was a corrupt and dysfunctional Minerals Management Service inside the United States Department of the Interior. 

Obama spent a considerable amount of time explaining that, despite the fact that some of the country’s best minds are working on the problem, the oil will continue to flow for many months--and that he, Obama, was doing everything he could so he shouldn’t get the blame.

Whether he is or not is a subject for another time.

  • Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.
  • See who gets the most from the oil industry.
  • See photos of the Gulf oil spill disaster.