Obama and the Oil Spill: The Things You Can’t Fix

The president said all the right words in his speech, but nothing matters until the hole is plugged.

Getty Images
Getty Images

President Barack Obama, using all the prestige of his office and the office itself, sought to assure Americans last night that he was on top of the oil spill disaster currently devastating parts of the Gulf Coast, destroying lives and livelihoods at an alarming rate.


He meant to show not only that he understood the problem, but also that he was in charge of the vast enterprise to find a solution. While he may finally have succeeded in making sure that everyone knows that he’s taken control of the problem, he now faces the more complicated dilemma of being in charge of something that, so far, has been a failed and feckless effort.

The president’s responses to the spill in the Gulf have been viewed, or reviewed, through the lens of their political consequences: He’s too detached; he’s not angry enough; he’s not sufficiently in charge; he’s deferred too much to BP or to the experts; he’s not been in the Gulf enough, or did not get there soon enough.

The president attempted to answer most of those critiques on Tuesday night, but the catastrophe in the Gulf is one of those rare instances in which the political outcomes can’t be separated from real-world problems. This is not about the messaging or the rapid response. Compartmentalization is not an option, and maybe that’s because the actual problem so dwarfs the politics that surround it. Until those millions of gallons of oil stop gushing into the ocean, the politics don’t really matter much. It doesn’t matter how angry or in charge he is, or if he talks to us from the Oval Office or shouts from a mountaintop.

In his first Oval Office address to the nation, the president meant to send a message that the issue at hand was serious and the circumstances surrounding it were dire, but in the end, the speech turned into a pep talk and the setting seemed almost too solemn, or maybe too formal, for that.

In typical Obama fashion though, the president was able to demonstrate, once again, that he understood the scope and scale of the problems at hand and the scale and scope of the solutions required to address them. But this time the president had no solution to match the problem, and he knew it. He had another I-get-it moment, but not the I-got-this moment that we all wish for.