This week's primetime presidential address from the Oval Office was designed to present an image of confidence. The language of the president's speech was strong. The symbolism captured the might of the White House. Even the pre-Oval Office speech in Pensacola hangar took a presidential tone intended to convince a nation to unite behind him, even if "…the assault on our shores…" - as President Obama put it - was not from the threat of terrorism out of Afghanistan, but oil leaking on the ocean floor.
Yet, the 18-minute speech prompted criticism ranging from political opportunism (due to the President's calls for cap-and-trade legislation) to disappointment (captured in Chris Matthews' failure to "…sense executive command…"). The very murky waters of the Gulf have brought President Obama to an unclear political future - and not just because of the oil.
With declining approval ratings and increasing frustration with the administration on both sides of the political divide, President Obama is in a unique position: he is at the breaking point, either for a political breakthrough or the beginning of the end.
The true political opportunity that came out of Tuesday night was not the chance to re-introduce cap-and-trade legislation. It was the chance to begin to forge his presidential legacy without the limiting factors of partisanship. In essence, now is the moment for President Obama to become the first post-partisan president that many thought he might be after his election in 2008.
The political right was never there for Mr. Obama, as he was always going to be too liberal for Republicans and conservatives. As such, his positions were generally going to involve too much government expansion to please these voters. His presidency to date has fulfilled the right's expectation.
The political left, once staunch supporters of the president, continue to creep away from him, maintaining a strange pattern of withdrawing their support whenever political turbulence comes his way, even after significant legislative victories have been won by the Democrats. Senator Feinstein's biting comment that the president's pitch for his energy policy will not plug the leak in the Gulf is no different, in many ways, from Democrats' criticism of the off-shore ban being lifted in the first place -soon after winning the healthcare tussle in Congress. Whether due to their claims that Obama's lacks "executive command" or his failure to go far enough to the left on issues such as universal health care and a permanent ban on drilling, Democrats are applying the tactic Republicans used with President Bush at the 2008 Republican Convention in Minnesota and at the tail-end of his presidency: keep the President at bay when convenient and near you when beneficial.
However, the distancing by both the political right and left can work to the President's favor as long as the criticism does not dampen the one trait that moderates actually voted for: leadership potential.
Most of President Obama's accomplishments on the national stage - including winning a Nobel Peace Prize in anticipation of his geopolitical influence in the Middle East and elsewhere - have stood on the premise of presidential and leadership potential. Now, that general concept of sound, mindful leadership is under attack from both political sides. If this criticism proves to be true - and the president continues to languish in his reactions to a mired-down economy and a myriad of crises - his presidency will soon begin its final days — starting with his party's losses in November.
However, there is also a real and legitimate prospect for President Obama. If he is able to act outside the influence of presidential approval polls, partisan posturing against Republicans, and political allegiance to Democrats, he may finally be able to break free of the crushing attention and hyper-criticism that his White House has endured.
One such move may be the $20 billion fund that will be created by BP in response to the demands of the Obama Administration. For example, some political critics from the right may cringe, along with Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), at the notion that President Obama has once again issued an edict from the White House to strong-arm big business with big, intervening government. However, unlike the arguments made by conservatives during the GM firing and Big Three bailouts of 2009, Mr. Obama's directive speaks to the heart of the "personal accountability" argument that conservatives made last year- namely, that BP was responsible for the oil spill through its actions (and perhaps even highlighted through the 700+ OSHA violations it accumulated) and, thus, should suffer the consequences privately without sharing their subsequent economic burden with the public.
Just the same, some on the political left may disapprove the federal government's unwillingness to throw more federal money and resources and force BP out of the leadership of the recovery efforts. Smartly, the president realized that BP must keep the reins of leadership, knowing that to plug the hole, he needs the technical know-how of the company as well as its funding at a time when Congress refuses more deficit spending on items as vital as unemployment. Perhaps the $20 billion will show that President Obama has found his presidential political niche - the spot where he garners social successes and solutions for the American people that may be politically outside of the whims of partisanship.
Future action may mean applying what he does best - analysis and action through the "no drama Obama" mantra we saw in 2008 but haven't seen much of since the Obamacare debate and the Joe Sestak Affair. It may mean overlooking the impeding political losses among Democrats in November for the sake of getting the national crises resolved. Perhaps he needs to reflect on his days a community organizer, finding out-of-the-box methods to achieve what was once said to be impossible. It may mean less a attention to the advice of pollsters that advocate responses to public demands for presidential emotion (as we saw with the "ass to kick" comment from last week) and worrying even less about the crowing of Republican pundits in the media and nervous Democrats looking to get reelected. If he is able to achieve this, we may finally start seeing the brilliance of the 2008 campaign in action at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The healthcare debate was not President Obama's "Waterloo" as some predicted, yet these latest crises are looking more like his Kryptonite. However, a more post-partisan Obama is more likely to fulfill the demand of the American people for stronger leadership, even if that distances him from the right and left inside the Beltway. That choice may make him less politically acute, but it may also yield the success that has eluded him during his stay in the White House, and in that regard, make him politically invincible for 2012.
Lenny McAllister is a syndicated political commentator, podcast co-host, and the author of the book, "Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative,)" purchased online at www.tinyurl.com/lennysdiary and www.amazon.com. Catch Lenny on "The Civil Right with Natalie Arceneaux" each Friday on CNN Radio 650 Houston. Follow him at www.twitter.com/lennyhhr and on Facebook at www.tinyurl.com/lennyfacebook .