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.
With new estimates putting the daily production from the spill at more than 2 million barrels a day, and projections that it'll take until August, or September some say, to get the relief wells functional, Obama has to know he's playing a very weak hand.
And he went with what he had; even as he was promising to do whatever it took to plug the hole and clean up the mess, Obama tried to prepare us for the possibility that the oil will continue to spill all summer long. He used war analogies to trying to mobilize the nation as if against some common enemy.
"The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years," he said. "But make no mistake: we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes…Tonight I'd like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward."
And lay it out he did, a war on an ocean of uncontained light Louisiana crude. "Thousands of ships and other vessels are responding in the Gulf," the president said. "And I have authorized the deployment of over 17,000 National Guard members along the coast. These servicemen and women are ready to help stop the oil from coming ashore, clean beaches, train response workers, or even help with processing claims — and I urge the governors in the affected states to activate these troops as soon as possible."
The unanswered question is whether he can keep the Gulf disaster from contaminating his presidency the way it is defiling the Gulf of Mexico. On Tuesday, he took the opportunity to talk about our addiction to oil and the need for a new energy policy; but legislative proposals, as important as they are, seemed insufficient to the moment; a modest policy/political response to a monumental disaster
American energy policy is a complicated and contentious issue, and the Gulf spill only makes it more so. We can go to war against the oil spill, or go to war on each other about the future of our energy consumption. We can be angry or not; we can be in charge or not, but until we plug the damn hole, none of the rest of it will matter much.
Terence Samuel is The Root's editor-at-large. His first book, The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate, was released last month. Follow him on Twitter.