Obama's Disappointing Speech

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I agree with much of the instant TV commentary: Obama's address was surprisingly bad. He and his people made such a big deal of it--Oval Office and all--then when it arrived there was no there there. Nothing new. Hard facts were sparse, and in every case already well-known. I expected some new information. I expected at least a detailed, authoritative account of what was being done, and who was in charge of what. I thought there would be a more precise statement of what was being demanded of BP. He gave us none of this.

Then it got worse, with a lame, formulaic, campaign-style call for a clean energy policy. Perhaps that might have some traction after the emergency in the Gulf has been dealt with. Even then, I doubt it. But for now, with the oil still leaking and the problems with the clean-up anything but resolved, it is simply beside the point. I cannot think that this is what the country wanted to hear from Obama this week.

Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.

Now is the moment for such grand thoughts? Now is the moment for effective crisis management. Later, perhaps, is the moment for embarking on a national mission to reinvent the economy.

As we speak, old factories are reopening to produce wind turbines, people are going back to work installing energy-efficient windows, and small businesses are making solar panels.

No, as we speak, the oil is still pouring into the Gulf. What on earth were they thinking? This part of the speech blended grandiosity and complacency: as though he were saying, "Having dealt with the immediate crisis, I'd like to move on to the bigger issue of which this is just a part." The immediate crisis hasn't been dealt with; it is still getting worse.

It was a bad speech, all right--but what about the substantive charges of White House incompetence? I've lately taken Obama's side against some of his critics in the US media: not angry enough, not paternal enough, just not doing enough, and all that drivel. Watching the polls, I've seen little sign over recent weeks that the US as a whole has much time for those attacks. But one important accusation does seem fair, and might be starting to stick: there is no clear chain of command. Who is in charge of operations? Whose responsibility is it to co-ordinate the efforts of the multiple agencies and levels of government--to organise offers of help from abroad, and to put resources where they can best be used? I had innocently supposed that after two months such a structure must exist, but maybe not. If there is a chain of command, Obama could have done himself a lot of good tonight by explaining it.

He looked nervous too, don't you think? It was an unconfident performance. He moved his hands too much. He did not look strong. It was a bad night for his presidency, and he would have been wise to give no speech rather than this speech.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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