The Power of Pandering

[Jelani Cobb]

I could be alone on this but I've found the past two weeks of the Obama administration among the most frustrating since he took office. Not so much because of his reaction to the BP debacle, but his reaction to the reaction.

Last week, as the media storyline of millions of gallons of oil pouring into the ocean went stale, the conversation turned to the Obama's alleged lack of emotion in reacting to the crisis.

He seemed to catch the drift, advertising his desire to kick ass to Matt Lauer and following it up with Tuesday night's address. But the speech took me back to the days of vague eloquence early in the campaign, the time when Obama could show up and get a crowd open at the idea of a president who could conjugate.

The fine print of the Constitution has one of those clauses explaining that in exchange for democracy, the line between politics and theater will remain constantly blurred. Dictators have the luxury of not giving a shekel about "reflecting the public mood." Picture Saddam Hussein, Joseph Mobutu or Stalin attempting to show empathy in the face of an ecological disaster. Exactly.

But not so for Presidents. When the public knocked the elder George Bush for appearing to be too wimpy, he made a show of whipping off his jacket in the middle of a speech, suggesting that even an Andover grad can have a little thug in him. Nothing Bill Clinton said during his eight years in the White House (aside from "I did not have sex with that woman,") will be recalled as vividly as "I feel your pain."

On that level, it's no surprise that this country chose an actor to be president in 1980; the surprise is that it took them two centuries to do it. The modern presidency is not a job, it's a command performance.

Obama did a credible job of appearing presidentially pissed —at BP for their negligence, at Congress for ignoring clean energy options for years, at the entire sorry state of affairs. And perhaps he actually was, though that's beside the point. The fact that he had to show it was the real issue. He added the requisite lines about what his administration had done to resolve the problem and the punitive steps that would be taken toward BP. But there was a tin echo to his words. This is the guy who took office promising to tell people things that they didn't want to hear.

The one common theme between politicians of both parties in recent years is their routine denunciations of "the special interests." But there's one special interest group whose whims won't be ignored: the public.

In the midst of the OPEC crisis, Jimmy Carter told the country to turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater and he was virtually accused of treason. And for that reason successive disasters—the Exxon Valdez, 9/11 and now the Gulf oil spill have occurred with no fundamental change in American energy policy. Obama no doubt understands that telling the country to sacrifice in the name of energy independence is good policy but bad politics.
In the era of micro-polling and swing states maybe it's too much to expect a president to make unpopular demands, especially those that might include taxes. But I can't help feeling that the performance was great but the script needed way more work.