Let’s start with the good news about Obama’s Gulf Oil speech: that he didn’t “go big” by re-hitching his wagon to Cap-and-Trade shows that the White House hasn’t lost its grip on political reality and isn’t throwing in the towel on 2012. Moreover . . . Alas, I can’t think of any more good news because seconds after turning off the TV the only thing I can remember is Obama saying something about appointing another czar and convening another commission.
As to bad news, after you’ve seen the reactions of every pundit besides Paul Begala, even from sympathetic observers like Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, nothing much needs to be said. The speech was a disaster because the only people paying attention, Washington pundits and bloggers who either get paid for listening or have nothing better to do, are saying that it’s disastrous. In this respect, Ezra Klein reminds us, the speech compares unfavorably even with Jimmy Carter’s famously feeble “malaise speech.”
We’ve seen the same thing in connection with Obama’s big health care speeches. The White House would put out the word that, because we’d reached yet another “inflection point” in the health care debate, Obama would be addressing the nation to get health care reform back on track. A lot of us would tune in expecting to hear something new only to be confronted with the same talking points Obama had been using ineffectively for months. By now, we’ve caught on to the fact that Obama generally says practically everything he’ll have to say on an issue up front. He keeps repeating it in the hope that we’ll be moved by the spectacle of him moving his lips against some impressive background—the Greek columns at the Denver convention, Biden and Pelosi presiding woodenly over another joint session of Congress and now the Oval Office. That’s getting old.
Why does this White House devote so much more energy to projecting the appearance of thoughtfulness than to having and defending substantive thoughts? Take his decision last fall to escalate the war in Afghanistan. From the late summer through the fall, the administration bombarded us with messaging about how Obama was presiding over an exemplary decision-process that included painstaking consultation with military experts, diplomats and social scientists representing all points of view and hours-long situation room seminars among political advisers and cabinet officials in which the president invariably asked the most probing questions.
When it came time to defend the actual decision, however, all we got was a perfunctory speech before an assembly of West Point cadets struggling to keep their eyes open that was carefully drafted to maximize Obama's wiggle room down the road: he didn’t define his military objectives with much precision, didn’t lay out benchmarks for assessing our progress in realizing them, didn’t convey any clear idea of how important it is that we realize them relative to competing objectives, etc. The only bedrock commitment Obama conveyed was that any future decisions he made would be the product of an equally exemplary decision-making process. No one who already had a position on Afghanistan or a material interest in the success of our war effort knew what to think.
None of this should surprise us, I suppose, in light of Obama’s biography. Looking thoughtful, rather than having thoughts, is what got him where he is today. He ran the Harvard Law Review, adroitly leaving the impression with every faction that he largely agreed with it, but he never published anything in it above his own name; upon graduation from law school he accepted an impressive advance from a publisher for a book on civil rights law and policy but found, when he sat down to write it, that he didn’t have much of anything to say on the topic so he wrote a memoir instead about how he came to think whatever thoughts he has about race; he lectured on Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School and won his colleagues' respect without ever publishing anything or taking memorable positions on controversial legal issues; he ran for the presidency promising to transcend the tired ideological arguments of the past and leaving the impression among liberals, moderates and even a few conservatives that he agreed with them on the big things.
There comes a point where ostentatious thoughtfulness starts looking like empty-headedness. I don't blame Obama for having nothing much to say about the Gulf oil spill. But this White House should learn to keep his mouth shut when that's the case.