1. The “Symbolism” of having Obama on the scene in Louisiana.
Many in the media have criticized the president for not spending more time on the site (or nearby) the oil well leak in Louisiana. His or any president’s physical presence for symbolic purposes argues for an “empty” symbolism. There is nothing he can do by being there that he cannot do from his office or wherever he might be pursuing his agenda. Further, it is a distraction. Imagine the disruption created by the Secret Service, his aides, and the enhanced press coverage and tell me how this contributes to dealing with this leak. I am not opposed to symbolism that has real content: his presence at Memorial Day services honoring deceased veterans is a perfect example. It is only symbolic; he can’t do anything more than make a speech, present a wreath, comfort a family or take some other entirely symbolic action yet, as Commander-in-Chief, it is proper that he do these things and do them well.
There was little about the Bush administration that I admired but one thing I did admire was that the president held back, for whatever reasons, from intruding himself where the only reason for his presence was symbolic and press coverage. When the crew that had been held by China after its surveillance plane crashed was released and returned home, a perfect opportunity for the president to dominate press cove,rage and be seen in a good light without cost to him, he declined and let the arrival be a family reunion event, exercising restraint I admired. I was not so enthusiastic about his Air Force One flyover of the Katrina damage and can see how he might have landed at some distance and taken a helicopter view without creating the full distraction of an on-site visit. But, as he did it or as he might have done it, I have to approve his not putting himself in the middle of a serious civil emergency for the purpose of empty symbolism.
The media disappoints me for its endorsement of empty symbolism and “the optics” of Obama’s behavior. I fully support freedom of speech and press but I do believe both freedoms imply real introspection for all of us who enjoy them and in this case, I find it hard to believe that this concern about symbolic action and optics is anything more than self-serving. These very terms are the stuff of internal media considerations (an “echo chamber” of its own), not problem-solving or public policy.A thoughtful press would educate its public to abjure empty symbolism, not embrace it.
2. Government takeover of oil clean-up, removing BP.
There is a whole agglomeration of ideas in this notion. One is anger at BP’s not having as good a plan to deal with a tragedy as it had to drill the well in the first place. There is little acknowledgement that something of this character has much less instructive precedent than does successful oil drilling. BP may have not prepared as much as it should have, that is a question to be answered later (another dissent, infra.) but no sensible person believes that BP wanted this or wants the current crisis and the role it plays in it. Whatever the extent of BP’s liability, BP and its contractors have more knowledge of this site and situation than any new contractors the government might hire. (Its worth noting that there are not a plethora of companies with experience in this kind of work so the government’s choices of other companies would be limited at best.) Removing that store of hands-on knowledge and requiring new contractors to start from scratch would almost certainly delay a solution. For purposes of dealing with this situation the government and BP are “joined at the hip” and need to be. We must let anger, punitive action and liability issues follow a solution.
Lest I neglect the obvious, there is no way the government can stop this spill using its own resources. Nor is it reasonable to expect the government to have the resources in equipment and people on call for whatever emergencies arise.
3. Congressional hearings, commissions to determine what happened and who was responsible for what as well as the appearance on the scene of Attorney General Eric Holder feed my most cynical instincts about modern politics.
No matter how hard I try, I have to think all, or most of this, is for show and a real diversion of attention from dealing with the oil spill to put politicians on camera as “outraged” spokesmen for the people (There should be some recognition that the media echo chamber on optics and symbolism plays right into the campaign plans of visibility-seeking politicians.) Congress has a mountain-sized agenda of legislation to consider that was there before the spill which it does not wish to confront and will not generate news clips for the folks back home so it resorts to hearings. This is roughly the equivalent of holding investigative hearings during the attack on Pearl Harbor to find someone responsible for our lack of preparedness. It is widely acknowledged that even the early post-Pearl Harbor investigations were seriously flawed and only some years after the event was it possible to assess events intelligently. So it is likely to be with this spill. The task right now is to stop the spill, not point fingers and assign blame. Attorney General Holder can put prosecutors, BP and its contractors, and any others it wishes, on notice not to destroy records and be prepared for possible legal action from his desk in Washington although I suspect all concerned had already figured these things out. There is no benefit to his traveling to the site, it is another example of “empty” symbolism and “optics.”
4. A part of Obama’s appeal in the last election was that he kept his “cool.” Now there are complaints that he is inadequately “angry.”
Now we are learning that he really does possess a certain “cool” quality and many are deeply upset that he does. Many people control their emotions and, by the time they are Obama’s age, that control is natural for them. People have emotions. As far as I am aware, they are universal but for many their upbringing involves great emphasis on not displaying them publicly and incorporating a “problem-solving” perspective in one’s responses to situations. Not being “demonstrative” is a perfectly acceptable, and in many cases, very effective way to behave. “I feel your pain” may be good politics but it is certainly unclear that it is any benefit to the welfare of the country and to some degree its effectiveness is a bad reflection on the electorate and any politician who uses it to seek office.
5. Obama, by virtue of his position, must do “multi-tasking.” He should stop telling us that everything on his list is a “priority.”
Iraq, Afghanistan, the oil spill, the economy, jobs, immigration are almost certainly among the president’s “priorities” but the word loses content when it is over-worked. Being quiet about what you think about at bed-time and on rising, as well as what your daughter asks in the morning while you shave is nothing more than respecting the fact that some of your priorities are the only priorities of many Americans. If I had a son or daughter in Afghanistan, I’d want you to think of that war as you went to bed and arose and I’d be happy to hear that your daughter reminded you of its importance. If you’d just keep quiet I wouldn’t know; since you didn’t keep quiet I can only be disappointed in you or be cynical and think you said it for no better reason than to repair an “image” you want to project. Those aren’t good possibilities.