Respectful Dissents from Current Commentary

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.

6 thoughts on “Respectful Dissents from Current Commentary

  1. There are simply no words that can come anywhere close to what I think about BP and all the rest. And I blame all of them and Cheney for being too greedy to spend money on the valves and relief wells that would have prevented this catstrophy. And I think out government is to blame – this would be the Bush – for not requiring it.

    I don’t think it’s just the obstructionism that is hurting the GOP, although that’s certainly a significant part of it. The thinly veiled racism, which is now becoming uglier and more blatant, and their pandering to extremists, I think have hurt them. Obviously there are many people who support the Tea Party philosophy – whatever it may or may not be – but I don’t think they are going to carry as many elections as they think. I believe decent half-way educated Americans reject their program. Besides this, what gives me hope is third parties have never succeeded in the history of this country. They take away votes from their base party. In this case it can only help the Democrats.

    Here’s an interesting poll about the separation of church and state. The link is kind of long, so you might just have to go to – right now it’s the top post.


    1. Displaying the “firm grasp on the obvious” I have from discussing your penchant for personalizing matters in other fora, I have picked up that Cheney and Bush are not your favorite people even though I doubt that, in a company the size and diversity of Halliburton, Cheney was making decisions about valves and relief wells. I also don’t know how much this well’s planning and drilling overlapped with Cheney’s administration of Halliburton. In a government the size of ours I doubt Bush was making decisions about relief wells and I don’t know what authority he would have had to require it. But, personalizing does “punch up” a post and you may know that they did have some involvement.

      How much “racism” is a current is, for me at least, an “unknowable.” I’m sure its there but I don’t have any measures of it.

      Your optimism about the behavior of “decent people” is shared. I think they showed it in 2008 and I think they are still out there and still decent. I also doubt that the Tea Party endorsed candidates will sweep the field although I expect they will tilt it rightward (in both parties).

      I don’t think all the “anger” identifies with the Tea Party. My concern is that the anger is not limited to the right but is present in the center and left as well. Current conditions have been disruptive of the lives of people across the spectrum and I think that will have some effect on our politics, I am just optimistic that it will not be as great as many predict.


  2. The points about empty symbolism are well taken for all the reasons you state. But in both cases, I don’t think it would have hurt either president to have held a televised press conference or given a brief address on the TV. Addressing natural or man-made disasters before the nation is part of the function of being a leader. And so is offering comfort – I think of FDR after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    Just to be ornery, I have to add that Bush certainly didn’t hold back after 9/11.

    As for what BP should have or should not have done, a fellow blogger who is an engineer, posted that all other countries require that “a relief well be drilled at the same time as the exploratory well.” Were this in place in this country, “the blowout would have been stopped shortly, maybe within a few days, after it occurred.” He also wrote, “If we had required, or BP had installed anyway, an acoustic valve, the blowout may have been prevented or stopped quickly.”

    I am not an engineer and understand nothing about all this, so I’m just providing something to think about.

    Another blogger proposed that since unemployment is so high, why not form something like the Civilian Conservation Corps to do the cleanup – maybe directed by Powell. And of course, BP would have to foot the bill. I think it’s the best idea I’ve heard yet.

    My take on Obama’s health care dithering is a little different. Whether because of youth, inexperience or misjudgement (the good intentions of the GOP), I think the president made a serious mistake by not jumping on it from day one. Instead he took 70 trips in his first three months – months that were crucial to getting this bill off the ground – meeting with congressmen, staying on top of it, politics as usual kind of things.

    Still, while I’m not happy with the bill, the fact that anything was passed with this concrete wall of opposition the GOP has erected is amazing. If only Obama would recognize that nonpartisanship is an unrealistic dream.

    “I think Obama was elected because people thought change was needed, and he didn’t change enough.” This is the game of politics. You never get everything you want when you want it.


    1. The press conference and more continuous updates from the White House would have, in both cases, been a good idea.

      I thought about Bush and 9/11 and decided against it as the empty symbolism I find inappropriate has really been about natural disasters, far beyond any president’s control. 9/11 was something dropped squarely on his plate and for him to have not engaged the powers and symbols of his office at that time would have been a failure to use genuine symbolism and authority. The attack, itself filled with symbolism, required symbolism filled with content and it got it.

      While BP may have done less that it should have, and less than it may have done off the coast of other countries for all I know, I think to some extent there is a play of human nature here; for those who are doing something, the mindset is usually optimistic until some experience colors it for the future. It is probably essential for any and all advances in any enterprise. One must believe that what one is planning to do will work and that is even more the case when what’s to be done is without precedent or at least without any negative precedent.

      I’ve wondered about the absence of a CCC-type effort for lots of infrastructure things long before the spill. I think it may be that 1) the administration thought its solutions would work and work quickly and/or 2) they are afraid jobless white people won’t take the job and Hispanics will, leading to all kinds of wild stuff about aliens and our sacred bodily fluids, etc.

      I’m more sympathetic about what you call Obama’s “dithering.” First, he works on the trips (One of my friends is the mother of a cabinet secretary and I have asked her how, given that he seems to be constantly traveling, he ever gets any work done. She asked him and he explained. The leaders’ activities are incredibly organized and their communications make cell phones seem “horse and buggy.” Another friend is close to the aunt of Obama’s personal secretary (she’s 28 or 29 I think) and from what I’ve read of her, trips don’t present much challenge.

      There is also the fact that the position he holds does not come with an instruction manual. I’m sure it takes a while to find the men’s room. As for bi-partisanship, I think he understands now but having ridden that horse into office he had to stay up there long enough to give the other side the chance to mount up too. They chose to duke it out on the ground and that cost both sides. I don’t take his current efforts as more than pro-forma unless they really step up, which they have shown no interest in doing.

      The Republicans now have a problem too. Bi-partisan behavior may get them kicked out of office even if it leads to more but different Republicans in each house. Every Democrat’s favorite Republican, Lindsay Graham, purportedly pulled back from supporting a climate bill because of the decision to take up financial reform. I suspect that, even though he’s not up for reelection this year, he stepped away because the word came from South Carolina (current world capital of sexy political humor–when do these politicians have time to work?) that this bi-partisan stuff wasn’t going down well and might lead to his having a strong challenger or more than one when he does have to run. Why he’s such a favorite, apart from his accent and generally well-mannered behavior, escapes me. He is a strong conservative to his bone marrow, I think.

      So, enough!


  3. Symbolism – I think the problem with Obama’s response is not that he fails to appear to be concerned but that he refrains from actually talking about what’s gone wrong, the government’s role in permitting the catastrophe to happen, and what can be done to mitigate the effects of the blowout and keep it from happening again. By contrast, Bush rarely refrained from explaining what was happening: he just got it wrong and wronger. For misbegotten symbolism , you can hardly top “Mission Accomplished” and the flyboy suit. For abysmal ignorance of the facts, you can hardly top “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie!”

    Taking over BP – Of course BP and the rest of the oil industry has the expertise. The government’s failure was to let BP try to mask the dimensions of the catastrophe, though there may also be a problem with allowing the use of the Corexit dispersants. What about seizing BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, not so much to push them out of the way, but to remove consideration of the corporate bottom-line from the decision-making process?

    Congressional and criminal investigations – Second this observation. I do think Salazar will have to go.

    Feeling pain – Maybe people liked Obama’s “cool,” meaning his caution, I guess. Here’s an irony: Junior Bush made quick decisions, often wrong and sometimes quite catastrophic; Obama makes slow and careful decisions, misses the train-boat-airplane, and turns out to be also wrong and sometimes also catastrophic. So Bush sent the troops into Afghanistan then turned away to Iraq. Obama may leave Iraq but doubles down in Afghanistan. Bush created the huge DHS bureaucracy. Obama dithered on health care reform and ended up with a pile of pudding. And why is the congressional agenda so full now? Partly because Obama wasted so much time on health care he ended up giving away his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

    Multi-tasking – There are a lot of smart people in the administration, but maybe not the right people. Summers and Geithner in particular seem to be blind to what’s called ”the new normal” these days. Talk about wasting a good crisis – financial reform must be the best example on current display. Obama reached back to the Clinton administration for way too many of his appointments. The Clintonistas helped create the multiple crises Obama was elected to take on. Bad call.

    I think Obama was elected because people thought change was needed, and he didn’t change enough.


    1. All good points.

      Does any president, to get out of a war, in this case, Afghanistan, first have to double down so he can show “progress” and get out before the bottom falls out? This may be even more true for a Democrat.

      I too wish there were fewer Clintonistas in the administration.

      Can Obama take over BP Looking at Youngstown Sheet and Tube vs. Sawyer, the case I thought would limit him, I discovered that the variety of opinions written doesn’t make it clear what authority he has. I guess he could have just had one of his lawyers develop the argument for his having the authority, as GWB did on other controversial topics, do it and let the game play out. What are Harriet Meirs and Alberto Gonzalez doing these days, not to mention You and especially Addington? Obama will be retired in Chicago before such a case can reach a conclusion.


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