Will: Obama, Oil, and Rhetorical Excess

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Our Demosthenes seems to regard the rule of strategic reticence as irrelevant to him. The rule: Do not speak unless you can improve the silence. He did not do that with his Oval Office speech. In it, to the surprise of no one who has been paying attention the last 17 months, he discerned in the oily waters of the Gulf of Mexico a reason for a large and permanent increase in government taxation and supervision of American life on shore. The oil spill validates his passion for energy—or is it climate change?—legislation.

The news about his speech is that it is no longer news that he often gives bad speeches. This one, however, was almost magnificently awful.

The banality of his first sentence—“our nation faces a multitude of challenges”—was followed by trite war metaphors about “the battle” against oil “assaulting” our shores, for which “siege” he has a “battle plan.” (Our government declares war promiscuously—on drugs, poverty, cancer, environmental problems, etc.—but never when actually going to war.) After Obama did what is de rigueur—he announced a new commission—he, as usual, attacked George W. Bush. (Chicagoan Obama resembles the fictional baseball player invented by Chicago’s Ring Lardner—Alibi Ike.) Next, he resorted, yet again, to a clumsy and painfully familiar trope that would get him bounced from a junior-high-school debate tournament. He attacked a straw man: “Over the last decade, [the Minerals Management Service] has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility—a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves.” Another banality—“oil is a finite resource”—introduced a weird lament about a problem he has aggravated: “We’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.” He and his party oppose drilling in the tundra of ANWR and in shallower coastal waters.

Then he borrowed his predecessor’s silliness about our “addiction” to fossil fuels. Actually, we need energy for prosperity, we need fossil fuels because there are not and will not soon be sufficient substitutes, and “addiction” is not a synonym for “need.”

Standing forthrightly against “inaction,” he served notice against the blinkered and timid who lack his grit and vision: “The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II.” Was it really? By whom? Most Americans then were too busy producing—and flying and driving—planes and tanks to entertain the thought Obama imagines was prevalent.

No speech is complete without treacle about “our children,” so Obama spoke of “our determination to fight for the America we want for our children.” And he said: “We cannot consign our children to this future.” (He meant a future of oil spills. He will consign them a future of paying for trillion-dollar deficits.) He concluded with a mushy truism that is news to no one: “The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face. This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again.” Good grief.

Obama recently went to Wheaton, Md., a Washington suburb, to deliver a speech in praise of his health-care legislation, which has not become more popular in the months since it was passed on a party-line vote after more than a hundred Obama speeches, interviews, and other events praising it. Two Democratic Senate candidates (from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) and two gubernatorial candidates (from New Jersey and Virginia) should be brought to the White House to conduct an intervention. They should explain to our Demosthenes that the correlation between the quantity of his speaking—now that is an addiction—and the fortunes of the things for which he speaks is inverse.

Diminishing returns from his rhetoric may reflect the public’s recoil from wretched excess everywhere. The unceasing torrent of his ill-chosen words is analogous to the unstoppable oil spill, which itself resembles his and his party’s incontinent spending. Just as congressional Democrats’ budget strategy is to have no budget, Obama’s communication strategy is to have no silence. Having no budget means, as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) says, having no priorities and hence no restraints. Having no communication strategy means him being constantly in the nation’s face, hectoring incessantly, unconstrained by priorities.

George Will is also the author of One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation and With a Happy Eye But . . .: America and the World, 1997—2002.