Obama's Curiously Flat Gulf Speech

On the Ground: Watching Obama's speech in Grand Isle, La. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Somewhere between Pensacola and the Oval Office, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico went from an "assault" to an "epidemic"—and President Obama went from commander in chief to surgeon general. In Florida, he had referred to the disaster as an "assault" and spoke, at an Army post, in military terms, but by the time he got home he had changed the analogy to a medical matter.

And that, in short, is why his speech to the nation fell so flat even as he delivered it.

It was Obama who compared the gulf disaster to World War II, and it was, unfortunately, Obama who was unable to approach let alone match the specificity, combativeness, and passion of Franklin Roosevelt.

Having just made a tour of the battlefield earlier today—a two-day trip to the four hard-hit gulf states—and having scheduled a meeting tomorrow with his putative but not-to-be-trusted allies, the top officials of BP, the president should have delivered a report full of specifics and fighting spirit.

Instead, there was far too much of: a dissertation on the inscrutability of the future; a discussion of the commissions and studies he planned to set up; the fine credentials of his advisers; and a partial admission that he had been way too credulous in accepting "assurances" earlier this year that it was safe to ramp up off-shore drilling off the American coasts.

As for BP, Obama was acting as if he would scare them off and back to their eagle's nest in Westminster if he spoke too harshly. The fact is that the company has either been mendacious or negligent or both, and why the president did not take the opportunity to say that to them and the world, I don't know.

It made it seem as though he was going to have to beg them to establish an escrow fund on Wednesday, not that he was president and he was going to demand it. Isn't Obama the guy who was studying up so he could kick some ass? Ok, if it's not BP, who is it, other than some hapless congressional bureaucrat whom he appointed only a few months ago to head the Minerals Management Service?

And where was the battlefield report? FDR and Churchill pored over the maps, knew the troop strengths, knew where the ships were at sea. What evidence is there that this president, famous for his grasp of detail, had that kind of interest in, or stomach for, this war?

Yes, the sad truth is that this well is still mostly unstoppable. It turns out, catastrophically, that BP tapped into the Moby Dick of deep-ocean gushers, and Obama doesn't want to play the role of Ahab. But he has no choice. He is captain.