Obama and the Audacity of…Oh, Never Mind

Originally published on AOL News, June 17, 2010

In the end, a president known for his ability to craft language like no politician in the last half-century may be undone by a speech: in this case, his presentation Tuesday night from the Oval Office, in which he sought to address the unfolding ecological catastrophe on the Gulf Coast.

For a man so uniquely capable with words, and who staked his claim to leadership on the promise of “change,” “hope” and big ideas, President Barack Obama seems to have exposed himself as someone lacking the vision or clarity of purpose required to bring about the first, inspire the second, or merely articulate the last of these.

Pledging to get tough with BP is one thing, but unless we are prepared to lift the liability cap that insulates oil companies from the full cost of their irresponsibility, there is little reason to expect the industry to change its behavior. Unless we are prepared to shut down all deep-water drilling until those responsible for the operations prove they have precise safeguards in place to prevent such disasters — safeguards they all admit don’t exist currently — we are merely crossing our fingers and hoping against hope for the best.

Unless the president is prepared to declare political war, not on the oil that he claims is “assaulting” our shores (after all, the oil isn’t to blame), but on the culture of corruption and greed that is the lifeblood of corporate power (and which caused BP to cut corners on safety in the first place), the opportunity to change the course of our national and global futures will be lost.

But apparently, Barack Obama is not prepared to do any of that.

Beholden, as with most all modern politicians, to the desires of the wealthy and powerful, the president merely threatens to get tough, and then sets up a commission. No receivership for BP’s American assets, no debarment from future contracts in the United States. A commission.

To study the problem. Yes we can.

Welcome to the audacity of nope. As in, nothing much to see here.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the president for failing to lay out precisely how the rupture might be contained. It’s not as if he has some secret technology in a West Wing closet that he’s holding back.

I’m not even criticizing the vagueness of his calls for clean energy, or the hypocrisy of it, in light of his support just a few months ago for further development of mythical “clean” coal, and more offshore drilling.

What concerns me is the missed opportunity to construct and present a cohesive narrative about this tragedy, one that would link it to the other challenges facing us, like the economic meltdown. After all, in both the economic and environmental disasters to which we are presently being exposed, there is a common thread woven throughout: namely, an increasingly corrosive ethos of short-term gain and profit at the expense of long-term sustainability.

It’s a culture in which both major political parties are deeply implicated, one that led Wall Street to play with the global economy like drunken college kids playing Texas Hold ’em in a frat house basement. There, too, the president resists cracking down hard on the derivatives trading that created such instability. Even Fed bankers are ahead of him on the issue.

Had the president taken this opportunity to challenge our national and cultural addiction to instant economic gratification, unending profits, and personal (or corporate) gain, even when it comes at the expense of community well-being, he might have planted the seeds of something lasting, something that could grow into a counterweight for the reactionary, markets-over-morality tendencies of the past 30 years.

The deregulation that brought us the twin disasters of BP Horizon and Wall Street was the result not only of the policies of Reaganite conservatism, but also the ability of that last “great communicator” to sell the public on a story: that government was the problem, that the private sector was responsible and could police itself, that the magic of the market could solve all our problems.

Although we are now witnessing the limits of that magic — indeed, coming to see quite clearly that as with all magic, the market is based more on illusion and sleight-of-hand than anything genuine — it still remains for a true leader to pull back the curtain and expose the fraud in total.

Sadly, Barack Obama is not turning out to be that leader.

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