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Resolve, not anger

Looking ahead to Obama's Oval Office address on the BP spill

It's no mystery what President Obama will say tonight, in his first televised Oval Office address. He'll say that the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history is sure to get worse before it gets better; that the federal government is taking steps to ensure, via actual oversight of the oil companies (as opposed to blind obeisance) that such a disaster can never happen again; that BP will be compelled, via the president's legal authority, to pay for its unconscionable sins down to the last dime; and lastly (good luck with this one), that the only way to truly ensure a greener future is for all car-loving, suburban-sprawling Americans to wean themselves of their addiction to oil.

Oh, and one more thing: According to the latest conventional wisdom, Obama needs to get really, really angry.

James Carville has said that the president needs to share his "rage." Matt Lauer has said that Americans need to see him "kick some butt." Roger Simon, the Politico columnist, asked Obama the other day, "You have to let people know you care, and people want to know (that the spill) matters to you...How do you move people on levels other than intellectual — on emotional levels?" Chris Matthews, on MSNBC last night, sputtered, "Why doesn't Obama grab the guy (BP CEO Tony Hayward)? Why doesn't he call him up and say, 'Hey, buddy, get your act together'?"

I'm not clear what people actually expect Obama to do. Gnaw the Oval Office carpet on live TV? Waterboard the BP officials with their own oil? Lock them in the White House basement and go medieval on them, a la Pulp Fiction?

But seriously, folks, if Obama bowed to conventional wisdom and totally lost his cool, the new conventional wisdom would decree that he was emotionally immature and, hence, unpresidential.

Ironically, the old conventional wisdom, circa 2007 and 2008, faulted Obama for supposedly engaging people's emotions too much. (Commentator Tom Bevan, in '07: "His brand is driven primarily by its emotional appeal." National Review's Jim Geraghty, April '08: Obama's emotional pitch "is just a variation of religious door-to-door salesmen showing up on your front stoop.") Today we apparently believe the opposite - that Obama has no emotional appeal - and now we want him to bond with our anger.

Fareed Zakaria, the Newsweek columnist, smartly noted the other day that this apparent need for an emoter-in-chief is actually a very recent development. Back in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez fouled the waters off Alaska, few in the commentariat demanded that President George H. W. Bush get mad and kick butt. Indeed, his administration ceded the entire cleanup to the oil industry, and a top Cabinet guy publicly stated that any government role would be "counterproductive."

Well, that laissez faire attitude won't do anymore. Obama tonight needs to make it clear that his government has taken the lead in this crisis; that BP will hop to its commands (rather than the reverse); and that, in the long term, he will persevere with steely resolve. That's the appropriate presidential emotion - at a time when 71 percent of Americans are now telling Gallup that they want him to be tougher on BP.


By the way, here's our BP outrage of the day:

The BP "Call Center," located in west Houston, is supposed to be a conduit to the public. Twelve hours a day, the operators are taking lots of inquiries and complaints from people on the Gulf Coast who are freaked about the oil. But according to one operator - who this weekend spilled the beans to KHOU, a Houston television station - the Call Center is just a PR front, designed merely to give the appearance of BP outreach.

"We take all (the) information and then we have nothing to give them, nothing to give them," the operator said. "We're a diversion to stop them from really getting to the corporate office, to the big people."

She said that she and her fellow employes are just warm bodies on the other end of the phone - and since they know that the calls will never be passed up the ladder, some don't even bother taking notes:

"They just put down, type 'blah blah blah.' No information, just 'blah blah blah.'"


The sole proprietor of this blog is on the road for the month of June. Virtually all June posts will be briefer than the norm, except on the rare weekdays when posts won't show up at all. Apologies in advance for this disturbance in the force. The standard verbosity will return on Monday, June 28.