Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Elmer Smith: Oil-damaged Gulf coast: There are no words, so Obama might as well keep his cool

I'M NOT SURE what the president will say tonight. But I know it won't be enough. It won't be hot enough for critics who want him to turn up the heat and bring his simmering fury to a rapid boil.

I'M NOT SURE what the president will say tonight. But I know it won't be enough.

It won't be hot enough for critics who want him to turn up the heat and bring his simmering fury to a rapid boil.

It won't be soon enough for those who say he should have stopped this oil leak long ago.

It won't be tough enough for angry Gulf Coast residents who want to see some blood in the water alongside the spreading oil slick that threatens to choke the life out of their economy for years to come.

They're looking for someone other than that cool-as-an-ocean-breeze guy who was elected president a year ago.

Oh, he'll come out swinging tonight. He will demand that BP set up a fund to make the victims whole. He may call for tougher federal regulations on offshore drilling or threaten to prosecute anyone whose negligence led to this disaster.

But don't expect closeups to show his nostrils flaring or his eyes narrowing to slits. Barack Obama is not that guy.

Cool is congenital. He was born a few degrees cooler than other babies in the maternity ward. It's part of his charm.

He was too cool to take the bait when former President Clinton tried to play him during the presidential campaign. His calm under fire kept his campaign from derailing when people tried to bury him under Rev. Jeremiah Wright's heated invective.

If Matt Lauer, of NBC's "Today" show, had goaded him into saying he was going to kick ass during the campaign, he'd be back in Chicago right now.

But when did cool get to be the wrong temperature? We used to want our president to remain calm under fire.

But after years of high-pitched reality-TV and talk-radio shows that serve up steaming heaps of raw emotion, it's hard to hear his modulated voice.

Yet, that's exactly what I want to hear. I want him to speak in measured tones and promise no more than he can deliver.

I want to hear more about remedies than retribution. He could toss everybody in BP's corporate suite under the bus tonight without capping the spill that is rapidly depleting his political capital.

He is as mired in this muck as one of those pitiful pelicans struggling to raise their flightless wings under the weight of this gooey sludge.

He hadn't even boarded Air Force One for his fourth trip to the Gulf region before Florida Republican Sen. George LeMieux had dismissed it as another photo-op. That may be political opportunism. But it resonates with a lot of frustrated citizens.

Every corrective step he can take has a consequence. His six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling could cripple the Gulf Coast economy in the near term almost as much as the spill.

Empty resort towns as far north as Myrtle Beach, S.C., portend a disastrous tourism season. Add to that the 78,264 square miles of federal fishing waters that are shut down and all three of the region's economic engines could sputter to a stop.

Experts can't even agree on the size of the spill. By their best estimates, about 40 million to 114 million gallons have bubbled up from the sea so far.

Even the good news is bad. BP claims its latest fix is capturing nearly 650,000 gallons a day. But that's more than the lowest previous estimates of how much was spilling.

Before he could demand a $20 billion fund from BP, British Prime Minister David Cameron had called to remind the president how much British pension funds are tied to BP's bottom line.

That's just today's problem. By the time the underwater plume spreads to European beaches, a whole new round of international issues will arise. Someday there will be a solution. BP may be able to dig a relief well deep enough to stem the leak and ease the pressure at the White House. Until then, the president may as well be his usual cool self. Because, for now, no matter what he says, it won't be enough.

Send e-mail to or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: