Obama’s oil speech sinks

That “battle” President Barack Obama described to the nation this week can be won, perhaps, many years from now. The Gulf of Mexico may recover from a catastrophic oil spill. The residents there may be compensated and the local economy may rebound from the devastation.

But the battle Obama is waging alone, the one that led him to address the nation from the Oval Office for the first time in his presidency, cannot be won. The days and weeks when he could have taken command of the response to the historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have passed, left behind in a heap of other distractions that swallowed up May 2010. Just one, the arrest of the Times Square bomber two weeks after the

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Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, was a problem demanding the president’s singular focus. But looking back, he surely could have taken more time from Elena Kagan’s confirmation, Wall Street reform, Rep. Joe Sestak’s (D-Pa.) administration job offer, Arizona’s new immigration law, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s red-carpet Washington visit and a push for the line-item veto to spend more face-time in the Gulf.

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Indeed, the chance to grab the helm of the response and convince Americans that, like the Gulf governors, the local parish presidents and the small-businessmen and -women whose livelihoods have been crushed by gushing crude, he understands the scale and scope of this crisis was likely gone by Mother’s Day.

The speech Obama finally gave was resolute, specific, empathetic and even moving as he referenced the “blessing of the fleet” and called on the nation to summon our faith in the midst of the storm. He affirmed that the government will make BP pay for the damage it has caused and will do “whatever is necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover”; he spoke of residents whose lives will never be the same again; he listed the resources the government has dispatched to the Gulf and promised there would be more; he acknowledged what the hurricane-ravaged region had already endured before the oil leak; he admitted the government’s system for overseeing offshore drilling failed miserably; and he warned of the dangers of dependence on foreign oil.

But the speech was panned because it came too late. There was the president of the United States, speaking from the Oval Office, where our presidents have warned us of grave dangers, mourned great tragedies and articulated the great sacrifices of brave Americans fighting for our freedom in wars across the ocean. And essentially, Obama looked like he had been dragged there.

The president’s team hoped the speech — aimed at “turning the page” — would turn the focus to the future, to use a crisis once more as an opportunity, this time to solve our decades-old energy problem. But that goal was folly. The public, mired in our dismal present, doesn’t want to hear about the future and how government will finally fix this mess and, oh yes, prevent future disasters that seem to come out of nowhere.

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Obama’s ambitious plans come at a time when trust in government is at a historic low — a government that doesn’t see problems coming and can’t stop them, whether a terrorist threat, a house of cards on Wall Street or an epic environmental disaster.

No matter how thorough the speech, it couldn’t accomplish what more time in the Gulf six weeks ago would have done. Having never been a mayor or governor besieged by the complexities of such a crisis, Obama wasn’t programmed to get out there and stay out there, sleeves rolled up, sound bites rolling out, night and day. Until the day someone caps the well, he remains in a political hole he cannot plug.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.