It is no news now, but on Tuesday last week, President Obama delivered the least effective Oval Office address since Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. Why?
It wasn’t just the awkward use of his hands, the hackneyed and inappropriate wartime metaphors, the equally banal “if we could land a man on the moon” drivel. All that was bad enough, but more devastating was the gulf between obvious fact and the speech’s fiction. These — shall we call them misspeakings — were coupled with more of the administration’s increasingly off-putting crisis default setting: That everything bad was Bush’s fault. Our son was two when we stopped accepting that kind of excuse in our house. This administration is almost two, but it’s been talking for longer than our son when we told him to stop the excuses.
Here is a list of questions that occurred to me during the speech and that even the most junior White House speechwriters should have seen as implicit in the text and hit the delete button:
- The speech suggested that the Administration was on top of the oil-spill situation from day one, with the Energy Secretary (co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded “for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light”) heading the effort to trap oil gushing from the Gulf floor and floating toward our southern shores. Doesn’t that mean that hundreds of elected officials in the states involved, thousands of journalists, and millions of Americans failed to notice this all out effort until last night?
- The speech started by saluting our “brave men and women in uniform” who are “taking the fight to al Qaeda”. But part of that fight is diverting American oil dollars from the Middle East so they can’t fuel terrorism. In shutting down deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, hasn’t the White House gone AWOL in that part of the battle?
- The speech outlined a course of action that sets aside current laws for dealing with oil spills. Some may say that this emergency is too big to worry about the law, but out of curiosity, what is the White House’s legal authority for demanding that BP put money into an independent escrow account controlled by the government, and insisting that BP pay the wages of those affected by the White House ordered shutdown of deepwater drilling? Other than making the administration look in charge, why was the carefully crafted oil spill law (developed after the wreck of the Exxon Valdez) simply ignored in the week prior to the address in favor of huffing and puffing and threats of boots on the neck and kicked rear ends?
- The speech said that “we are running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water… [a]nd that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean.” Aren’t there hundreds, even thousands, of such sites, but few, if any, for which the U.S. government is willing to issue permits? Wasn’t the speech’s message that the government is going to stick to, not change, that status quo?
- The speech talked about “costs associated with the transition” away from dependence on foreign oil and decried those who say we can’t afford those costs. By halting deep water drilling and pushing all liability onto the oil company involved wasn’t the speech saying that the government would pay no price and bear no burden — even those costs and burdens that its regulations and ineptness impose — to achieve energy independence?
- And to repeat, the speech employed the metaphor of war throughout. In what way is cleaning up a lot of oil like a war, unless the speechwriter intended to suggest KP duty? Is not our real war against global forces that are funded in large part via Middle Eastern money, money that comes from the oil trade? Isn’t using the accident as an excuse for policies that will push drilling out of the United States a form of surrender in that war, the real war?
Here is a lesson I learned writing speeches in the Reagan White House: Public communications is a highly sensitive, delicate thing. If the logic of your text is not tight, if you deviate even slightly from what your audience knows to be true, if in making your case you seem to look down on your audience and try to play slight of hand with their concerns, you are dead in the water.
Last Tuesday night, President Obama was dead in the water.