Jen and Pete, you both point out the grave disappointment expressed last night about Barack Obama’s speech on the part of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Howard Fineman. This is a significant development, because it indicates this is a liberal tipping point — both tactical and emotional — away from Barack Obama.
The bad polling news for Democrats and Obama, the apparent refusal of the economy to turn itself around dramatically enough to stave off a reckoning in the November elections, the worrisome headlines from Afghanistan, and the increasing public confusion about the response to the oil spill are now taking their toll on the finger-in-the-wind brigade. I’m referring to that breed of media and political professionals whose enthusiasm for the politicians they support and admire is conditioned in part on how the politicians are doing. The finger-in-the-wind brigade is made up of fair-weather friends. When they feel the political breezes shifting, they shift as well — from passionate support to analytical distance, then to careful criticism, then confused dismay, and eventually to outright contempt. This happened to George W. Bush in 2005 among the finger-in-the-wind brigade on the conservative side, and it’s now happening in 2010 on the liberal side.
In their various expressions of dismay and worry and even contempt, the members of the fair-weather brigade are holding Obama to a peculiar standard. They seem to want him to transmute the oil spill into a huge moral drama with BP or capitalism or deregulation or the carbon-based economy itself as the villain and Obama himself as the crusading muckraker who will take the bad guys down. Obama himself would like to do nothing more. That’s why, in just three days’ time, he (a) likened the oil spill to 9/11, (b) compared the cleanup to the American response to World War II, and (c) said that if we could put a man on the moon, we could fix the whole oil problem. He wants to figure out how to make this a “game changer” for him and for his left-liberal agenda.
The problem is, it can’t be. The accident was an accident, and the cleanup after the accident is one of those godawful, uninspiring, unthrilling, and highly confusing tasks that inevitably follow any accident. Nobody seems quite to have known what to do and when, and there were and are conflicting crosscurrents involving the potential environmental damage from the cleanup itself that cannot be wished or willed away through strong “leadership.” What’s happening is a catastrophe, but it’s the result of something very, very big that cannot be turned into a cause Obama can fight — decades’ worth of policy decisions based on the desire to extract billions of gallons of oil invisibly, without public complaint, so that no one would have to see a rig or smell the work the way everybody in the New York metropolitan used to have to roll up his windows and put on the air conditioner going past exit 12 on the New Jersey Turnpike when Standard Oil refineries were still active there. The temptation to believe in semi-magical oil extraction proved so great that Obama himself found it irresistible this year.
But if the standard to which they are holding Obama is impossible, that’s because it’s hoist-by-his-own-petard time for Obama, as brought to you by Euripides. Anyone who greets a primary victory as Obama did in 2008 by saying that history would record that “this was the moment when the oceans began to recede” is just asking for it. And “it” may be upon him.