Barack Obama is much more of an establishment-style president than the public generally realizes. The rantings and ravings of the right would paint him as a radical, remaking America at light speed — and many on the left fully expect him to live up to that caricature.
But an honest look at his positions and actions reveals a much slower, more patient, and less disruptive pace of change. That has been true of financial reform, oil exploration (prior to the current calamity), withdrawal from Afghanistan, and progress on gay rights, to name a few.
Obama the establishmentarian was on display Tuesday night, addressing the nation about the Gulf oil disaster. It was not his finest moment. His metaphors and his message were hopelessly mixed: whether you call it a military battle or an epidemic, either way we expect your next words to convey more urgent action than the assembling of commissions and the debating of legislative ideas.
Not that Obama was wrong in anything he said. We must, in addition to mobilizing against the current disaster, start planning long-term restoration of the long-neglected Gulf shores, and finally take real steps toward ending our dependence on fossil fuels.
First and foremost, however, we need to stop and reverse what Obama rightfully labeled the worst environmental disaster in this nation's history. We need to feel confident that someone is going to get that job done — and we sure don't believe it will be the lying sneaks at BP, or those at the useless, incestuous Interior Department.
Other politicians are better at providing those assurances, and promising both specific action and swift retribution. (Remember, believe it or not, Mitt Romney, after the Big Dig collapse, assuring us that the tunnel would be made safe?) But this is the frustrating side of Obama's style. For all his lofty talk of transformational change, his method is to navigate toward what's achievable. That means, sometimes, partnering with those we would like to see him throttle — be they BP, health-insurance companies, the NRA, Goldman Sachs, Hamid Karzai, or Joe Lieberman. Sometimes it means compromise and slow movement. Often, it means not laying out specifics to his plans, so as to leave himself more negotiating freedom behind the scenes. And, most of all, it means not responding to the demands of what can seem like a painfully long news cycle.
The success of that approach — at least, as Obama would define success — can best be seen in health-care reform, which, after a year's effort, endless compromises, and at least a half-dozen premature death notices, finally became law.
With the oil spill, the president will ultimately be judged by how soon the leak is plugged, and how successful the clean-up and mitigation methods prove — not by how good he made us feel or how much emotion he showed along the way.
Obama needs to realize that, to meet this challenge, speedy, decisive action will be imperative. The Gulf doesn't have a year to dawdle; the ecosystems aren't open to compromise; and obstructionist BP executives needn't be schmoozed like fence-sitting senators.
This crisis is not one of Obama's own making, and his options for action are aggravatingly limited. That comes with the presidency — as evidenced by Jimmy Carter's Iran-hostage dilemma, John Kennedy's Cuban-missile crisis, or George W. Bush's response to the 9/11 attacks.