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John Hughes

Gulf oil spill could mark a turning point for Obama

Beset by problems at home and abroad Obama has come across as clinical in his response to the Gulf oil spill. But if Obama is to fulfill his bright promise of "change," failed policies should be revised. Heads should roll.

By John Hughes / June 8, 2010

Provo, Utah

When President Bush clambered up on a pile of rubble after 9/11, seized a bullhorn, put his arm around a firefighter, and rallied the nation, it was a crowning moment of his presidency.

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When he ill-advisedly flew over the Katrina disaster of 2005 and appeared disconnected with the agony of New Orleans, it was, in the view of many historians, the beginning of his presidency’s decline.

President Obama’s handling of the Gulf oil disaster could be a similar turning point. Despite his uneasy press conference and statements proclaiming he is in charge, despite visits to the scene to talk with officials rather than distraught commercial fishermen, his demeanor has come across as clinical rather than inspirational.

Readers weigh in: How would you stop the Gulf oil spill?

Even such well-wishers as Louisiana Democratic guru James Carville and former presidential adviser David Gergen have wrung their hands over his seeming disconnectedness. Mr. Carville wanted the president to fire officials and indict BP. (A criminal probe has now begun.) Mr. Gergen complained that if the United States had handled World War II like the Gulf oil spill, “We’d all be speaking German.”

An inexplicable moment in a presidential press conference came when the president seemed unaware whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, the top official in his oil-industy-monitoring agency, had resigned or been fired.

Mr. Obama’s standing is not helped by the fact that the Gulf oil disaster coincides with a kind of perfect political storm of problems for him at home and abroad.

At home there is tawdry revelation that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a take-no-prisoners political operative, had co-opted former President Clinton to offer favors to Congressman Joe Sestak in a failed bid to secure his withdrawal from Pennsylvania’s Senate primary race. The aim was to clear the way for incumbent Arlen Specter.

Old Guard Democrats, and even some jaded journalistic pundits, proclaim that this attempted bribery is normal business practice in Washington.

But that is exactly the president’s problem. He was the knight on the white horse who won the election on a pledge to change Washington’s sleazier ways. If he sanctioned the Emanuel initiative, it was a betrayal of that promise. If Mr. Emanuel acted without the president’s knowledge, then Emanuel should have lost the president’s trust, and possibly his job.