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.

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.

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.

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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.

Meanwhile the Obama presidency is beset by:

•10 percent unemployment.

•A reputation for loading up future generations with debt.

•A failure, not entirely his fault, to achieve the bipartisan concord with Republicans he promised during his election campaign.

•A messy quarrel with Arizona over immigration because the US Congress has consistently declined to enact comprehensive immigration legislation. Nor is Congress displaying the mettle to do so soon.

Nor is there a whisper of enthusiasm for tackling another major looming challenge, the bankruptcy of Social Security. Mr. Bush courageously took a crack at this, despite all the political negatives. His effort foundered in congressional timidity.

Abroad there is the distinct probability that Iran will acquire the wherewithal to develop a nuclear weapon. And North Korea may kiss off all attempts to disarm its nuclear weapons. This does not augur well for the Korean Peninsula.

China is reveling in its new economic, financial, political, and naval power, and treats with case-by-case whimsy the Obama administration’s requests to be helpful.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a thorn in the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, and Arabs and Israelis will only engage in mystical explorations if they don’t actually have to meet with each other.

If Obama is to fulfill the bright promise that many Americans saw in his soaring campaign oratory, he needs a presidential retreat of the kind Jimmy Carter ordained at a low point in his presidency. Failed policies should be revised. Heads should roll. “Change” should become a reality and not a campaign slogan.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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