Everyone wants to talk about whether or not the BP spill is Obama’s Katrina.
I don’t. The policy debate is uninteresting because it compares apples (man-caused disaster under direct federal regulation) to oranges (natural disaster with no direct connection to the federal government). It’s petty and short-sighted politics as usual to link Bush/Katrina to Obama/Oil Spill, just as it was opportunistic hypocrisy to blame Bush for what was largely state-level inability to respond to Katrina.
Most importantly, it’s simply too early to start sorting out culpability. We don’t have the facts right now, and I’m not interested in getting the facts until after the oil stops flowing.
Despite being completely uninterested in the blame-game, however, I’ve become fascinated by the snowballing disaster that is Obama’s failure of leadership in this time of crisis. The one thing I always trusted Obama to do well was domestic PR. His campaign machine was ajuggernaut of popularity and the paragon of message-control. So – given the expertise, talent, and experience of Team Obama – what explains the growing feeling that Obama is failing as a leader?
As a recent Gallup poll reveals, President Obama’s favorability ratings have never been lower.
These are the guys who live by the motto “never let a crisis go to waste”, and here is a read-made crisis with their name all over it. It’s got everything from evil corporations to an earth in peril, and it’s the job of the federal government to ride in and fix it all. This should be the point where Obama’s poll numbers rebound and shoot upwards. Why aren’t they?
Conservatives have their opinions. Dorothy Rabinowitz writes in the Wall Street Journal of Obama’s alienation from the American people:
Those qualities to be expected in a president were never about rhetoric; Mr. Obama had proved himself a dab hand at that on the campaign trail. They were a matter of identification with the nation and to all that binds its people together in pride and allegiance. These are feelings held deep in American hearts, unvoiced mostly, but unmistakably there and not only on the Fourth of July.
A great part of America now understands that this president’s sense of identification lies elsewhere, and is in profound ways unlike theirs. He is hard put to sound convincingly like the leader of the nation, because he is, at heart and by instinct, the voice mainly of his ideological class. He is the alien in the White House, a matter having nothing to do with delusions about his birthplace cherished by the demented fringe.
She is right. Barack Obama is simply not in tune with ordinary Americans. His message of hope, reform, sacrifice, and pragmatism was dead-on, but his actual leadership style has seemed distant and remote because he simply doesn’t care about the things that we care about.
Mitt Romney raises another explanation – Obama’s perpetual blame-game – in an opinion piece at USA Today:
Has it come to this again? The president is meeting with his oil spill experts, he crudely tells us, so that he knows “whose ass to kick.” We have become accustomed to his management style — target a scapegoat, assign blame and go on the attack. To win health care legislation, he vilified insurance executives; to escape bankruptcy law for General Motors, he demonized senior lenders; to take the focus from the excesses of government, he castigated business meetings in Las Vegas; and to deflect responsibility for the deepening and lengthening downturn, he blames Wall Street and George W. Bush. But what may make good politics does not make good leadership. And when a crisis is upon us, America wants a leader, not a politician.
He is right, too. Looking for someone else to pin the responsibility on is not what leaders do. You have to decide which problem is a higher priority: the problem of oil washing up on American beaches or the problem of finding someone to punish. American’s are practical people, and we’d rather fix the problem first and figure out who to punish afterwards. But even more fundamentally, placing blame is an act of looking backwards. Leading means moving forward. As long as he’s looking for someone’s ass to kick he’s is failing as a leader.
What’s truly interesting to me about this story isn’t the on-target analysis of conservatives, however, but the amazingly bad advice Obama is getting from his ideological allies. He’s not alone in a sea of detachment. He’s got a whole fleet of ignoramuses for company.
The gist of the advice he received from most liberals was simple: get angry. Spike Lee wanted him to “go off”. So, finally, he did. That’s where we got that “whose ass to kick” line, and it went over like a lead balloon.
Liberals were unwilling to admit that it had been bad advice all along, and so instead we get articles like this one: Why Obama doesn’t dare become the ‘angry black man’. Sure, dredge up some antiquated racial stereotypes. Play the race card. What the American people really want to hear now is more excuses. If some white man had talked about “whose ass to kick” the public would have lapped it up, but we’re just all terrified of angry black men. As usual the world can be divided into two kinds of people: those who adore Barack Obama and everything he does and the rest of us racists.
The real problem is that progressive political philosophy is based around an elitism/entitlement alliance that enshrines victimhood. Here’s how it works: progressive elites want more power to make Americans do what’s best for them. To entice Americans to tolerate an ever more invasive government presence in their lives, elites offer a treasure trove of government handouts: free education, free healthcare, cheap housing, easy jobs, guaranteed pensions, and whatever else you can think of. If the deal were offered in those stark terms – give us more power and we’ll pay you off – no one would take it. That’s were the idea of victimhood comes in.
Victimhood plays two roles. First of all it sweetens the deal psychologically for the recipients of government largesse. If you’ve ever tried to give free stuff away to strangers you’ll know that they are often unwilling to take it, but if you can first sell someone the notion that they are entitled to it the reluctance vanishes. They’re not handouts. They’re rights.
Secondly the notion of victimhood presupposes a victimizer. This is important, because liberals don’t actually intend to pay for any of the free stuff they are giving away, but someone has to. Just as their supporters are entitled by their victim-status to the freebies, their targets – rich, white men in particular – are obligated by their status as victimizers to pay for it. And – should they try to resist – the elites are backed up by a large and growing number of American citizens ready to take to the streets in defense of their new-found “rights” to anything from low-interest mortgages to illegal entry into the country.
These three notions – elitism, entitlement, and victimhood – are the very essence of practical progressivism in the United States, and it would be impossible to overstate how deeply embedded they are in the progressive paradigm: Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan even describes Islamic terrorists as “victims of political, economic and social forces.”
Obama – as Rabinowitz described – is a product of this paradigm. And that makes his mysterious failures suddenly easy to understand. In the progressive paradigm it’s not Obama’s job to provide a solution the BP oil spill problems any more than it was his job to find a realistic way to pay for free healthcare. It’s just his job to provide the victim narrative. Then we the victims feel entitled to a solution and he – as Romney described – can go find a victimizer and make them clean up the mess.
The problem is that Americans don’t think that way. The spirit of America is the spirit of self-reliance and individualism. We don’t want our leaders to find someone to blame or to find someone else to fix our problems. We want our leaders to be at the forefront of us fixing our own problems. Kennedy told us to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country. That is leadership. Obama spouting impotent outrage, indignation, and sending the attorney general to look into pressing charges is not.
Unfortunately the fallout from Obama’s enactment of the progressive playbook aren’t limited to his poll numbers. In addition to concerns that the Federal response has been slow and half-hearted, the damage of his rhetoric is spreading overseas. BP was once “British Petroleum”, but is now simply “BP”. Although it remains the largest corporation based in England, it’s a truly multinational corporation with thousands of employees in the United States and other countries. So why does Obama insist on calling it “British Petroleum” and antagonizing our allies? It’s not just words, either. One out of every 6 pension dollars in the UK depend on BP, and so when the Obama administration talks about putting their boot on the throat of BP that boot is also on the throats of an entire nation’s retirement income. It’s truly reckless and ignorant to continue the charade in which it’s possible to punish corporations without collateral damage to innocent employees, shareholders, and customers.
The bright side to all this is the same as the bright side to all of Obama’s presidency: the public unmasking of progressivism. Very little of this has anything to do with Obama personally. He is just demonstrating to America how progressivism really works. And Americans are shocked at what they are seeing.
In defending the fact that he hasn’t met with the CEO of BP a single time Obama said “My experience is when you talk to a guy like a BP CEO he’s going to say all the right things to me. I’m not interested in words.. I’m interested in actions.” And yet during the primary debates he was ready to meet with any enemy of America without preconditions. We’ve got a president who not only would rather meet with terrorist-supporting tyrants than with the CEO of BP, but who doesn’t even see anything wrong with that.
When all is said and done it’s not the Obama is failing to be a leader, it’s that he’s succeeding at being the wrong kind of leader. The cost to our nation could be enormous, but nobody ever said tuition was cheap at the School of Hard Knocks and Tough Surprises.