HPRgument Blog — June 7, 2010 3:38 pm

Taking Stock of the Spill

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Apparently, Obama’s BP Oil Spill performance has been a total disaster. Just check the news. He’s weak, aloof, unemotive, Maureen Down explains. “Mr. President, take command,” David Gergen urges on CNN. James Carville exhorts:  “This president needs to tell BP, “I’m your daddy.” And Peggy Noonan, writes, simply, for WSJ: “I don’t see how you politically survive this.”

Count me among the people that regard politics as primarily the art of getting things done — of deliberating on and then distributing out public goods to people, and trying to do this at the lowest costs possible, in the appropriate time horizons, with the greatest impact, and so on. Politics is not poll numbers; it’s not, ultimately, about feelings or even theories. Politics is about doing things.

Adopt this perspective, and the media-wide consensus that Obama has been “weak” on the BP Spill starts to look rather absurd:* the standard for success is a strictly material one; Obama should be judged, in the final analysis, by whether he succeeds at mitigating the effects of this crisis to the fullest extent possible — by whether he helps us plug that (goddamn) hole and then, afterwards, whether he goes to changing the material conditions that allowed the hole to burst open in the first place, the corrupt MMS regulatory regime and our insatiable appetite for crude oil. That is the standard we judge him by.

Theoretically, to judge Obama’s success by the standard of “is he getting it done” you’d need to create “counterfactuals,” where you test his choices against all other conceivable ones. (Note: not stopping the spill doesn’t mean failure; if we had counterfactuals, we might find out that even the best course of action conceivable wouldn’t have allowed the president to stop the spill sooner than he has.) But in practice, the fact of theoretical unknowability doesn’t mean we say “screw it” and decide, instead, to report on people’s perceptions of reality, on feelings or moods or zeitgeist or whatever it is Maureen Dowd is doing. No, it means we work a little harder, investigate the administration’s actions, use our analytical skills to make arguments (with evidence!) for or against them, and then draw conclusions. As it happens, I’ve seen embarrassingly little of that coming out of our press corps.

At the same time, this conception of politics as the material fact of getting goods to people in need helps give us perspective on the political back-and-forths of our moment. There’s a brilliant article out in Slate subtitled “What if political scientists covered the news?” It reads:

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.

Chief among the criticisms of Obama was his response to the spill. Pundits argued that he needed to show more emotion. Their analysis, however, should be viewed in light of the economic pressures on the journalism industry combined with a 24-hour news environment and a lack of new information about the spill itself.

Recast Obama’s popularity as a function of the structural forces at play at any given moment — as the result of the slumping economy, the progress of his agenda through Congress, and the fact that a blowout preventer a few thousand feet under the water has been spewing oil for a month — and you start to realize that the narratives about his “feelings” and “leadership” and “tone” are just ex post facto rationalizations. You realize that these narratives, as Jon Chait explains, are most properly understood as “bullshit.”

I think our pundit class would be a whole lot better if they acknowledged these simple truths: first, things happen to countries; then, presidents respond to those things that happen; those responses are bounded by the nature of those things that are happening (say, how much expertise the federal government has on offshore drilling), and, moreover, by the conditions of the world we live in. While the president steers the ship of state, he can’t be held responsible for the conditions of the water.

After all, isn’t this perspective what drew us to Obama in the first place? At the center of his campaign was a promise: to move us beyond the theatrics of politics — beyond the cynical new left/new right vocabulary of our parents, and beyond the erratic “suspend my campaign to fix the financial crisis!!” cowboy politics of his opponent — and towards a politics of reason, deliberation and decency, even when that doesn’t play so well in the media. Towards the politics of getting things done. That was the “change you can believe in” and it is perhaps the man’s deepest conviction: that we can be responsible and civic even in times of great urgency.

So let the guy be calm in crisis. That’s why we elected him, right?

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* Adopt this perspective and you see why racism is best understood as what you choose to do not what you feel and claim. (Re: Rand Paul.)

Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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