President Barack Obama’s Oval Office speech Tuesday marked the end of an era — an era in which at least half the population believed any crisis could be defused by one man’s supposed rhetorical genius and personal charisma. The derisive reception of Obama’s Tuesday night speech from the Oval Office on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill makes it clear that Obama’s sweet voice no longer suffices, not even for his biggest boosters.
The thrill that Obama’s rhetoric once sent up the leg of MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews is apparently gone. Obama’s repeated references to Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s Nobel Prize, Matthews said, now make him want to “barf.” He compared Obama to President Jimmy Carter. Keith Olbermann, who normally wouldn’t hesitate to lavish praise on Obama for coughing, was almost as blunt. “It was a great speech if you were on another planet for the last 57 days,” he said. Even Howard Fineman, a font of Washington, D.C., conventional wisdom and a huge fan of the president, suggested that Obama wasn’t acting like a commander in chief.
All three liberal commentators agreed: The speech contained little substance and far too few specifics. Even Obama’s fans are catching onto a key feature of his political success. Biographer David Mendell described it before Obama’s election as “his ingenious lack of specificity. While talking or writing about a deeply controversial subject, he considers all points of view before cautiously giving his own often risk-averse assessment, an opinion that often appears so universal that people of various viewpoints would consider it their own.” Now that a crisis is afoot, such hedging no longer helps Obama become all things to all men. Instead, it makes him appear unprepared. He’s once again the state senator who voted “present” 130 times, and who on at least one occasion was present and near the Senate chamber but withheld a controversial vote.
The same day Obama spoke, a new poll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that 50 percent of Louisianans think Obama’s response to the spill is poorer than his predecessor’s response to Hurricane Katrina. The tainted, oily tide has turned on the inexperienced man whom Americans placed in the Oval Office based on hopes and dreams and little else.