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The Thrill is Gone

The Thrill is Gone

By Jack Kelly - June 6, 2010

"I felt this thrill going up my leg," MSNBC's Chris Matthews famously said after hearing Barack Obama speak during the 2008 campaign.

But after the president's news conference May 27, the thrill was gone.

"He has not acted like (the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) is more important than something else like a fundraiser in California or an interview about basketball with Marv Albert," Mr. Matthews said. "He doesn't seem to be taking ownership."

The news conference was Mr. Obama's first in 310 days. His performance makes it likely it'll be at least that long before he holds another.

The low point came when Mr. Obama professed not to know whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, the woman he appointed to head the Minerals Management Service, resigned or was fired. No one expects the president to don scuba tanks and plug the hole himself. But he at least ought to know what's going on with his own people.

"He came across as a beleaguered bureaucrat in damage control," wrote Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly.

The day after the news conference, the president went to Louisiana for the pro forma visit to show he cares. But Mr. Obama conducted it in so pro forma a manner that few of the gullible were gulled. He was on the ground just three hours -- about as much time as he spends on the golf course when he's playing just nine holes -- before jetting off on his second vacation since the crisis began.

The "story line" of the Obama presidency is "passivity, detachment, acquiescence and compromise," said New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

More ominous for Mr. Obama than the cooling ardor of formerly adoring fans in the news media is what happened when the president came to Pittsburgh Wednesday to make a speech. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Democratic Senate nominee Joe Sestak, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Onorato, who lives in Allegheny County, were all too busy to attend. Democratic Reps. Mike Doyle and Mark Critz, who represent portions of the area, also had other plans.

When the president held his news conference, it appeared as if British Petroleum's latest effort to plug the leak would succeed.

"Make no mistake," he said. "BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance."

But now that the latest effort has failed, a different tune is being sung.

"The Obama administration is taking steps to distance itself from BP and is dispatching Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to the Gulf to meet with federal and state prosecutors," the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

The threat of criminal prosecution has to be galling to BP executives, since over the last 20 years they donated more money to Mr. Obama than to any other politician. But as BP executives are learning to their sorrow, Barack Obama cannot be bought. He can only be rented.

It's doubtful these contributions played a role in the plans the Minerals Management Service had to give BP a safety award this year. But they do place a crimp in administration efforts to blame this crisis on former President Bush, as does the cozy relationship between BP's public relations firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Criminal prosecution may be warranted, if it turns out BP deliberately short-circuited safety procedures. But now the focus should be on limiting the damage. There the federal government has been notoriously lethargic. Particularly vexing has been the administration's refusal to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that's denied Gov. Bobby Jindal permission to build sand berms to protect Louisiana's wetlands.

"America is watching the president alternate between wringing his hands in helplessness and pointing his finger in blame when he should be solving the most pressing environmental problem America has faced in the past 50 years," said political consultant Dick Morris. "The president acts like a spectator, interrupting his basketball games only to excoriate BP."

In retrospect, it ought not to be surprising that someone who never actually did anything before being elected president would respond to a crisis like a deer in headlights.

"A gift for reading from a teleprompter is not the same as leadership," noted Liz Cheney. Many liberals now agree.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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