Did President Obama's Oval Office Address Hit The Mark?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Today, we're going to talk more about the Gulf oil spill, which is not only pouring thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf every day, it has put people out of work and is threatening to dramatically change the way of life along the coast. President Obama said last night that he'd push the BP oil company to create a restitution fund for those affected by the spill. He's meeting with company executives today.
But in some places, as we have discussed and as the president remarked last night, an entire way of life going back generations is threatened. How do you compensate people for the loss of a culture? We'll talk about that in a few minutes. We'll also go deep today on southern politics. It's our Wisdom Watch conversation later in the program.
But first, we want to talk more about the president's meeting with BP executives and his speech last night. He spoke from the Oval Office amid growing scrutiny over the manner, the aggressiveness with which he and his administration have responded to the oil spill in the Gulf and the worries of Gulf residents.
President BARACK OBAMA: The sadness and the anger they feel is not just about the money they've lost. It's about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost. I refuse to let that happen. Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of this company's recklessness.
MARTIN: In his speech last night, President Obama also issued a call for a new focus on clean energy saying now is the time to move firmly away from oil and other non-renewable energy sources.
Pres. OBAMA: The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America's innovation and seize control of our own destiny.
MARTIN: To talk more about the president's first primetime speech from the Oval Office, we've called Marc Lamont Hill. He is an associate professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College and he has a deep interest in politics and culture. He's with us now from Philadelphia. Thank you so much for joining us.
Professor MARC LAMONT HILL (Anthropology, Teachers College, Columbia University): Great to be here.
MARTIN: Now, of course you're aware, as the president is aware, that he's facing mounting criticism for being too cerebral, not aggressive enough, not angry enough about the situation. So the first thing I wanted to ask is what do you make of that criticism?
Prof. HILL: I think to some extent it's an unfair criticism. You don't want a president who's simply going to be reactionary. And I don't need a president who's going to be emotive in a way that is overly demonstrative or angry or maybe even irrational. I think the president does show anger. I think he does show outrage. He doesn't seem out of control. He seems principled and sober. I think that's a good thing.
But there are sectors of the American public that want to see someone cry, who want to see someone yell, who want to see someone turn red, so to speak, and that's just not going to be President Obama. We have to accept the president as he is.
MARTIN: Just in fairness, though, there were those who felt that President George W. Bush was not sufficiently engaged in Hurricane Katrina. And of course this was expressed sometimes in racial terms, you know, when Kanye West famously remarking that President Bush doesn't care about black people, which is then essentially saying the same thing. So it's just a situation where the shoe is on the other foot and the people who like him are going to defend him, the people who don't like him are going to see his response as lacking emotionally.
Prof. HILL: That's exactly right. I think the thing about, like a Kanye critique and the kind of critique that came around George Bush was less around his personal feelings toward the disaster or toward the people suffering, but toward his policy response.
Whereas with Obama, we seem to be actually be talking about whether or not he's angry enough, whether or not he's sad enough, whether or not he's outraged enough. And that to me is a bit of a troublesome public dialogue.
It seems to me and I think the president confirmed this last night that we need to kind of move away from the whole sky-is-falling mentality or the whole sort of excessively emotional response and really focus on what are the concrete strategies and plans that we can implement to fix this and to prevent it from ever happening again.
MARTIN: Well, his response was twofold. On the one hand, he committed specific federal resources to addressing the specific need. And then on the other hand, he talked about the long-term strategy, moving away from our reliance on fossil fuels he called it, actually, our addiction - and then moving to cleaner energy sources. Do you think that was an effective use of that time, of that speech?
Prof. HILL: Oh, it was an incredibly effectiveness use of time because I think the American people wanted to hear him talk just sort of in very clear terms about what he was going to do for the immediate and for the long term. Talking about fossil fuels, talking about offshore drilling, talking about deepwater drilling, talking about those things were of critical importance because that's what the American people were wondering.
They were also wondering, what are we going to do to compensate the people whose lives are adversely affected by this disaster, and people, as you mentioned, whose culture will be adversely affected for the long term. He hit all those points.
Now, I would argue from a policy perspective, he didn't give enough detail. He didn't talk about what we're going to do for shallow water drilling. He didn't offer any concrete plan for how we can get off this fossil fuel addiction. From a policy standpoint, I don't think he said enough. But in terms of allaying the anxieties of the American people and moving forward his political agenda, I think he did a good job.
MARTIN: And also, again, from a political standpoint, is there any risk in owning the problem, to use a phrase that people like these days? In that unlike Katrina, there is an oversight aspect of this, but the government is not an oil company, and yet now he has associated himself with fixing the problem. Is there a political risk to that? And I guess the converse question would be is there any other choice? Does he have any other choice but to own the problem?
Prof. HILL: Well, and that's just it. I mean, there is a political risk to it. But just like we saw with Obama in his race speech, just like we saw with (unintelligible), all throughout his career he takes these, he makes these risky moves, but he typically does it when his back is against the wall.
President Obama, like any other president, would certainly love to have just made this a BP issue and he's going to just slap BP in public and sort of make it clear that they're at fault. That'd be a great thing to do.
But the reality is there are these issues of regulations. There are these issues of the Department of Interior not doing enough. There are a lot of people with dirty hands here and the public knows that. And so for Obama to ignore that would be even more dangerous, would make him look even more irresponsible.
So his stance of: It was my fault because I trusted BP and BP is incompetent, that kind of narrative is what he has to invoke so that he can assume some blame, but still make BP the ultimate foil. He's done that to a large extent. I'm not sure, though, that the American people are completely convinced. Right now only 50 percent of the American public thinks that Obama is handling this better than Katrina. That's a pretty bad number.
MARTIN: Now I'm going to ask you to speculate, finally. Do you think that he contained the flow, as it were, or contained the damage to himself? Do you think he moved the dial along in any way with the speech last night?
Prof. HILL: Oh, absolutely. He seemed his most impassioned. He seemed his most clear. And although I still think his speech lacked policy clarity or policy specificity, he gave more detail than at any moment. He got the American people's attention, and he let them know that he cares. That's critical and I think that he's moved the ball forward for himself and for the American people.
MARTIN: Marc Lamont Hill offers commentary on politics. He's an associate professor of education and anthropology at Columbia University, and he joined us from Philadelphia. Thank you so much for speaking to us.
Prof. HILL: My pleasure.