PRUDEN: Playing the bully is fun

Since he doesn’t know what else to do about the Gulf oil spill, Barack Obama plays the schoolyard bully. By throwing sticks, stones and the occasional grenade at British Petroleum, the president diverts public attention from his own considerable shortcomings.

It’s working, sort of, but only for the short run, which is sometimes enough to get a politician out of a rough patch. The public, being as frustrated as Mr. Obama, dutifully joins the mindless din of threats, imprecations, insults and other affronts to the only people, bad or not, who know how to cap runaway oil wells. Seeking relief in the short run is tempting because presidents, like fake messiahs and other con artists, come and go. The consequences of presidential calamities and catastrophes, like the destruction of the American health care system, stay with us well into the long run.

Anyone who listened to the president Wednesday night (his numbers were down considerably) could see and hear frustration in his voice. No one, not even a messiah, can watch his approval numbers plummet so dramatically and not feel frustration, and maybe even a little fear. Mr. Obama has never given evidence of seeing himself as others see him, but even he must be aware that he is in a job requiring different skills than he has. Making pretty speeches, as entertaining as pretty speeches are, just doesn’t get the job done. Oil wells just won’t listen. Why wouldn’t he feel the growing fear the rest of us do?

A website called the Global Language Monitor, which studies these things, reckons that the president aimed his speech at the elites, not the plain folks that politicians and their gurus ordinarily crave. The president’s pie-in-the-sky talk about an alternative-energy future thrilled the elites, who figure that, being smarter than everyone else, they can avoid most of the sacrifice to get to that distant future. His only specifics, that he would continue his ban on new offshore drilling, certainly couldn’t thrill any of the plain folks along the Gulf coast who will be thrown out of their jobs to buff the aesthetics of the elites. Mr. Obama, despite his reputation as a great orator, spoke mostly in long sentences crafted in the passive voice beloved by bureaucrats, academics and other fuzzmasters determined to avoid being clearly understood - as in, “mistakes were made,” not the honest and robust “I made a mistake.”

Mr. Obama not so long ago decided we shouldn’t call the war on terror “the war on terror” because it might offend the Muslim red-hots who are making war on us, but he nevertheless cast the effort to plug the Deepwater Horizon well in metaphors that any warmonger would love. He called the plugging and the clean-up a “battle” against “an oil spill that is assaulting [our] shores and citizens.” Now the president is fighting two wars, an undeclared war in Afghanistan and a declared war against an oil slick. Whoever finally plugs the well should expect the Medal of Honor, or at least the Navy Cross, with the president himself to pin the medal on his breast in a ceremony aboard a Gulf oil rig.

The British government, rightly suspicious of Mr. Obama’s true feelings about America’s oldest, most reliable and most effective ally, regards the president’s declaration of war against the oil slick as a declaration of war against BP shareholders (40 percent of whom are Americans) and British old-age pensioners whose trust funds are invested in BP stock shares. The president finally invited BP executives to the White House this week, 58 days after the Gulf spill, and allotted them 20 minutes (about the length of time championship basketball teams get) to agree to a $20 billion fund to pay for damages to the Gulf Coast.

David Cameron, the new British prime minister, urged the president to keep his appetite for public revenge in reasonable check: “BP is an important company. It is an important company for people’s pensions, it employs thousands of people in the U.K., it pays a lot of tax. It’s important to try to give some level of clarity and certainty so that the company can actually continue and be financially stable. … This is BP’s worry, that there won’t be claims entertained that are three or four times removed from the oil spill. This shouldn’t be about going after BP for the sake of it.”

This sounds fair and reasonable, but fairness, clarity, certainty and reason are not just now on the president’s agenda. Leading a lynch mob may not be a workable strategy for the long run, but in the short run it’s an entertaining diversion.

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Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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