Criticism of the President’s speech last night ranged from the lack of specific policy asks to the aggressive tone he took in describing what BP would be forced to do. But those elements are what made the speech a short term winner – and possibly the only viable course of action.
Though it breaks a personal moratorium on referencing Ronald Reagan, the purpose of this speech should have been similar to the 1986 speech after the Challenger disaster. That speech sought to restore confidence in American ingenuity, which had just taken a very dazzling and public hit.
Obama’s speech had a similar goal – channel and focus people’s emotions. In his case, he wanted to empathize with Gulf residents and all Americans who will feel the environmental brunt of a company’s mistake. The policy ideas he put forward are window dressing for the bigger message – he feels your pain, and he’s going to inflict some of it on BP through a relief fund that the oil company will fund but not direct. (Something that would have been a good idea for BP to set up in the first place.)
Could he come out of this swinging and missing? Could BP challenge the seizure of their assets in court – and, conceivably, win? Perhaps, but after waiting 57 days to make this statement, it’s the best message the President has.
Plus, if BP weasels out of the bill some how, the President will still have a chance to make them the bad guy. Just because a James Bond villain jumps in an escape pod and eludes capture doesn’t make Bond’s effort any less heroic. It just means that Obama will have to find new and creative ways to hold BP accountable – something like tax credits for owners of local BP gas stations owners who want to change their affiliation.
It may not be good policy, but it’s good politics. As the old saying goes, when you see a mob coming with pitchforks and torches, either grab a torch and join the crowd or start running in another direction.