Friday, May 28, 2010


I defended the president in the last post, mostly because at that moment I felt like taking a shot at the press (which I still believe was a healthy instinct) -- but it's odd because I'd been considering a very different post, in response to this:

Tackling an environmental crisis quickly becoming one of the most serious political threats to his presidency, President Barack Obama insisted Thursday that critics of the federal government’s response to the oil spill in the gulf "don't know the facts."

"Those who think that we were either slow in our responses or lacked urgency don't know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred," Obama said during a rare news conference in the White House East Room. "We understood from day one the potential enormity of this crisis and acted accordingly." ...

Well, he's the president. He's the guy with the bully pulpit. If we don't know the facts, um, doesn't he bear a great deal of the blame for that?

But that's him -- he taught law at an elite university, but we'd be better off if he had taught second-graders, because maybe he'd have learned the necessity of explaining things on a regular basis in extremely simple language, a skill that would come in handy when dealing with the American public. (Those morning chats with Malia clearly aren't sufficient.) I ragged on the press for seeming to wish we had a president who whips himself into a frenzy that doesn't accomplish anything, a John McCain if you will; I think the press actually wants that more than the public does. But while the public doesn't want hysteria, it does want really, really basic information explained at a very simple level, and it wants this repeatedly because it's not always paying attention. (The Republican Party is much, much better at grasping this.) Obama thinks we're all 99th-percentile students, and we'd better keep up.

Well, that's him. That's his nature. It's also his nature to really believe that men in very expensive suits are likely to be acting in good faith. He's not Bush -- he doesn't believe that government exists primarily to aggrandize the overdogs. He believes in regulation and oversight and accountability. His problem is that he thinks fat cats believe in those things, too. He can't get it through his head that they're trying to get away with everything they can all the time and need to be watched like parolees, by definition, because that's the nature of people who do what they do.

So of course he didn't come into office assuming it was a priority to beef up regulatory agencies. That's also not how he sees his job. I keep thinking about a much-quoted anecdote from Jonathan Alter's new Obama book: Rahm Emanuel reportedly asked Obama to scale back the health care plan as it met resistance in Congress, and Obama, according to Alter, rebuffed Emanuel:

"This is about whether we're going to get big things done," Obama said. "I wasn't sent here to do school uniforms."

I think Obama thinks having dogged regulators in place is "school uniforms." It's small ball. It's not transformative. It's not a big part of what matters to him.

Well, he's the only president we've got....

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