Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Obama and the BP oil catastrophe

I have my reservations about UC-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff's theories on political framing for Democrats. Sometimes it seems to me he seems to confuse slick communications with substance, though he's usually pretty careful not to.

In his Berkeley Blog post Obama’s missing moral narrative and the intimidating right-wing message machine 06/01/2010, I have one of those reservations when he gripes that Obama's calculated, trying-to-please-everyone response looks "weak when it needs to be strong." Republicans endlessly try to characterize Democrats as "weak", and our silly pundit corps is generally happy to play along. It's kind of a throwaway analysis. Since all Republican base voters are likely to say that Obama is "weak" - even when they also think he's ruthlessly turning the country into a Bolshevik tyranny - it's about as safe as it can be to say that something Obama does looks "weak".

And, at the moment, it fits in with the goofy pundit narrative that Obama needs to theatrically show anger over BP. It seems he took their advice and came out with this on the Today show, from MSNBC's report on the interview:

Obama also defended himself against criticism about his handling the disaster, saying he had been in the Gulf a month ago before "most of these talking heads were even paying attention."

"I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar," the president added. "We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick."
Did that make him look "strong" to our Pod Pundits? To me, it sounds kind of silly.

But then, I've gotten so used to hearing Obama take a seemingly strong position (remember the late lamented public option?) and then fold (remember back when he was going to close the Guantánamo branch of the gulag by January 2010?). What would show me that he's both strong and taking a sensible stance would be if he prosecutes BP, phases out deep-water drilling altogether and uses this Gulf disaster to push hard for major initiatives on alternative energy and climate change legislation.

But Lakoff does have some more useful observations in that post:

The president did the required minimum. He placed a moratorium on offshore drilling and canceled oil leases in the Gulf and off Virginia. He appointed a commission to make safety recommendations. And he is reorganizing the Mining Management Service. All to the good, but …

Crises are opportunities. He has consistently missed them. This was a grand opportunity to pull together the threads — BP and the spill, Massey and the mine disaster, Wall Street and the economic disaster, Anthem BlueCross and health care, the Arizona Immigration Law, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — even Afghanistan. The press threw him fastballs straight down the middle, and he hit dribblers every time.

It’s not that he said nothing to tie them together. But there was no home run, no unifying narrative, no patriotic call to the nation on the full gamut of issues. Instead, there were only hints, suggestions, possible implications, notes of concern — as if he had been intimidated by the right-wing message machine.
Or, as if he's more committed to the neoliberal agenda of deregulation than he is to protecting the environment and the public.

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