06.14.10

Obama's Next Trick: Live from the Oval Office!

Obama speaks to the nation Tuesday night from the Oval Office—marking his first use of the setting historically reserved for the gravest of crises. Mark McKinnon on the expectations game.

Spock is headed to the bridge of the Enterprise where he's going to broadcast a message to the galaxy.

He's telling us this is serious folks. Listen up.

Tomorrow night, President Obama will address the nation for the first time from the Oval Office. That it is the first time is remarkable in itself.

The oil spill has already ruined the Gulf. Let's hope it doesn't ruin a presidency as well.


Former President Ronald Reagan tells the nation about Challenger

Video screenshot

Ronald Reagan spoke directly to the country from the Oval Office 33 times, five times at the equivalent point of his presidency. George W. Bush addressed the nation from behind the Resolute desk six times (including the night of 9/11, the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack, three Iraq-related speeches, and one on immigration). Team Bush knew speeches from the Oval are very hard to pull off. There's a "Man In The Arena" quality to the setting. No audience. No feedback. Just one camera. No cut-aways. It's a high wire act. It had to be really important. And the president had to really be good.

Tina Brown: Obama’s Not Your DaddyPresidents should use the Oval Office selectively. It has the weight and bearing of the Pope giving a special Mass at the Vatican. It's not the place to announce volunteerism awards. It's not a place for updates. It's a place to announce serious plans.

And that apparently is what Obama is planning: demanding from BP an escrow account to make quick, fair payments to those affected by the spill, and from Congress energy legislation with a much broader scope than had been contemplated before the spill.

Obama is rolling out the full chorus line for the Gulf this week. And while critics have suggested he do more, faster and earlier, no one is really clear on what he could have done that would have had any appreciable impact on the situation.

The timing now is good—assuming he has something substantive to announce.

Obama didn't use the Oval for the economic meltdown, the escalation in Afghanistan or to push through health-care legislation. By using the power of that office now, he is effectively saying this issue may be more important than all the others we've already faced.

Emoting more, as critics have demanded, would not have plugged the damn hole.

You can't ask Spock to break dance.

Obama is not Bill Clinton, and he shouldn't try to be. We got what we elected. We shouldn't expect anything different. To do so would be phony and inauthentic, something voters have come to loathe from politicians.

Let Spock be Spock.

You can't take command until you have all the facts. And you can’t just “do something” until you have some concrete solutions.

Obama could have camped out on the beach for the last five weeks (as Bill Clinton might have done). And he could have spoken from the Oval Office several times by now.

But like George W. Bush (who chose not to land his plane in New Orleans knowing it would interrupt the actual rescue efforts going on), Obama resists the theater.

He doesn't like "the game."

But if playing the game means gaining the confidence of the press and public and creating a better outcome, sometimes it's smart to play along.

Obama will take center stage tomorrow. And yes, it will be theater. But he is telling us with this stagecraft that he means business. And he has something important to say.

Let's hope so. The oil spill has already ruined the Gulf. Let's hope it doesn't ruin a presidency as well.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.