06.15.10

Obama Swoops In to Save the Day

Obama entered the Oval Office on the run for critics blasting his response to the BP oil spill. He left having once again shown why his calm, cool approach connects with the country.

In his first address from the Oval Office, Barack Obama was forceful and focused; comfortable yet commanding. The only surprise was that I was so surprised. I should have seen this coming.

With all respect to the millions of people riveted to the World Cup, we Americans are basketball fans, and our president knows that. The NBA has a bone-grindingly long season, but savvy fans know the real action comes in the playoffs, the toughest action comes in the finals, and the nut-cutting comes in the last games of the finals. Timing is everything.

Obama has been compared to Michael Jordan, but to me the president is more reminiscent of Jerry West.

His high school teammates called the future president "Barry O'Bomber" for his proclivity for launching long-range jump shots, and tonight he took yet one more high-pressure shot from downtown. Nothing but net.

The timing of when you shoot a tre is important: the later they come in a game, the more they matter. Three-pointers are the dagger that can put the game away or bring a team back from the dead. Tonight's speech was the latter.

More Daily Beast writers react to Obama's Oval Office speechIf Marshall McLuhan was right, then for this presidential address the setting was the message. For the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama sat behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and addressed his fellow Americans. From that room presidents have sent millions of Americans to war. They have sought to heal broken hearts, to remake our government and revive our economy. Barack Obama has, at turns, done all those things -- but never from the Oval Office. Even before he opened his mouth he communicated the most important message: dealing with the Gulf oil disaster is, as Joe Biden would say, a BFD.

This has become a pattern. In 2007, Sen. Obama was dead in the water in Iowa (well, dead in the cornfields anyway), his supporters began to panic. Obama listened to his internal clock and told his nervous followers not to worry - I'm a strong closer. And close he did. When the game was on the line he took his game to another level, and handily defeated both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

Thus began what is now a familiar play. He hangs back, holds back, resists fully engaging. His supporters get nervous, then edgy, then panicky. And then he swoops in to save the day. It happened in the campaign, on health care, and now, can we dare to hope it's happening on the BP disaster?

As one who has been critical of the president's response to the disaster so far, I was enormously impressed with this speech. Obama communicated his personal commitment, and the commitment of the entire country, to the people of the Gulf region. He called for a new energy economy - one that creates more jobs and costs fewer lives. Perhaps most important, he made accountability a presidential priority. BP must be punished; the people of the Gulf must be made whole; the American coastline must be reclaimed.

He closed on an emotionally resonant note for all of us who grew up fishing in the Gulf: the blessing of the fleet. In so doing he told us that he gets it. He understands this is not about barrels of oil and billions of dollars. This is about a way of life. This is about a life-giving region. And this is about the eleven lives that were lost.

There is a villain in this story, and it's not Barack Obama. It is BP and its corporate cohorts. This is why the Katrina analogy is so unfair. The guy who was president when New Orleans drowned—I can't recall his name offhand—froze our government in icy indifference. His own people did not know that American citizens were stranded at the New Orleans convention center without food or water. They did nothing as Americans were drowning and families were clinging to life on their rooftops. Can any fair-minded person realistically compare that to President Obama's earnest, engaged--and until tonight somewhat emotionally aloof--response to BP? No way.

In fact perhaps Obama's rhetorical reticence is a result of him watching his predecessor read grandiose promises in New Orleans' Jackson Square, only to see no follow-through. Action is eloquence, the bard said. And our wonderfully eloquent president knows that no matter how powerful his words, he will be judged by his actions.

Barack Obama has been compared to Michael Jordan, but to me the president is more reminiscent of Jerry West. Exceedingly disciplined, sometimes maddeningly under control in an emotional sport, West was never one for high-flying, death-defying 360-dunks. But with the game on the line he rarely missed. That's why they called him Mister Clutch.

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Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as counselor to President Clinton in the White House.