Obama’s Oval Office Speech: Reactions and Commentary

Obama's first-ever Oval Office address, on the BP oil spill, was short and, to critics, bittersweet. Tunku Varadarajan and Margaret Carlson grade his remarks.

Obama's Oval Office address on the BP oil spill was short and bittersweet. Tina Brown, Margaret Carlson, Paul Begala, Nicolle Wallace, and more Daily Beast contributors grade him.

Floating Above the ChaosBy Tina Brown

Obama seized the crisis, all right. But he praised people we've lost confidence in—and proved anew that the president doesn’t know much about management.

Obama’s speech was a strong energy bill pitch, necessary and resounding—a good use of the Rahm Emanuel theory that you should never let a crisis go to waste.

But he didn’t do what was needed: convey the sense that the CEO is back from offsite and now deeply, viscerally engaged in the messy process of management. The speech showcased what he has always shown us he is good at—articulating the overarching goal, and ramping up the rhetoric to meet it. But he cited too many names that have already lost our vote. Salazar, you’re doing a helluva job! Obama’s supposedly stellar Secretary of the Interior strikes the rest of us as doing a good impersonation of being all hat and no cattle—the guy who called himself the “sheriff” but put few of the miscreants at MMS under arrest. And Energy Secretary Steven Chu, leading what Obama called “a team of nation’s best scientists and engineers” in combating the spill, even as he ups the estimate of how much is gushing out from the ocean floor: the fishermen of the Gulf probably have views of where he can put his Nobel.


Swimming Against the CurrentBy Nicolle Wallace

The speech won’t set him back. But Bush strategist Nicolle Wallace argues it won’t change many minds, either.

President Obama took to the airwaves from the Oval Office Tuesday night to convince the nation that he has a “battle plan” to defeat one of the most dogged enemies ever to threaten our shores. He spoke tenderly of the plight of the Gulf coast shrimpers; he promised that the government will do what is necessary; he prayed for courage. And despite reports from early in his presidency that Republicans are not “rooting” for him, every American is rooting for our president to figure out how to plug the leak.

The problem with tonight’s calm, polished address isn’t that it lacked passion. It’s time for people to stop whining about our passionless president. The problem with Obama’s speech is that no matter how artful the rhetoric, President Obama can’t say anything that will match the power of the images we’ll wake up to tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. Even the clips from tonight’s address will run on split screens with live images of the gusher. And in the days, weeks and months ahead, the images will only become more wrenching as wildlife and miles and miles of pristine coastline are covered with crude.


We Need Plans, Not PrayersBy Mark McKinnon

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There was no grand plan or even any real specifics in Obama’s speech, and for those rooting for the president to succeed in the Gulf, it felt like an update—not a home run.

I’m not actually the most qualified person in my family to judge President Obama’s speech Tuesday night. That designation goes to my oldest daughter, a student at Tulane University during Katrina who recently finished a clinical rotation at a hospital in New Orleans. She is not particularly political, but she is passionate about Louisiana and the coast. And she gave me unshirted hell about the Bush administration’s response to Katrina.

Her verdict on Obama’s speech: “A lot of hopefully but not a lot of specifics about the cleanup.” She thought the president was optimistic but not realistic about cleanup projections.


Nothing But NetBy Paul Begala

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.


A Stubbornly Passionless SpeechBy Tunku Varadarajan

Obama chose a new location, the Oval Office, for his inaugural State of the Oil Spill address, but he stayed loyal to his actuarial side.

On Tuesday night, we saw the debut of a new oratorical exercise, one that may, in the short term—though, mercifully, without Nancy Pelosi seated in the background—come to rival the State of the Union (SOTU) address. Let us call it the State of the Oil Spill, or SOTOS.

Listening to the inaugural SOTOS, as brimming with bromides as the Gulf of Mexico is brimming with crude oil, one was struck by how passionless the president is. Don’t get me wrong, passion is no substitute for action; and on its own, passion is empty theater. But one was struck by how Barack Obama continues to place peculiarly stubborn trust in his actuarial side—you know, the side that was once described as “cerebral,” but which is now capable of little better than a litany of facts and figures: 30,000 persons working on the spill, he said; thousands of ships; 17,000 National Guard members; 5.5 million feet of boom…


Wasting a CrisisBy Margaret Carlson

Obama’s Oval Office speech was too little too late. Margaret Carlson on why he should have fired Ken Salazar and pushed for a real energy bill.

Such a small speech for such a big disaster.

Obama missed an opportunity to do something concrete about the oil spill—firing his Interior Secretary. If only the president had shut down Interior's Mineral Management Service instead of opening up new offshore drilling sites. This is where bipartisanship gets you into trouble. Instead he lamented that the problems "ran much deeper" than Ken Salazar knew (he only instituted new ethics guidelines against folks having sex and doing drugs with their charges). He could have known. Everyone who read the paper over the last few years did. Show him the door.


Obama's Leap of FaithBy Sam Donaldson

Another great Obama speech, which is not to be cynical about it; the caveat here is not just the familiar "deeds over words," it is that much of what the president said requires a leap of faith.

Despite his assertion to the contrary, the facts on the ground strongly suggest federal tardiness and ineptitude. The macabre gulf joke is that the 15/45 rule too often means clean up workers work for fifteen minutes and take a break for forty five!

The truly important part of his speech was the call to use this crisis as the catalyst to push forward a comprehensive energy policy that reduces our dependence on oil. Will the Congress respond? Only if the public demands it. Will a recession-preoccupied public demand it? I doubt it. I would love to be proved wrong!

Obama Declares Another WarBy Peter Beinart

The president’s Oval Office address on the oil spill sounded more warlike than his speeches on Afghanistan. Peter Beinart on how he’s seizing the crisis to push for major energy reform.

On the eve of his inauguration as president, Woodrow Wilson famously commented that “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” For Barack Obama, the irony has been exactly the opposite. Wilson, a former academic, famed orator and political newcomer who had barely traveled outside the United States, was unusually well-suited to champion progressive reform at home, but found himself presiding over a war instead. Obama, a former academic, famed orator and political newcomer who spent much of his childhood outside the United States, was unusually well-suited to remake America’s relations with the world, but has instead found himself presiding over a nation consumed by domestic peril.

In 2009, the financial crisis made Obama a domestic policy president; in 2010, the oil spill has confirmed it. Consider his address last night from the Oval Office. It was clearly designed to mimic a speech taking the nation to war. Obama talked about oil “assaulting our shores,” his “battle plan” for combating the disaster and near the speech’s end, explicitly compared the struggle for energy independence to World War II. The only thing missing was William James’ famous phrase “moral equivalent of war,” which Jimmy Carter employed when he demanded that America move beyond oil in a nationally televised speech 33 years ago. (Unless the U.S. changed course, Carter warned in 1977, “We will feel mounting pressure to plunder the environment. We will…drill more offshore wells.” How’s that for depressing?)


Where's the BeefBy Rick Outzen

Watching Obama’s Oval Office speech on the Gulf Coast with oil spill claimants, Rick Outzen found support for the rhetoric—and cynicism over whether action will follow words.

The Atlas Oyster Bar was packed. On Tuesday nights, all the sushi at this little bar, with its deck over Pensacola Bay, is half-price. Looking out into the water, you could see orange and yellow boom protecting the nearby marina and grass beds.

Inside, the young crowd watched President Obama give his first speech from the Oval Office, 512 days into his administration and 57 days since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Patrons elbow to hear his opening remarks, but time was not the president’s friend: gradually, over the course of the twenty minute address, they slipped back to their sushi rolls, beer and conversations about work days, heat and tar balls.