President Barack Obama’s Beloved “Hail Fellow Well Met” Presidency, Part Two: The Diminishing Returns of the Oil Spill Speech
–Richard E. Vatz
For those readers who don’t follow every jot and tittle of my blogs (a mere 99.99% of you by last count), last year I predicted the following on these pages: “President Barack Obama’s ‘Hail Fellow Well Met’ presidency first ensured personal popularity and policy support. Then, within the first seven weeks, his policy support began to erode. If his actual domestic and foreign policy results do not at least augur some success, the President may find that even his personal popularity will lose intensity and then support, maybe not to the George W. Bush levels, but significantly.”
Historically, presidential speeches on major issues, war, the economy and others, have had a fairly predictable effect on the electorate: they produce a spike in public support, followed by a somewhat smaller effect for each succeeding speech, when there are succeeding speeches, until, if the policy has not been a manifest success, public opposition arises.
There are endless examples of this, but the rhetorical experiences of Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush will suffice.
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Thus, when President Barack Obama announced a major speech on the oil spill, I was really not incredulous, since his overestimation of his lastingly positive persuasive effect on the American public is a source of wonderment to some, but not to those of us who had seen this self-delusion grow in him or, more precisely, not diminish in him as his presidency progressed.
Still, I was unprepared for what happen; I thought his speech would create the traditional initial jump in public approval followed by a severe retrenchment when he next spoke publicly.
His speech was a rare first time failure, possibly because it had been preceded by weeks of perceived dithering (sorry – the new conservative favorite term in referring to the President). The country had seen a spill whose devastating consequences to the livelihoods of thousands and the lives of wildlife could go on until August wanted to know how the President was going to use the bully pulpit to stop the crisis.
Instead, the speech on June 15, 2010, creatively titled by the White House “Remarks by the President to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill,” while ostensibly about “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” offered not much and nothing new on that topic.
The President announced “the steps we’re taking to ensure that a disaster like this does not happen again.”
Aha! That could be the tough rhetoric for which the American people were waiting, but here’s President Obama’s recipe: “A National Commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place. “ Oh, and the President additionally pointed out that “Already, I’ve issued a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling.”
President Obama shook me from my viewing stupor when he said, And [the fact that we have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves is] part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean — because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.”
In one on the best response lines anywhere, Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post , “We haven’t run out of safer and more easily accessible sources of oil. We’ve been run off them by environmentalists.”
The president may have broken a record for failure to get a short-term spike on a pending policy issue with this speech, his first from the Oval Office.
It’s because being a “hail fellow well met” is insufficient when actual space-time events call for not a rehash speech, but an addressing of what would constitute a successful and practical presidential superintending of a crisis.
Professor Vatz teaches Rhetoric and Communication at Towson University