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View From Washington: Lesson Learned

View From Washington: Lesson Learned


Moments after the White House press corps on Thursday afternoon goaded Vice President Joe Biden into responding to Rep. Joe Barton's apology to BP's CEO for the government's "shakedown," Biden flashed an impish smile, paused, and began, "Thank God my mother wasn't around," before delivering a diatribe rife with moral indignation.

"I find it outrageous to suggest that if, in fact, we insisted that BP demonstrate their preparedness, to put aside billions of dollars--in this case, $20 billion--to take care of the immediate needs of people who are drowning--these guys don't have deep pockets," Biden jousted. "The guy who runs the local marina, the guy who has one shrimping boat, the guy who has one small business--he can't afford to lose $10,000, $12,000, $15,000, $30,000 a month."

Press secretary Robert Gibbs later added his own take on Barton and his cohorts: "It's hard to know what planet these people live on."

The White House was on a roll, trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat following another out-of-this-world experience: President Barack Obama's first Oval Office address.

The White House clearly wanted the nation to know the administration understood the gravity of the situation in the Gulf, but the president's dismal performance prompted an immediate and punishing outcry from pundits far and wide.

"I thought it was a great speech if you had been on another planet for the last 57 days," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

Even before the pile-on started, as I watched President Obama and waited and waited for him to offer up something that warranted an Oval Office address--leadership that matched the moment--a pit grew in my stomach. I'm not talking about style here, I'm talking about substance.

The president could have called on the Senate to finally move the stalled energy bill or some form of it; he could have offered a detailed cleanup plan and told average Americans how they could assist in the effort; or he could have laid out a government program for new unemployed graduates (of whom there are many) to help with the cleanup. I'm sure people much smarter than I could come up with a 100 better ideas that are feasible and appropriate and would have provided the nation with some sense of an action plan, a path forward that we could all embrace if we chose to. Anything that wouldn't have left Americans feeling as desperate 18 minutes after the president uttered the words, "Good evening. As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges."

Instead, Obama gave us more of the same: touting the "thousands" of clean up workers and National Guard troops that the White House has been selling for weeks but haven't been able to stop the oil from reaching our shores. Then he announced the appointment of a national commission to study what went awry on the rig, and added, "while I urge the commission to complete its work as quickly as possible, I expect them to do that work thoroughly and impartially."

And finally, the president made a call for ideas on how to stem the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, punctuated by, "But the one approach I will not accept is inaction."

Apparently, the disaster itself and the intervening 50-plus days were not enough to impel President Obama toward bold action, to move him beyond broad brush strokes to the tricky territory of specifics. Yes, laying out a precise road map carries the potential liability of serious criticism and even failure, but it also gives people an invaluable sense of what to expect and that they have a hand in controlling their own destiny. This is a national emergency--a bullhorn moment--and Obama appeared to be engaging an academic exercise.

It was only after every moderate-to-progressive pundit from the sweep of San Francisco to Portland, Maine panned his performance, his linguistics, his style, his lack of imagination, his aspirational anemia, that Obama went to the bargaining table with BP the next day and came up with $20 Billion to help compensate people who's lives have been devastated in the region--a good start.

Then Texas Rep. Joe Barton handed Democrats a gem and the White House, bruised and battered and perhaps a little desperate itself, pounced on his comments in just a little over an hour, calling it "shameful" that the congressman seemed "to have more concern for big corporations" than the residents of the region.

"Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a 'tragedy,' but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now," read the White House statement.

But this week was nothing new--rather, it was another lesson from a recurring narrative: This White House doesn't come out swinging without being backed up against a wall.

It did not put pen to paper on health care until a year into a battle nearly lost. It did not finalize a deal for "don't ask, don't tell" until the weekend before a vote that was going to take place with or without White House input. And in the wake of the oil spill, plummeting polling numbers triggered the trappings of import--a speech from the Oval Office--but still produced no meat.

Not until White House advisers realized they had basically lost everyone - friends and enemies alike in Washington as well as the heart of America - did a determined Obama show up to broker a deal that yielded the $20 billion escrow account.

I often wonder where we would be on LGBT issues right now if the community hadn't raised holy heck following the first DOMA brief last spring. This president and this White House only move decisively when their hand is forced. And that's something every advocate--whether working on behalf of labor, reproductive rights, immigration reform, the environment, or LGBT equality--should work into their calculus if they hope to inspire change during this administration.
30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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