Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BP and Obama's incendiary cool

President Obama's BlackBerry dance card is full this week. He’s back from the Gulf Coast after another sitdown with the fisherman and officials of the region — his fourth visit since the oil spill went down on April 20. The president visited Gulfport, Miss.; Theodore, Ala.; and Pensacola, Fla., in the runup to tonight's address from the Oval Office. He’s also slated to have a meeting Wednesday with officials — possibly including Tony Hayward, the justifiably embattled CEO — of BP plc, the British superconglomerate responsible for the evolving catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

This week caps the last one, when Obama was under fire from all corners for what’s been loudly perceived as a lack of rhetorical fire and out-loud indignation about the spill. The filmmaker Spike Lee, earlier this month to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, admonishes the president as only Spike can, calling on him to “one time, go off! ... If there’s any one time to go off, this is it, because this is a disaster.”

Over a long career in movies, Lee’s clearly been willing to take his own advice — sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. But the calls from Lee and others for the president to show the outward, visible manifestations of outrage manage to overlook (among other things) one of the fundamental survival strategies of black Americans in general, and black men in particular. Maintaining a fundamental cool in the face of existential adversity isn’t just a guise adopted and abandoned when the mood strikes. It’s historical and basic to the African American world-view, basic in ways Obama’s detractors either don’t recognize or won’t accept.

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We’ve grown accustomed — according to the go-go, action-now dynamic that’s central to American identity — to the hard charger, the relentless personality whose outward drive we want to believe symbolizes our own drive and power as a nation.

Red-meat alpha-dog achievers like New York City uberplanner Robert Moses and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, as well as others in the business world, form the basis for much of the modern American self-image. For better and worse, these outsized, sometimes mercurial personalities have had a templatizing effect on our expectations of those at the pinnacle of American leadership.

So when the country’s forced to contend with someone whose fire burns less visibly but no less intensely — roughly the difference between a yellow flame and a blue one — it doesn’t quite know what to do. Americans don’t do cerebral that well, even when it’s attached to politicians. Especially when it’s attached to politicians. For President Obama, and for the nation, this poses a dilemma.

Obama inherits the legacy of countless black Americans for whom “going off” was never a viable option. The long history of the civil rights movement is defined by passive resistance on city buses, at sit-ins, at lunch counters and department stores, in public schools, in the streets and walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge — passive resistance often countered with physical and sometimes deadly force.

But the nation found out the hard way that passive resistance was never an end in itself. Black patience has its limits; in that same civil rights era, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and other U.S. cities encountered in flames what can happen when tolerance runs out. Black folks are no strangers to the precipice. “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head,” said Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in “The Message,” the 1982 hip-hop single that personified young urban discontent.

President Obama is heir to both these aspects of black American identity: the preference for deliberation and measured response, and recognition of the all-too-human, That Did It moment, when the fuse of patience runs out, when discontent explodes. Literally.

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It’s true enough, and significant, that one presidential blowup in public vis-à-vis BP would send a signal that Obama experiences degrees of irritation — that not every crisis crossing his desk has the same impact, the same weight, and therefore shouldn’t merit the same uniform response.

But so much of what’s happening in the Gulf is already animated by anger — righteous outrage of the people whose lives and livelihoods have been crippled by the BP catastrophe. As a practical matter, or even as an emotional one, is there really much to be gained by Obama as Vein-Popper-in-Chief?

Among other things, such outward eruptions only contribute to the longstanding sub rosa national narrative about black people: erratic, explosive, unpredictable. Obama’s boxed in not so much by his office as by his own emotional inclinations, and the pitfalls he faces (or imagines he faces) if he acts in accordance with what too many Americans expect of black men already. Much of the criticism of Obama’s customary sang-froid seeks to measure the president by the standard metric of expected presidential response, based on the behavior, real or imagined, of his 43 predecessors, failing to take this distinction into account.

And in this circumstance, as with so many others throughout black American history of the previous two  centuries, there's the inevitable question: What’s the boundary of outrage? Once you start responding to crises in volcanic fashion, once you start "going off" ... where do you stop?

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No question about it, there are some elements of Obama’s stagecraft in the Gulf that could certainly use an overhaul. It's helpful that this most recent trip to the Gulf lasted longer than before. In his previous visits, the president was barely on the ground long enough to have a cup of coffee with chicory before he was wheels-up again, heading back to Washington. It’s good he came and set a spell this time.

Maybe next time down there, his body man, Reggie Love, will pull the boss aside at some point and gently suggest he wear something other than a business shirt and dress slacks to visit with the real first responders: the people working the shovels on the beaches, folks whose wardrobes consist of masks and hazmat suits. Or the residents manning their boats in T-shirts, jeans and oil-resistant boots. That’d send a hugely symbolic signal right there.


What Obama’s detractors are calling an inability to froth and snarl may, ironically, be the most evocative and honest expression of emotion about the BP spill. It may be that the president realizes the ultimate futility of putting this indescribable environmental horror into words – that he gets how all of his considerable rhetorical gifts pale in importance to the process of just getting the job done.

We can expect the unforgettable fire he’s capable of tonight, when he addresses the nation from the Oval in prime time.

And count on it: If President Obama does offer a call to arms — some Gulf Coast version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” — sure as day follows night, some of his detractors will weigh in, calling it “grandstanding” and “high-handed.”

“Obama thunders, but talk is cheap,” they’ll say, “where’s the action from this administration?”

That’s the dilemma the president’s in: damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. He may have decided that it’s better, under these circumstances, to trust his own emotional thermometer rather than someone else’s.

With the awesome leverages of the presidency in hand, there’s more than one way to be an incendiary achiever. A dragonslayer can breathe a quiet fire of his own. Watch for that this evening.

Image credits: Obama top: Pool image, March 2010. Theodore Roosevelt: From the Prelinger Collection, released to public domain. Greensboro lunch counter protesters, January 1960: Via cdn.dipity.com. Obama with advisers: Pete Souza/The White House.

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