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Gulf Coast water may not all be clear, but the difference between talk and action, between inexperience in a well-scripted package and actual leadership, is. You can see it in the persons and performances of Pres. Barack Obama and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. In the wake of the oil spill, President Obama has been widely considered missing in action, ineffective, and impotent. Jindal, on the other hand, was noticeably and commendably quick to his feet, on-the-scene, and effective. It’s a tale of two men many a national commentator wouldn’t have predicted as recently as last year.
To fully appreciate the contrast, rewind to February 2009, when the president delivered his first State of the Union address. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute praised Obama’s “effortless eloquence,” calling it a “sharp contrast with former president George W. Bush’s oratory”: “The optimistic beginning, the almost stern middle, and the uplifting end made for a tight coherence that differed from former president Bill Clinton’s hour-plus litanies of programs big and small.” And the president had the body language and photo optics perfect, too. “The calls for bipartisanship were underscored by a remarkable moment right after the speech: As President Obama made his way off the dais, he stopped to hug Tom Coburn, a senator from Oklahoma and his friend. The same Tom Coburn who is as conservative as any member of Congress.”
(Add “huggability” to “who would you rather have a beer with?” as a completely useless presidential-preference test.)
Liberal commentator Ruy Teixeira said it summed up Obama: “Somber, earnest — and effective. He’s giving Americans hope because they believe he takes change and problem-solving seriously. How refreshing.”
Bobby Jindal was the Republican tapped to give the traditional opposition-party response that night. Governor Jindal’s speech was nearly universally trashed. So were his future near-term political prospects.
“This was not Bobby Jindal’s greatest oratorical moment.”
“I think he had a really poor performance tonight. . . . It just came off as amateurish.”
“Even the tempo in which he spoke seemed like sing-song, and he was telling stories that seemed very simplistic, and almost childish.”
And that was just the response on the Fox News Channel.
The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato wrote: “What are Republicans to do? Judging by Bobby Jindal’s amateurish rejoinder, plagued by embarrassing audio hitches, they haven’t a clue. No one can compete with the majesty of a presidential address to a rapturous Congress. Jindal’s sights can now be set on 2016, not 2012.”
The political message coming in from the Gulf right about now screams of the fickleness of political punditry. By now, former Clinton political war-room adviser James Carville’s criticism of the White House’s “hands-offy” approach is the stuff of highly watched YouTube: “Man, you’ve got to get down here and get control of this, put somebody in charge of this thing and get this thing moving. We’re about to die down here.” But Carville is far from alone. His fellow Clintonite-turned-CNN-commentator Paul Begala didn’t disagree.
Nor does the general public in Louisiana. A survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic outfit, found that Jindal, who has an overall approval rating of 63 percent (vs. 31 percent disapproval), gets a 65–25 score when it comes to his handling of the spill. President Obama, by contrast, has an approval rating of 37 percent (vs. 57 percent disapproval). When it comes to the spill, the president’s rating is 32–62.
CNN found similar results, which it took as “evidence that the public’s view of Obama’s leadership is following the same pattern that George W. Bush experienced after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005.”
So much for the refreshing, problem-solving audacity of speechifying. Barack Obama, meanwhile, keeps talking. He talks as if he’s about to send a man to the moon. The key is that he talks. He talks and talks about the Nobel credential his secretary of energy has (and shares with his president).
The leadership gap is not lost on Jindal. In an interview at the end of May, the governor explained that “lines of communication are great” between him and the White House but that talking only goes so far. “Now we need action.”
The only real action the president seems to be on the path to is an energy tax. Moving back to his transformational political agenda, the president scattered his primetime speech with not-so-casual warnings about the associated costs of any spill cleanup. Democrats, too, have inaction in mind: halting offshore drilling. Believe it or not, that same poll that found Louisianans unimpressed with Obama and his BP performance shows that they haven’t dramatically soured on drilling. Seventy-seven percent of Louisianans polled still support drilling off the shore of Louisiana. While the president whines that “we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water,” Louisianans might have some suggestions. And the former governor of Alaska would be happy to direct him to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But that would require someone who doesn’t have a Nobel Prize to do the talking. And, well, then we’d be drilling and actually getting something done besides harmful legislation his caucus would have to fall on their swords for. Again. Against the will of even the people most affected by the latest presidential crisis-opportunity.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.