There was once a defensive backfield coach at a local high school whose astringent description of one of his errant backs went this way: "All the sumbitch knows how to do is grit his teeth and back up." Much as it pains us to say so, the description, however inelegant, sums up fairly aptly a dominant streak in the administration of our current president, Barack Obama. Now we've said it, and lightning didn't strike us dead.
We regret having to say something like that, because we have been favorably disposed to the president, whose accession to power we greeted with high hopes, and whom, as a replacement for his predecessor, George W. Bush, we greeted with a sigh of relief. In many ways the change has been as beneficial to the country as we hoped it would be. Obama has focused attention on the excesses of Wall Street (caveat: even as he caved in on some of the more imperious demands of the big banks). He ordered an overdue review of our military commitments abroad (caveat: even as he maintained a holding force in Iraq and upped the ante in Afghanistan). He pursued the goal of health-care reform (caveat: though he sacrificed the concept of a public option, leaving the insurance companies still in the saddle).
And, finally, Obama showed us how to react to an environmental emergency. Not. For here is where we have to drop the irony of the caveats. Yes, Bush blew the problem of Katrina and remained clueless for precious days and weeks as the damage to New Orleans and the consequences to the people of the Gulf area intensified. The fact is, much of the language of that last sentence applies equally well to Obama and his temporizing formulas for handling what could become an even graver environmental disaster and may already be.
The oil spill that now threatens to destroy the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and to lay waste, ultimately, to the coastal lands of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, could have been prevented first of all by imposing strict limits and safety measures on the giant corporations (British Petroleum is not alone among them) which sought to exploit the Gulf's oil reserves without, it now seems clear, taking elementary common-sense precautions. And it must be remembered that "Drill, Baby, Drill!" was the war cry not of Obama's presidential campaign but of his opposition, and we find ourselves wondering just how it was that he ended up a convert to a course that was counter to sound conservation policy at best and dangerous at worst. In a word, the president caved, and now he seems unable to articulate a reasonable course of containment.
History records that when the big steel companies double-crossed President John F. Kennedy by going back on a promise to avoid price increases early in JFK's term, he reacted quickly, and, some would say, intemperately, by rolling back the price hike via presidential fiat. "My father always said they were sons of bitches," Kennedy said of the corporation heads he had just lessoned, and we recommend a teaching moment of that sort to the current inhabitant of the White House.