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Is the Battle Already Lost?

June 16, 2010

Presidents typically address the country from the Oval Office only in times of crisis. On such occasions, the office serves as a metaphor and communicates a sense of gravitas, decisiveness and authority unique to the presidential office. President Obama’s use of the office tonight for his address on the response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis was consistent with this metaphor in every respect. Sadly, I believe it was the wrong approach, and will do little if anything to restore confidence here or abroad that recovery is coming much less possible.

Crises differ from disasters and catastrophes not so much in terms of their scope or scale as they do in the extent to which they cause us to question either our confidence in our leaders or their competence resolving the situation. This particular tragedy involves both elements. Public confidence in government has rarely been lower, and even his allies have begun to openly question the capacity of this President and his administration’s competence when it comes to the core functions of governing.

Like past presidential addresses from the Oval Office, this one framed the challenges confronting the country as a battle to be won. The use of militaristic rhetoric implies an enemy exists that we can defeat if only we exhibit sufficient resolve. While many people no doubt see BP as the enemy in this instance, it should have been made clear that this catastrophe is not only about the hubris and bumbling of BP as it as about how we as a nation have managed our destructive addiction to oil. Either way, a resolution to this crisis is not simply a question of technical prowess.

In the one instance during his address in which he used the word resilience (and even then only in the penultimate paragraph), President Obama employed it in a manner given the context of his earlier remarks that implied it was synonymous with ingenuity. This stands in stark contrast to the National Security Strategy he released at the end of last month, which used the term in a manner more consistent with robustness.

For sure, conventional notions of resilience emphasize both qualities: robustness and resourcefulness. Some add a third, redundancy and redesign, but these are often understood as extensions of rather than alternatives to the other two concepts. As Phil Palin noted in his post regarding the implications of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe on our understanding of resilience, the concept of resilience should and could mean so much more to us.

By committing himself and his administration so completely to a particular view of success — stopping the oil and remediating the damage — the President has so far failed to address the important part we all play in this recovery operation. Having shouldered the burden for success or failure, despite warning us that success would not come easy or fast, he has suggested in no small way that Gulf Coast residents (and to some extent the rest of us too) will be relieved of the burden of adapting to the new realities this catastrophe will almost certainly create.

Some time ago, I suggested that recovery affects us at a material and rational level on the one hand and on an emotional and moral level at another. We often experience and interpret these dimensions of crisis through the twin prisms of time and value. The longer it takes for us to appreciate the full extent and long-term implications of a crisis, the less likely it is we will have confidence that the same leaders who got us in the mess will help us get out. The same cannot always be said for our commitment to the assumptions and ideals that create the blind spots we share with them.

Ideally, a crisis of the scope and scale presented by the Deepwater Horizon disaster will force us to question our understanding not just of the situation, but also of the nature of understanding itself. That said, understanding is not only a question of rationality, but also of morality.

This brings us back to the question of responsibility. In an op-ed for CNN, Julian Zelizer made the observation in respect of the way off-shore drilling was regulated and supervised before the disaster, “Engineers have dominated decision-making over the scientists.” The professionals who self-identify with these two tribes debate the question who belongs to each of them all the time, but it is unusual for someone else to make such a distinction especially in response to a question of policy which cannot rightly be considered the primary province of either profession.

I suppose that Zelizer intended to imply that one focuses on knowledge and the other on its application. That is another way of saying one is interested in knowing and the other is focused on doing. One engages in an epistemic quest, a search for knowledge; the other is occupied with its ontological implications, with what is and what we can do with it. No matter how salient these distinctions may seem, both occupations remain firmly committed to a common world-view that holds that the path to what is true and right rests upon and is informed by the human faculty of reason.

In this instance, the nation is left wondering, though, what’s reasonable about this situation? How can we rationally reconcile ourselves with the knowledge that our appetites and our actions — even if they were executed by others on our behalf — led to this disaster without also accepting that it is also our responsibility to do something about it? The answer to this question does not rely on rationality. We often accept responsibility not because it is pleasing or rewarding to do so, but because the rightness and justness of such actions have the capacity to inform our intellect and our emotions, and in doing so imbues our circumstances in crises with meaning and purpose.

By reassuring us that he had the situation in hand and was sparing no effort to bring the situation to a successful conclusion on all fronts, President Obama required too little of us beyond our patience. But our understanding does not depend on patience, it depends on purpose. We will not win this so-called war if all we do is defeat ourselves. We cannot think our way of of the mess we have made. Neither can we afford to leave the thinking to others, even if they are cleverer than us.

If President Obama really wants to use this crisis as an opportunity to restore our sense of national purpose and pride, he needs to challenge us — all of us — along with his administration. We can all make a contribution, but only if we are willing to make sacrifices. We can begin by sacrificing the contradictory assumptions and expectations that suggest government is responsible for all that ails us and all that heals us.

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