President Bush's harshest critics often described his look during moments of crisis as "deer in the headlights." After two years of Hope and Change, America has grown accustomed to President Obama's crisis face: eyes glazed over.
At his first press conference in 308 days, Obama fielded questions about the Gulf oil spill, immigration, the war in Afghanistan and the mounting outrage over Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak's job-trading allegations with a sluggishness bordering on geriatric. His aplomb was a bomb.
The commander-in-chief's mumbling, diffident tone contradicted the "I CARE" message of urgency that drifted across the teleprompter screen and rolled languidly off his tongue.
"I am angry and frustrated," he heaved. Rather unconvincingly. He was "singularly focused," he asserted. Rather distractedly. The president did manage to work up enough energy to condemn BP and then turned to a moment of obligatory self-aggrandizement: "I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis."
How "on top" was he? Well, not enough to take the time on Thursday morning before his much-hyped appearance to nail down the details of how and why his Interior Department Chief of the Minerals Management Service Liz Birnbaum was no longer in office. "You're assuming it was a firing," Obama told reporters. "I don't yet know the circumstances." He explained that he was preoccupied with other matters and couldn't get ahold of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
When pressed to elaborate, he heaved again: "I don't know."
Then, addressing all the ignorant Americans who have failed to appreciate his rescue efforts, Obama mustered up a semblance of indignation: "Those who think we were either slow in our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred."
And this is the Obama definition of accountability: blaming everyone else for lacking the Ivy League-honed comprehension skills to see the greatness of his fortitude and foresight.
How high of a priority did his administration really make the post-spill cleanup? After droning on haltingly about the federal failure to form an "oil...tracking...flow...group," Obama admitted with a shrug: "There was a lag of several weeks that shouldn't have happened."
With more self-pity than compassion, Obama wrapped up the rare press conference with a disjointed, off-script ramble:
"But look, we've gone through a difficult year and a half. This is just one more bit of difficulty. And this is going to be hard, not just right now; it's going to be hard for months to come. ...
"You know, when I woke up this morning, and I'm shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door, and she peeks in her head, and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?' -- (soft laughter) -- because I think everybody understands that, you know, when we are fouling the Earth like this, it has concrete implications not just for this generation but for future generations. ...
"And in case anybody wonders -- in any of your reporting, in case you're wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down.
"That doesn't mean it's going to be easy. It doesn't mean it's going to happen right away or the way I'd like it to happen. It doesn't mean that we're not going to make mistakes. But there shouldn't be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged, and I'm fully engaged, all right?"
Not waiting for an answer (or for any more nettlesome questions), he hurried off for a quick photo-op pit stop in the Gulf on Friday before jetting to Chicago to keep a high-priority promise to be back in his hometown for Memorial Day weekend.
The sterile performance was eerily reminiscent of his national security announcement last December from Hawaii, when he appeared before the American people in tie-less informal island wear to read a bloodless, perfunctory statement about the Christmas Day bomber. Eyes down on his notes the whole time, he described the failed attack with the weariness of a small-town sheriff's deputy, rather than as the leader of the free world. Then it was back to the beach. This is Obama in crisis: disengaged, put upon and impatient to get back to Me Time.
Rough men stand ready to keep and defend our well-being and safety. Someone wake President Obama when it's over.