Once upon a time a time -- 1861-65 to be more exact -- the United States had another president from Illinois. Those lost in the present may consider that long ago, a piece of ancient history of no relevance to today's oh-so-advanced, oh-so-high-tech economy and society. For what could today's experts, technicians, pundits and poobahs possibly have to learn from a long-ago president in a stovepipe hat who by now has become more caricature than guide?
Such is the arrogance of the self-absorbed present, and why it so often leads to a failed future. For despite all their expertise, our scientists and leaders seem at a loss when it comes to plugging a spewing hole in the ocean floor.
All might have something to learn from Mr. Lincoln. He was dubbed the Great Emancipator, but, truth to tell, his prime objective, the goal for which he would sacrifice all else, and in the end did, was not freedom. Once his crisis struck, freedom became almost incidental to him. It was but another means to save the Union that had already been sundered by the time he took his oath of office as president of no longer United States of America. And that now lay writhing at his feet--some said beyond restoration. From that moment on, till he lay mortally wounded four years later, his mind and will were directed to but one goal: saving, reviving and re-creating that once vibrant Union. By any means necessary.
Call him single-minded. He was determined to save the Union no matter what he might have to sacrifice. Or as he himself would put it, if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave, he would. And if he could save the Union by freeing every slave, he would do that -- and did.
He knew what his duty was, and on what single basis history would judge him: Did he save the Union? As we would say today, the man was focused.
When it comes to the current crisis in the Gulf, you have to wonder if Barack Obama is.
This president confronts a different kind of crisis. A deceptive kind of crisis that has overtaken him -- and the country -- only slowly, rising like a foul tide that now threatens to wash away his once magic touch, his credibility, his presidency itself.
How's he doing? To hear him tell it, as he did direct from the Oval Office on Tuesday night, just fine. From the first, he's been on top of this thing: "From the very beginning of this crisis, the federal government has been in charge of the largest environmental clean-up effort in our nation's history...."
A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the country's secretary of energy, has assembled "a team of our nation's best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge...." For that matter, we now have a Nobel Prize-winning president working on it, too, which we find just as assuring as having a theoretical physicist who won his Nobel for his experiments with lasers in charge of a problem in petroleum engineering.
There's more: "Because of our efforts, millions of gallons of oil have already been removed from the water through burning, skimming and other collection methods. ... We've approved the construction of new barrier islands in Louisiana to try and stop the oil before it reaches the shore." (Those islands and berms may not have been built yet, but, after two months of incessant pleas from Louisiana's governor, they've been approved.)
Rest assured. Our president says he will refuse to let a whole way of life along the Gulf Coast be destroyed. (King Canute has spoken.) He will make BP pay for this disaster, preferably through a fund administered by a third party, whoever that turns out to be. And he is going to appoint not just a committee but a National Commission to investigate. There, don't you feel better already?
He's appointed a secretary of the interior, the all too well-known Ken Salazar, "to clean up the worst of the corruption" at the Mineral Management Service. No need to go into detail and mention that his first appointee to head that agency has left abruptly and without explanation.
He's now banned new drilling along the Louisiana coast -- no matter how safe it has proven, or what the moratorium on drilling will do to Louisiana's already stricken economy. Why is he crippling what remains of Louisiana's oil industry? To quote Lafourche Parish's president, Charlotte Randolph, who's clearly not afraid of speaking plain: "Mr. President, you were looking for someone's butt to kick. You're kicking ours."
He's going to "jump-start the clean energy industry," push cap-and-trade, and "seize the moment." For no crisis must go to waste.
"In the coming days and weeks," Americans are assured, "these efforts should capture 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well." Even if no one seems to know just how much that is, but only that each estimate of the size of the spill -- whether by BP's experts or the administration's -- seems to have been seriously understated.
Never fear, all is under control. The list of remedies the president recited Tuesday night is nothing if not wide-ranging, not to say diffuse. (And at least as murky as the oil spill itself.) When it comes to stopping and containing this danger, our president seems all over the board. What he doesn't seem to be, despite all his protestations, is focused.
How's he really doing? The best way to answer that question might be to pose a few others: Does anyone still believe him? Does anyone doubt he's politicizing the problem rather than solving it? Does anyone doubt that he is exploiting a national crisis to push an agenda he had in mind long before the oil spill?
To ask such questions is to answer the one about how well Barack Obama is really doing: not very well. Americans are a pragmatic people; we really don't much care how a problem is solved so long as it is. The country demands action but it's getting speeches. Instead of a chief executive, we seem to have a community organizer-in-chief.
Our president may be great at consulting all and sundry, but he will be judged by what he's doing, not saying. And at the moment that appears to be not nearly enough. The American people may forgive a president almost anything, but not incompetence. (See the failed presidencies of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.) And once a presidency is tagged as incompetent, it's over.
For some reason Tuesday night, listening to Mr. Obama's latest words on this subject, we were reminded of Lyndon Johnson's recurrent speeches in the sad Sixties about all the progress that was being made in Vietnam. The more speeches he made, the less effective he proved.
This is a country that demands solutions, but at least for now, it's getting mainly words. And that's how Barack Obama is really doing. Which is unfortunate. For us all.
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