Cautious Consumers

Yesterday still more data was released that indicates that American consumers are not bullish.  This news follows on the heels of other statistics that reflect a significant lack of confidence in the economy and in prospects for a better future.   Consumer confidence is a leading indicator because cautious consumers do not spend, and when consumers are not spending the modern American economy is not growing.

It is hard to argue that the lack of confidence is misplaced.  Americans have been hit with lots of bad economic news lately.  Jobs are scarce.  Money is tight.  Businesses seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to investment, hiring, and growth.  The constant efforts by the Obama Administration to convince us that the economy is, in fact, recovering leaves the feeling that our leaders are either out of touch or blowing smoke.  There aren’t many signs that the economy is going to be booming any time in the near future.

Still, it doesn’t take a lot to change attitudes.  BP’s apparent success in capping the blown deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico may help people to start feeling better about America and its prospects.  Let’s just hope we don’t get hit with more bad news that overwhelms a resurgence in consumer confidence.

The Spreading Stain

As the oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, more than two months after the Deepwater Horizon sank, scientists have completed detailed models of ocean currents that predict where the oil will go.  It’s not good news for the Atlantic coast of the United States or the Atlantic Ocean generally; the simulation indicates that the oil will move into the “loop current” and then be whisked up the coastline and eventually into the north Atlantic.  It’s not certain, of course, and we may get lucky, but scientists think it is likely that the oil will move out of the Gulf in the next six months.

The recriminations about the original Deepwater Horizon incident and the government’s response to the incident are escalating.  Imagine how heated the political discourse will be if the oil continues to flow and, by Election Day, tar balls and oil plumes are polluting the beaches of the Atlantic coast of Florida and South and North Carolina.

Four Times (Or Is It Five?) And Counting

One of the chief talking points for the Obama Administration about the Administration’s response to the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico seems to be that President Obama has visited the region four times since the spill started.  I ask:  Why is this considered an important or even moderately persuasive talking point?  If the President goes to the Gulf to eat a snow cone and encourage tourism, or pick up a tar ball from a beach, are we supposed to think he is really accomplishing anything — other than providing odd photo opportunities?

I am sick to death of our “talking point” political culture where we get bombarded by the same “talking points” uniformly mouthed by the respective sides of an issue, but I am even more puzzled by “talking points” that don’t seem to make any sense.  With the environmental disaster in the Gulf, the question is whether President Obama and his team are actually accomplishing anything, not whether they are visiting the area to no particular effect.  The accomplishments — if there were any — could be achieved just as easily in the Oval Office as on a tarry beach in Louisiana.

Presidential Acting And Acting Presidential

In an interview broadcast today President Obama said that he talks to experts about the Gulf Oil spill because they can help him decide “whose ass to kick.” Some people have reacted negatively to the President’s use of the word “ass”; others have wondered why the President apparently needs experts to direct him on whose ass should be kicked; still others are applauding a comment that they view as an appropriate responses to a disaster of catastrophic proportions.

I don’t think our President should cuss like a sailor, but I don’t mind a well-chosen epithet that arises naturally in appropriate circumstances.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Harry Truman talked about “kicking some ass” once or twice when he was President, and if he did I bet his comment had a real impact on the immediate listeners.  My reaction to President Obama’s statement, however, was that it seemed, well, scripted.   News articles indicate that the President’s supporters have been urging him to show more anger and emotion, and the comment about “ass to kick” seemed like a carefully considered response to that criticism as opposed to a genuine, spontaneous reflection of true anger.

Trial lawyers know better than to try to make witnesses act in ways that are fundamentally contrary to their nature.  Juries may not particularly like a person who comes across as cold, or as a hothead, but they really hate witnesses who seem totally coached and inauthentic.  Most people can sense when someone is acting.  The look in the eyes doesn’t match the words, or the inflection and the gestures are out of sync.  I got that sense when I saw the clip of President Obama’s comments today.  I hope I am wrong about that reaction, because we don’t need a President who worries about tailoring his actions and reactions to satisfy the instructions of his advisers rather than worrying about the huge real-world problems he needs to address.

Wingtips On The Beach

The picture of President Obama, wearing dress slacks, a white shirt, and dark shoes as he “checked for tar balls” on a Louisiana beach, gave me an unexpected chuckle. 

I suppose the White House wanted to have a photo op that conveyed in some visible way the President’s concern about the oil spill, but why would the Leader of the Free World use a few minutes of his three-hour visit to beachcomb for a few tar balls?  Surely he could have used his precious time more productively.  And didn’t he feel a bit silly looking profoundly at a tiny tar ball, as if it held some meaningful secret on how to stop, or at least minimize, one of the worst environmental disasters our country has ever experienced?  I bet he was thinking: “This is ridiculous.  What kind of look am I supposed to have on my face right now, anyway?  Concerned?  Scientifically curious?  Angry?  Sad?  Why did I let Gibbs talk me into this idiocy?”

The photo of the white-shirted, dark-shoe-wearing President on the beach also reminded me of the classic shot of Dick Nixon relaxing on the beach, as he strode purposefully by, leaving wingtip prints in the sand.  Why do most Presidents look like nerds when they are on the beach?

The Competence Question

Peggy Noonan’s column today argues that the oil spill disaster raises serious questions about the Obama Administration’s assumed competence.  I’m not sure that I agree with the notion that people are concluding that the President and his team are incompetent, but I do think the implicit message of the oil spill and its aftermath undercuts the notion that the federal government can be trusted to handle everything.  Even if you assume that the President and his team were “fully engaged” and “totally focused” on the spill since “day one,” you still have to question the cumbersomeness, delay, and miscommunication that seems to necessarily accompany the involvement of the federal government in this kind of incident.  Why did it take so long to unleash the booms?  Where are the people and materials employed to try to keep oil out of the marshes and wetlands?

A quick tour by the Prez and an examination of a tar ball or two doesn’t address the issue of why the federal response has been so painfully slow.

The Widening Ripples From The Gulf Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon experienced a blowout and caught fire on April 20, 2010.  (I remember the date because it is my birthday.)  Since then, enormous amounts of oil have been spewing, pretty much unabated, into the Gulf of Mexico.  Amazingly, more than a month after the incident we seem no closer to plugging the spigot and stopping the flow of oil than we were the day the blowout occurred.

It is now clear that the United States is facing an environmental disaster of the first magnitude.  We have seen the pictures of the massive oil slick and the oil-soaked birds, we know about the fragile wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas on the Gulf Coast and the Florida coastline that will be devastated if they are reached by the oil slick, and we understand that entire industries — like the fishing and tourism industries along the Gulf Coast — are likely to be ravaged by the catastrophic spill.

It also seems clear that the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath will have significant political consequences.  Supporters of offshore deep water drilling for oil are going to have a tough time explaining why we should sanction risky conduct that, in the event of a mishap, threatens such appalling consequences and is apparently so impossible to remedy.  And while I am not someone who believes the federal government should be able to snap its fingers and solve every massive problem immediately, it is hard not to question why we haven’t been able to at least contain the spill and promptly collect, distribute, and place booms to try to fence off environmentally critical areas. There is a whiff of incompetence in the federal government’s seemingly haphazard response to both the initial incident and the resulting oil spill that no amount of political spin can dispel.