As I mentioned earlier, it’s Navy Week in New Orleans. One of the stolid, gray Navy ships docked at the pier on the Mississippi River is the U.S.S Mitscher. As one of the polite, crisp, white-clad Navy officers who are everywhere around town patiently explained to me, the Mitscher is a guided missile destroyer that is bristling with weaponry. “It’s a great ship,” he said. It’s named after World War II hero Admiral Marc Andrew Mitscher, and its motto is “Seize the Day.”
There is something remarkably appealing about large sailing ships, with their masts towering far above, furled sails, and flags snapping in the breeze, all shined and polished and painted for display. When you have the opportunity to see them on the mighty Mississippi, it’s an even bigger treat.
Although he has a reputation as a fine public speaker, President Obama often struggles to make his point and move on. At times, he seems to get trapped within expanding metaphors, fighting without success to make his way out.
I first noticed this after he was elected, when he sought to explain why he wouldn’t follow Republican economic advice. His simple point was: they’ve just driven the car into the ditch, and now they want the keys back. By the time he was done, however, the Republicans were sipping on Slurpees, the President and Democrats were mud-splattered and down in the ditch, and the illustration had become so weird and leaden you were rolling your eyes.
The same problem arose during the interview of the President on 60 Minutes. When asked about unemployment, he gave a long response that included this statement:
“And, you know, sometimes when I’m talking to my team, I describe us as, you know, I’m the captain and they’re the crew on a ship, going through really bad storms. And no matter how well we’re steering the ship, if the boat’s rocking back and forth and people are getting sick and, you know, they’re being buffeted by the winds and the rain and, you know, at a certain point, if you’re asking, “Are you enjoying the ride right now?” Folks are gonna say, “No.” And [if you] say, “Do you think the captain’s doing a good job?” People are gonna say, “You know what? A good captain would have had us in some smooth waters and sunny skies, at this point.” And I don’t control the weather. What I can control are the policies we’re putting in place to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Odd to hear the President depict Americans as seasick passengers on a ship, isn’t it? And his simple point, that passengers won’t enjoy a ride through rough waters, even when the captain is doing the best job possible, also morphs into the whiny refrain that the President doesn’t control the economic “weather”– even though Presidents happily take credit when skies are sunny.
Ship metaphors are hackneyed and dangerous, because lots of bad things can happen on sea voyages — things like mutinies, shark attacks, being shanghaied, forcing people to walk the plank, and having to deal with evil, crazed, or obsessed captains like Captain Bligh, Captain Queeg, and Captain Ahab. I wouldn’t be surprised if the President’s ill-considered sea captain answer makes its way into a Republican commercial when the general election finally arrives in 2012.