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Time to turn on the theatre?

Mark Mardell | 13:58 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

oilyslick_getty_226.jpgI am off in a moment to see the president perform in his first full-blown news conference for more than a year.

The headline, of course, will be a six-month extension of a ban on drilling, but more fascinating will be the theatrics.

He has to counter a rising tide of criticism. The attacks come mainly from Washington commentators, politicians and journalists.

It is true one of the most trenchant and damaging assaults was by James Carville, the extraordinary Democratic strategist from Louisiana.

He said FDR - Franklin Delano Roosevelt - would have leapt out of his wheelchair to be on the Gulf in person, directing the operation.

But when I was last down in Louisiana, the anger I heard expressed was aimed at BP, not the president. Still, a poll out today does suggest a majority don't think he has handled this well.

Perhaps it is because Barack Obama doesn't get, or doesn't like, a key part of his job. I watched rather amazed one morning news show yesterday, on a supposedly White House-friendly network, as the two presenters and a reporter worked themselves into a lather about how out of touch the president was on this issue, how badly he had handled the crisis.

Their complaint? The fact the administration doesn't have the equipment to run the operation? The failure to change the law so the federal government can be in charge? Lack of enough oil-soaking booms in the Gulf, perhaps?

No. It was that he was in San Francisco. It sent the wrong signals. They, of course, didn't mention today's news conferences or tomorrow's visit. But he hadn't satisfied their craving for theatre.

It is rather startling that a president who rose to office using the power of image and symbolism and display to such huge effect doesn't often reach for these tools these days.

It's true you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but Mr Obama could at least try to make his prose an exciting page-turner, not a dry, instructional manual. Perhaps I exaggerate.

We all know he can turn it on, when he wants to, when he can be bothered. But he seems to think that working hard behind the scenes, getting experts together, designing policies, is enough.

For heaven's sake, this isn't Germany. The American media, and perhaps the public, want a president who hugs, weeps and waves his arms, an emoter-in-chief, not a tip-top civil servant.

My advice for the president would come straight from Private Eye.

"Produce small onion."


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