Obama's oil speech: were expectations too high?

President Obama speaks from the Oval Office Many presidents have addressed grave issues from the Oval Office

At several critical points in his career, President Barack Obama has turned to his considerable oratorical skills to help salvage his image.

When Mr Obama's campaign was beset with criticism over his relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the then-senator gave an eloquent and widely lauded assessment of the state of race relations in American society.

When his healthcare bill looked to be on life support, Mr Obama rallied support for it before a joint session of Congress.

On Tuesday evening, Mr Obama chose to address the BP oil spill crisis from the illustrious Oval Office, a location soaked in historical importance and shrouded in seriousness, where past presidents have spoken of wars, tragedies and struggles.

In what were his first Oval Office remarks, Mr Obama spoke of waging a war on an oil spill that is "assaulting our shores and our citizens".

He was resolute, at times calm and at times impassioned, projecting both gravity and sobriety.

Details scant

Mr Obama announced that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus would be charged with developing a long-term plan to rehabilitate the Gulf Coast, restoring its "unique beauty and bounty".

He told the nation that he would make BP pay for the spill, and that an independent third party would be responsible for adjudicating the claims of people and businesses feeling the tragic effects of the disaster.

The president spoke of his commitment to developing clean, alternative forms of energy and gave Congress a clear warning that he would not accept inaction on the issue.

"The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet," he said.

But his speech was scant on details on his rehabilitation plans, energy legislation and exactly how he would compel BP to pay for the damage the spill had caused.

Expectations too high?

It is a criticism that Mr Obama has met several times during his presidency - that he has a tendency to speak in sweeping terms rather than engage in specifics.

As a result, his supporters on the left, particularly those who had hoped he would use the opportunity to call for a price on carbon emissions, appeared to feel let down.

Kate Sheppard, an environmental reporter for the left-leaning Mother Jones magazine, called the speech disappointing, accusing Mr Obama of failing to provide the sort of clear direction to Congress that might advance climate change legislation.

"Tonight was that opportunity," she said. "He didn't take it."

On his right, Republicans criticised him for politicising the spill.

"President Obama should not exploit this crisis to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses," House Minority Leader John Boehner said in a statement.

Tuesday night's speech was a critical piece of presidential theatrics, satisfying calls for the president to directly and forcefully confront the issue.

But, if the muted response to the speech is any indication, the sky-high expectations of Mr Obama's rhetorical gifts may be catching up with him.

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