Obama’s Ethics Foul: A False Pledge

Lost in the furor over the insulting “small  people” characterization by BP’s hapless Chairman was a seriously unethical statement by President Obama. If the President is lucky, nobody will remember it. He hasn’t been very lucky lately, however.

As with Hurricane Katrina and President Bush, the Gulf oil spill has subjected President Obama to some unfair public expectations, some of which stem from a basic misunderstanding of Presidential power. (There have also been his genuine failures to meet reasonable expectations based on correct assumptions about Presidential leadership—but that is another topic.) Unfortunately, President Obama brings this upon himself by habitually over-stating his influence over people and events that he can not really control. He did this again, when he announced BP’s agreement to establish a 20 billion dollar fund to address the leaking oil’s damage to the Gulf region, its businesses and its inhabitants:

“It is important to note that this [the 20 billion dollars] is not a cap,” Obama said. “The people in the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them.”

This statement is either intentionally dishonest, cruel, or stunningly naive. It is definitely irresponsible. The President of the United States simply does not have the power to guarantee the conduct of a private business. Who will decide what BP’s “obligations” are? Not Obama. If the corporation and the various aggrieved interests in the Gulf disagree about those obligations, and they almost certainly will, the dispute will have to be adjudicated by a judge or a jury. Obama can’t influence the decision; indeed, it would be a violation of the limits of his office if he even attempted to do so. Nor can he order BP to have the same view of what its obligations are as he does. The President does not have dictatorial power over private persons or entities.

Obama knows this, of course. What is he doing by stating otherwise? Any president has wide latitude in the use of hyperbole and and soothing words in a crisis: F.D.R. knew that there was a lot to fear besides fear itself. Obama’s statement recklessly goes farther however: he makes a commitment to achieve a result that he cannot make occur by his own efforts, and he misrepresents the power of the Presidency by doing so.

I think we can fairly eliminate naiveté as the cause of this statement. That leaves dishonest, which, as a promise that he cannot keep, it clearly is; cruel, as it gives a guarantee to desperate people that should not be made because there can be no such guarantee; and it is definitely irresponsible, because the public should not be given misinformation about how their own government works.

All together, these add up to a significant ethics foul by President Obama, and a foolish one at that.

13 thoughts on “Obama’s Ethics Foul: A False Pledge

  1. I think President Obama is merely saying that he is commited to enforcing the laws or using political power to make BP to clean up the spill and pay restitution to those that have suffered economically.

    • Maybe. Then he has a duty to not fudge what he can and can’t do. When Alexander Haig said “I am in charge” when Ronald Reagan was shot, he meant that he was taking care of things in the White House, not that he was staging a coup—but lots of people misunderstood: when a general says “I’m in charge,” he tends to be taken at his word. Obama’s a lawyer and an orator: more than most, he knows that choices of words matter. Do you really believe that he wasn’t trying to create the illusion that he could assure that every victim would get what the victim believed he deserved? There’s a big difference between “I am committed” and “You have my commitment.” A commitment is “an agreement or pledge to do something in the future.” One of the major advantages of this POTUS over the last one is that he actually knew how to use the English language. Now, in official statements—this was scripted, you know, like virtually everything Obama says in public—we are to believe that he gets his words confused? I think it’s possible. I think it’s unlikely.

  2. This interpretation of Obama’s statement is much more simply understood as an extention of his belief that ALL private enterprise in the United States can and should be NATIONALIZED, which, by definition, puts such institutions under HIS control as President. Pesky details, such as BP being an INTERNATIONAL company have apparently slipped his mind at the moment. Unless you interpret, not untenably, that he believes that America will lead a new global structure. Taken in a context other than our present, he would be recognized as having despotic tendencies.

  3. Right about now, I can grant certain latitude to a spirit of cynicism! I think a TV pundit (Dick Morris!) explained it best last night. Obama is a legislator by trade. Not a leader. Those around him are political campaigners. And is he not a constitutionalist. He just doesn’t understand that his ambitions cannot be realized- and the nation cannot be governed- by photo ops, teleprompter rhetoric, bizarre ideologies and czars who are little better than clones of himself. This is why presidents (especially good ones) rarely come from the legislative ranks… and haven’t since LBJ.

  4. I am astonished by Obama’s pledge of other people’s money: as if as POTUS he actually can control that…

    I am more astonished to learn, not five days ago, that six nations offered him, on day three of this debacle, their ships, skimmers, etc., to help clean up the Gulf and he turned them down!

    What egotism prompts this type of behavior? What misunderstanding of leadership prompts this type of behavior? What lack of advisory capacity prompts this type of behavior?

    It became abundantly clear when Obama began talking about “who would pay” as opposed to “we will clean up this godawful mess in any way we know how.” He has had at his disposal (I know now) the combined forces of the most powerful military in the world, AND the proffered assistance of many other countries who have the technical know-how to help. His answer: NO.

    THIS is leadership?

    His speeches and his visits do nothing to assauge people’s fears. He is swimming in deep, dark waters, not the University of Chicago pool. We need a man of action, not words (teleprompter notwithstanding), who should have been able to call out all the forces on day two to skim oil, build berms, etc., to save the Gulf Coast. But no, we have someone who talks about “this never happening again,” instead of “let’s fix this now!”

    And finally, what about Tennessee’s flood? Seen Obama there? Is this how much the man cares about a Red State?

    I am furious, and disconsolate.

  5. I think zubin’s comment had it right. Obama could (should) have been more precise in his language, but his intent seems clear to me, and it doesn’t seem an unethical promise.

  6. Don’t you think it borders on deceit, Bob? This man certainly knows the difference between “I am committed” (TRUE) and “I have made a commitment” (MISLEADING). I think the former is what he meant, and the latter is what he wants people to think, and this lets him take credit for the latter if everything works out, but argue that he was misunderstood if it doesn’t. Unfair?

  7. Gosh, I just don’t see a difference between the “am committed” and “have made a commitment.” If BP does not meet its obligations to the people of the Gulf, Republicans will blame Obama. So will I.

  8. I agree with your post. These promises are so much empty air. Just like the one to make the gulf “better than before.” Really? Better?

    This one of course paraphrased Bush’s promise to make New Orleans “better” after Katrina.

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