Alexander Cockburn | Obama, BP and the Wimp Factor

The British are howling with rage at President Obama’s recent tough language about BP’s chief executive Tony Hayward. Earlier this week, Obama suggested he’d fire Hayward if he could. U.S. politicians have taken to calling BP “British Petroleum” — a name the company has not used since the 1990s.

It’s not surprising that the British are upset. BP is the elephant in the national living room. The value of the BP dividend accounts for roughly 1 pound in every seven of annual British shareholder payouts, and here are prominent politicians in the U.S. talking about BP suspending dividend payouts.

Lord Norman Tebbit, a right-wing Conservative who served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet splutters on his blog for the Telegraph newspaper: “The whole might of American wealth and technology is displayed as utterly unable to deal with the disastrous spill — so what more natural than a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan political presidential petulance against a multinational company?”

None of this is going to cut ice with the Obama White House, nor whatever appeals British Prime Minister David Cameron may make, though thus far he has been careful not to criticize the White House onslaughts on BP and Howard.

Obama and his advisers scent grave political danger. Americans think his initial response to the appalling environmental disaster was weak, and his posture to BP excessively wimpish.

Americans don’t care to have a wimp in the White House. They’ll take almost any outlandish vulgarity from their commander in chief and give him a positive job rating. But wimpishness? No. Until Obama, the last president to earn wimp ranking was Jimmy Carter, whose chances of re-election 30 years ago expired when he gave wimpish speeches about America’s malaise and was photographed beating a rabbit that swam up to his canoe and tried to board it.

Obama isn’t in that sort of trouble yet, but he was drifting close.

The fates soon sniff out wimps and deal them bad cards. Obama was all set to make a big speech in Chicago on Memorial Day. Not only was the speech rained out, but he started quavering to the crowd about the danger of lightening before scuttling off with his Secret Service guards and getting bogged down in a traffic jam. One of America’s greatest heroes is Ben Franklin — featured on that symbol of optimism, the hundred-dollar bill — who made a sporting effort to fry himself, courting a lightening bolt with his kite.

The White House press corps — until recently without a presidential press conference for 10 months — quizzes Obama’s press secretary about the president’s evident inability to project anger about BP’s oil spill, now bidding to be the greatest environmental disaster in the nation’s history. Obama’s flack claimed his boss was “enraged” at BP. “Can you describe it?” asked Chip Reid of CBS. “Does he yell and scream? What does he do?” The best Gibbs could offer was evocation of Obama’s “clenched jaw.”

At least half of any U.S. president’s job is play-acting, pretending to be in charge, on behalf of We the People. Most of what actually happens in America is beyond any president’s ability or political inclination to control. The banks run the finances. The oil companies and Israel vie for control of U.S. foreign policy. The arms companies arrange the wars. The insurance companies figure out who should live or die.

Bill Clinton was so servile to big business that he took a phone call from a Florida sugar baron, even though Monica Lewinsky was doing some intimate favors for him when the call came in. He surely shocked the crouching intern with his obsequious manner as the baron issued a crisp command to kill off Al Gore’s impertinent talk about environmental cleanup of the Everglades. But Clinton could still scream and throw his weight around in the manner expected of a president.

The all-time presidential champ at bullying was Lyndon Johnson, who once lifted up the Greek ambassador by his lapels and snarled at him, “F—- your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If those two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk. Whacked good …”

But Johnson was as servile to the Texas oil kings — most notably the Murchisons — as Clinton was to the sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul. LBJ would delightedly unwrap the bundles of cash Murchison regularly sent up to him.

Obama isn’t into lifting anyone up by the lapels. It’s the other way round. Week after week, he’s being hoist off the floor of the Oval Office and thrown against the wall, by everyone from Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan to Benjamin Netanyahu. When Obama tries to bark, it comes out as a yip, like a Chihuahua aping a pit bull. There’s a political price to be paid for manifest wimpishness. Obama was running up a hefty bill. Continuing onslaughts on BP will help him to pay it off.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through