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Obama Sketch: He smouldered but he never really caught fire

It has been his home for eighteen months – you noticed the family portrait pivoted towards the camera – yet, in the opening seconds of Tuesday's prime-time pep talk about the oil spill, Barack Obama still didn't look quite right in the Oval Office. What was he doing in there?

He did not the waste the moment, though. In fact, it was hard to get him off the air. Generally, when commanders-in-chief get behind what is known as the Resolute Desk, to impart grave news or inspire national courage, they keep the cameras lit for less than 10 minutes. Mr Obama had trouble finishing inside 20.

But what they say may be secondary to how they look. Ronald Reagan was no professor, but when he spoke to Americans about the Challenger shuttle disaster they felt consoled. Bill Clinton's famous empathy flowed easily across the air waves. And Obama? For a start, he couldn't keep his hands still.

He is a professor and the hand movements betray how he yearns for us to grasp what he is saying. There is almost a begging in his eyes: "Don't you get it? This exactly explains why I keep banging on about revamping our national energy policy." He stands accused of using the crisis to further policy goals that are subject to fierce partisan argument. But if BP can think bottom line, he can think politics.

More arresting were the moments when Obama chose the language of generals to describe what was happening in the Gulf. Wars are what usually persuade presidents to invite the cameras into the Oval Office. Recall George W Bush using the venue to declare the start of "coalition" hostilities in Iraq. Mr Obama evoked a "battle plan" to combat "this siege" in the Gulf and the oil that is "assaulting our shores".

For all the excitement that Mr Obama generated as an orator in 2008, he has hardly kept America in his thrall since taking office. (Only the Tea-Bag Obama-haters remain gripped.) That said, he has the habit of suddenly burning twice as brightly when he is really in a corner, but his preferred medium is a big speech before a crowd overseas (think nuclear-free world in Prague), or a hastily convened joint session of Congress (think healthcare).

His presidency is once again on the line, on the cusp between disaster and redemption. Since the BP spill almost two months ago, his poll ratings have slipped, but not precipitously. Maybe the President can even spin a silver policy lining from the disaster, pushing through energy reform.

Which is why Tuesday's night's broadcast was so critical and intriguing. Mr Obama stands accused of having remained too detached from the Gulf disaster for too long. It was his chance to reassure Americans that he is on top of it all – on top of BP, especially, and on top of where the crisis goes next.

He vowed to tackle the oil – and of course BP, whose top officers were trooped into the White House yesterday for a presidential spanking. The question is whether he managed to tackle himself also and deliver an Oval Office speech that was more than merely sensible and serious but also reassuring and inspiring.

Cleverness is not enough in times of national peril. Obama needed to burn. But in the end, he failed to ignite and remained in his characteristic state of cautious smoulder.