Rupert Cornwell: Obama and the oil: from 'Yes, we can' to 'No, we can't'

Out of America: Helplessness in the face of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has rocked the nation's self-confidence
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The Independent Online

Two men, both on the front pages of every US newspaper last week, victims of human mistakes beyond their control that cannot be undone. One is the most famous individual in the world. The other is a journeyman at his craft of whom, until his misfortune, virtually no one had ever heard.

So first to Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. A perfect game is a baseball pitcher's holy grail. On the field, not a single hitter reaches base, by whatever means. On the scorecard it is a statistician's dream, a symmetry of zeros, whichever row or column you choose. In more than a century, there have been only 20 perfect games in the major leagues, but on Wednesday night the 28-year old Venezuelan was on the verge of throwing the 21st – only for an appalling umpire's decision that denied him what should have been the 27th and final out.

To his credit, the umpire quickly realised his mistake and issued a tearful apology, which Galarraga accepted with remarkable good grace. But even for perfect gentlemen, history cannot be rewritten. So the blown call stood and Galarraga will be denied a place in the annals of his sport.

But baseball is only a game. Not so the remorselessly growing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in American history. Just like the pitcher's feat that wasn't, what happened cannot be erased. But there all comparison ends. A perfect game is a thing of beauty. The spill is a hideous, unspeakable monstrosity. Its victims include the Gulf's ecosystem and marine life, its beaches, its tourism and fishing industries and everyone who lives and works there, not to mention the reputation and finances of BP, the company caught up in it. And however unfairly, the list of victims now includes Barack Obama as well.

The President was not responsible for the spill. Neither he nor his government had any means of stopping it once it began, nor did they claim to. But his political fortunes have tumbled only slightly less rapidly than BP's share price, for a simple reason. He has violated one of his country's basic assumptions about itself. Throw any problem in America's direction, this belief goes, and America will solve it – fast. But not, at least not yet, the calamity of the Deepwater Horizon well.

The disaster has unleashed many emotions. But the strongest emotion has been frustration. "Plug the damn hole," Obama fumed to his aides last month. But they couldn't. Not BP and the collective expertise of the oil industry; not America's legions of boffins; and certainly not the government.

"Yes, we can," was the rallying cry of Obama's brilliantly executed presidential campaign, and the same spirit propelled the 2009 economic stimulus package and this year's healthcare reform, in the teeth of Republican opposition. Obama has already done enough to go down as one of the most consequential presidents of the modern era. But, suddenly, he risks being remembered above all as the man in the Oval Office when the oil slick was spreading, the man whose mantra had become, "No, we can't".

The calamity offends much of what America takes for granted. Hardly a speech by a politician here fails to extol the US as the best, the cleverest and the most resourceful country on Earth. But, in the lack of technology to staunch the spill, the emperor is seen to have no clothes.

Still more galling, the repair operation must be left to a foreign company. Last but not least, a country that sets such store by numbers and facts has been unable to establish the size and whereabouts of the suspected underwater plumes of oil. It can't even say how many thousands of barrels of crude have been gushing daily into the Gulf. All America can do is wait and hope. In the land of instant solutions, where optimism is the basic currency of politics, a grim pessimism is taking hold.

This is bad news indeed for Obama. For presidents, like the rest of us, there are only 24 hours in the day. But they are supposed to be miracle workers. Obama has been relatively frank. But honesty works against him. He is too cool, too rational, too disengaged, commentators complain. In this crisis, the White House cannot come anywhere close to a perfect game. In other words, it's a lot easier being Armando Galarraga right now than Barack Obama.