How Do You Spell Response?

When my children were in elementary school, one of my favorite volunteer activities was assisting at the yearly spelling bee. The best spellers from the third, fourth, and fifth grades would battle it out for trophies and medals. My job was to be the "comforter" backstage. When a contestant misspelled a word, he would have to make that long walk offstage, where I would be waiting to tell him how proud I was that he had tried his best.

And I was proud of those kids. I can't think of too many adults who would stand all alone in front of a microphone and a cafeteria full of grownups and take a chance on being wrong. Because make no mistake about it: When the spelling bee moderator says "I'm sorry, you're wrong," there's no ambiguity. It's one of the few remaining activities left in society where we can actually say to a kid, "You did it wrong. You may have tried hard. You may have really, really, really wanted to be right. But you're wrong."

Unspoken during that long walk as the child makes his way toward me is the hard truth that he can't go back and make it right. What a painful yet intensely important lesson for that kid to learn: Sometimes wrong can't be fixed. Many times we can repair the consequences of an error. But we can't change how a word is spelled.

We know very little about President Obama's youth, but it's hard to imagine young Barack competing in a spelling bee, or an archery competition, or any activity where success or failure depends solely on him (including
bowling). On a basketball team, responsibility for failure can be spread among all the players. Even a loss at chess or poker can be excused by attempting to claim cheating by one's opponent. But a spelling bee is different. When my son just couldn't remember how to spell "biscuit," he had to accept that he was wrong. He couldn't blame the moderator, his parents, his teacher, or the dictionary.

Until now, President Obama has managed to evade taking personal responsibility for any failure. The economy is all Bush's fault. The health care bill was written in Congress. The housing crisis and stubbornly high unemployment are due to bankers and Wall Street firms. And the mother of all scapegoats: The Gulf oil spill is 100% BP's problem.

It's true that the president did not personally cause the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. (It's also true that we do not yet know if BP directly caused it.) What is inarguable, however, is that the president got it 100% wrong as far as his own response to the disaster. The explosion happened on April 20. Eleven men died on that rig. This
timeline in The Daily Caller devastatingly juxtaposes the events in the Gulf with President Obama's activities each day. Another website spells out a photographic diary of the president's activities from April 20 to June. Golf, two vacations, lots of hosting of championship sports teams, more golf, fundraising, a state dinner, more golf, fancy restaurants, lots of barbecue, more golf.

In this crisis, the president has been
spelling his response wrong from Day One. He made no statement himself for a full week. His first brief visit to the Gulf wasn't until May 2. Once the whispers of "Obama's Katrina" began to break through to the tone-deaf White House political staff, the president seemed to kick it up a notch, starting with a press conference on May 27. Instead of the earlier let's-just-ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away method of crisis management, the administration has finally, after almost two months, appeared to assign the Gulf spill the amount of attention it deserves.

The White House can start issuing more statements, the president can visit the region every week, and he can finally decide whose behind to kick. But something he can't do is go back and change his original response. He was wrong. He blew it. He can never, never get those first days and weeks back.

David Axelrod, the President's advisor, said on Meet the Press:

I know there's a great deal of speculation in this town about the political implications and the state, statecraft of all of this, but we've been -- the president on day one understood how massive this could be and mobilized the greatest response to an environmental disaster in the history of this country.

No, he didn't, Mr. Axelrod. The president got it wrong. Telling us that the president understood the enormity of this crisis on day one sounds like a fourth-grader at the bee claiming that what he gave is actually an alternate yet correct spelling of the word. He may postpone the verdict for a few minutes, but the moderator and audience know what they heard. Mr. Axelrod can spin quite a tale about the president's response from day one. But we all know what we heard.

There's an old saying: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." The president and his staff are frantically trying a "do-over," hoping that if Obama can just appear angry enough, or in charge enough, or concerned enough, America will forget how badly he misspelled his original response. It's a waste of precious time and energy that could be put to better use working with the Gulf states and BP on cleaning up the mess. I used to tell those kids backstage that at least they'd never misspell that word again. I wish I could be as confident about the president.

Carol Peracchio is a registered nurse.