The US president’s cool, calm and collected persona has worked in his favour, so far. But with growing anger over the BP oil spill, the public wants him to take a decisive lead on the issue – and show that he gives a damn. And if Obama works himself into a state of righteous indignation while he’s at it, so much the better.
Less than two years ago, presidential candidate Barack Obama was widely admired for his disciplined, tightly structured, forward-thinking campaign that made extraordinary use of internet-based social networking. He steamed forward into the White House as the bands played, and the sunlight streamed down on the US Capitol’s balcony on that icy January 20, 2009 and he took office on a great wave of enthusiasm, hope and expectation.
Two recent, major books on Obama’s life and successful campaign for the US presidency – The Bridge by David Remnick and Race of a Lifetime (or Game Change in the US) by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin – have explored in exhaustive but engaging detail how Obama created his tightly disciplined persona. They point to his ability to see all sides of an issue as he carefully evaluates, then decides on a course of action. They focus on his great talent for locking emotion out as he carries out this process.
These skills served him well during his presidential campaign. Arguably, they also stood him in good stead while he focused like that proverbial laser beam on pushing a healthcare reform package across the finish line and working to lessen the presence of nuclear weapons in the world. They proved their use again in helping Obama re-establish a US dialogue with the Islamic world and the rest of what we used to call the third world, and define a way forward – and out – of Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is these same skills that may, paradoxically, have made it more difficult to deal with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill – and what comes afterwards.
It has become a nugget of conventional wisdom to hold up the devastation and halting federal government response to the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina as a sad template for how the US government has reacted to BP’s crisis when the company’s oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast caught fire, sank and then sundered the pipe bringing millions of barrels of crude oil to the surface.
But, this easy comparison seems misplaced in two ways. Katrina was a vast, slow-moving natural weather system that gave average people and every level of government – local, state, federal – days of advance notice to respond and to mobilise resources and reactions. Failing grades for all three levels of government have been the norm. Days after the hurricane had already made landfall, then-president George W Bush’s languid, hands-off response and his “Brownie, you’re doing a great job” description of Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown’s inept efforts to cope with the disaster are now a measuring rod for governmental incompetence.
In contrast, the BP pipeline was a sudden event, unexpected at the first moments of its happening. Moreover, the oil spill resulted from discrete acts of individuals that produced a cascade of baleful consequences. As a result, perhaps a better comparison for the oil spill might be the immediate circumstances of 9/11 in New York City, when two passenger jets were guided into the buildings of the World Trade Center.
With both BP and 9/11, the initial private and government responses were – almost inevitably – confused and halting until someone could understand what was happening and then take charge. In 9/11, the New York City government took that step first, dragging the federal government along with it in the days, weeks and months afterwards. In the Gulf of Mexico, BP itself initially took charge of the spill, incrementally adding resources and efforts as each successive one of its interventions failed. Eventually the oil spill and its effects spread well beyond the original broken pipe – becoming the country’s worst-ever environmental disaster. The oil has begun to foul the entire region’s beaches and fishing grounds – not to mention the possibility that it has fouled the seabed for decades to come.
The challenge for Obama, therefore, has been to demonstrate command and decisiveness, as a crisis grew without let-up. Showing the same coolness and careful calibration he became known and admired for during his entire adult life, Obama moved with deliberation in putting increasing pressure on BP, as the spill became worse. Eventually, and deliberately, Obama moved to exert federal authority over the spill, eventually giving the US Coast Guard the key role in managing the problem.
This leaves out the crucial role of the mass media, however. From 1979 onward, any crisis develops a 24/7 momentum on television – and now the internet as well. With TV penetration virtually universal in America, and cable and the internet right behind that, the impact can be deep and broad, very quickly.
The Tehran American Embassy hostage drama in 1980 to 1981 was, arguably, the first time a US crisis was broadcast full time, in real time, on the tube, with countdown calendars ticking off the duration of the continuing crisis displayed ominously on news shows. First CNN, and now Fox News and MSNBC have been added to the mix, and so any big crisis becomes the defining metaphor for the ongoing news day, week and month.
Katrina’s devastation – and the febrile response to it – made New Orleans’ agonies the world’s story. It seems a cruel misfortune that Louisiana is once again ground zero for an ongoing disaster. Louisiana seems to have had a peculiar kind of luck in having had relaxed, ineffectual government of a near-Caribbean island-style character for generations – together with a growing economic dependence on the oil and gas industry – most especially in its more complicated, offshore version. The informal motto of the city of New Orleans, “laissez les bon temps roulez” (“let the good times roll on”), seems to have permeated much of the entire state.
Once it broke, the BP disaster quickly became a full-on American (even international) story by virtue of 24/7 news coverage. But it also melded with a growing dissatisfaction with Obama’s seeming cerebral approach to decision-making and crisis management. As the White House press corps and the cable TV stations continue to report on the crisis and the president’s response to it, they have focused increasingly on whether Obama has the requisite anger and rage – or if he has been able to demonstrate it visibly – to take control assertively enough.
The absence of visible table pounding-style decisiveness on Obama’s part has driven his press officer to tell the world Obama has clenched his jaw and used the word “damn” to demonstrate his annoyance with BP. The problem is that anger of this kind seems not to jibe with the controlled, contained, evaluative persona Obama has sculpted throughout his adult life.
Watch: BP disaster ad (you are allowed to cringe)
The BP oil spill, and the federal response to it, has so dominated the news cycle that it threatens to become a defining issue for the rest of the primary election season – and perhaps even to carry forward into the actual mid-term election in November. Some of the leading members of the American chattering class are already pointing to Obama’s response to the BP spill as evidence of the president’s potential inability to lead, as opposed to manage.
Watch: A slightly funnier version of BP CEO Tony Hayward New Oil Disaster Ad
As the New York Times’ cantankerous columnist Frank Rich began his Sunday column: “It turns out there is something harder to find than a fix for BP’s leak: Barack Obama’s boiling point.” But people on the Gulf Coast – and, increasingly, elsewhere – probably want Obama to do something like demand BP’s CEO Tony Hayward personally help clean up some of the awful goo making landfall, rather than just appearing on more of those smarmy TV commercials where he says how bad he and his company feel about all this. Getting Hayward with his sleeves rolled up mucking up the oil probably won’t fix things, but it sure would make people feel a lot better – and it could be a way for Obama to really show his resolve, rather than just talk about it.
Looking beyond the immediacy of the oil spill’s fix and Obama’s need to demonstrate leadership on the issue, The Washington Post’s E J Dionne, meanwhile, argues that a year-and-a-half into his four-year term of office, and five months before the November mid-term election, Obama’s administration faces tests that will probably determine the texture of the president’s summer, as well as how his party is treated in the November election.
The first step is whether the Obama administration can finally get ahead of the BP oil spill crisis by demonstrating some empathetic policy mastery. Senior Obama advisor David Axelrod’s admission that they “didn’t communicate it well” does not much beyond than to raise the question of what previous, dispiriting crisis the Obama team’s response so far has most resembled.
But, Dionne argues that focusing solely on the Gulf of Mexico disaster drags Obama away from what, for much of the country, is still the most important issue – the still-stuttering economic and jobs recovery. Or, as Dionne writes, Obama still “needs to establish that he is doing all he can to repair the damage in the gulf even as he maintains his focus on the economy and convinces reluctant conservative Democrats that the job of ending the downturn is not done.” The New York Times’ Rich adds that people still want to see an Obama who is on their side, “willing to fight those bad corporate actors who cut corners and gambled recklessly while regulators slept, Congress raked in contributions, and we got stuck with the wreckage and the bills”.
At its heart, then, this critique of the Obama mystique reminds that the role of the president – and how the American public decides on a president’s success or failure and agrees to reward him in the mid-term or give him a second four-year term of office – is the degree to which an elected leader communicates his goals and his ideals – and brings his people along with him. A half century ago, presidential scholar Richard Neustadt explained that the power of the presidency is pre-eminently the power to persuade. This remains true. For the Obama administration, it is still early days, but the BP oil spill crisis may be the last time the Obama administration gets to recalibrate how it responds to crises – or how it determines it will communicate its vision to the national constituency.
By J Brooks Spector
Main photo: White House Flickr