Will the Gulf oil spill be President Barack Obama’s Oil-loo?
Criticism is mounting both in terms of quantity and harshness of President Barack Obama’s response to the Gulf oil spill over his abilities as a manager who tries to zero in and solve a problem, as a coordinator who must deal with an emergency’s various strands –and of his ability as a leader who can effectively articulate and ease national concerns for an outraged and deeply worried public.
And there are likely to be two key developments that will keep the story thrust at the very top of the American public’s and new and old media consciousness this week — and could shift the narrative. BP will soon attempt the “Top Kill” procedure to try and halt the underwater oil spill. Whether it works, or fizzles — a big story. And on Friday Obama travels to the region. What he says or does not say and how effective or ineffective he looks will be a story. Conceivably, Obama could take hold of the crisis in a big way as he has several times when he was under fire.
[UPDATE: Obama is reportedly slating a Thursday press conference that’ll deal with the oil spill and suggested reforms before his Friday trip to the region – and Time’s Mark Halperin thinks it could create a shift in perceptions: “Very smart White House two-step — clear away the BP-bashing and proposed reforms on Day 1, to make Day 2 all about feeling-their-pain. If it works (and I bet it will), much of the Bos-Wash carping about Obama not taking charge could be washed away.”]
But the bottom line at this point this crisis seems to be this:
Obama’s cebebral, stay-cool style has often been viewed as a plus. But there are times in American history when Presidents need to show more than coolness. Presidents need to reflect public concerns or channel them in history-shaping directions, bring all of the elements in a crisis together and push it in a certain direction to achieve a goal. Moreover, Obama’s long-noted ability as a communicator is (again) shown to be a high-concept media label: Obama is once more showing that he has problems connecting with the public and the media until he is boxed in a seemingly no-way-out political corner. He seems a couple of beats behind the event-song. This raises the question: was Obama’s most politically consuming passion restricted mostly to getting health care reform passed? Are his communcation attributes highly limited or is he simply using them too sparingly?
To put it bluntly but accurately: many on the left, right and from both parties are now openly questioning whether Barack Obama has the political cojones to grab this crisis, grab ahold of the federal government, and seize BP and oil companies by their lapels — whether he has the basic, historical leadership capabilities that many American Presidents have shown in times of great crisis.
Some have begun to liken Obama’s performance so far to George W. Bush’s on Katrina — but that is perhaps a poor analogy. In this case, the federal government is trying to respond but leaving a lot of the technical fixes to BP with the feds and some scientists saying that the private company has the expertise.
Perhaps more correctly, so far this is shaping up as the equivilent of George Bush’s initial response to 911 — when Bush was flying around in the air and seemed out of sight after the immediate attacks. Bush’s initial statement at the time was judged to be tepid and then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani became the symbol of official response — until Bush took total control by articulating the public’s outrage and government’s determination to toss out business as usual and deal with terrorism and the government’s handling of it by new, tougher rules.
The perception is now growing that to Obama and his administration the oil spill is just one big, fat bother that is distracting them from other issues they want to pursue — not the equivilent of America’s environmental 911. Many now believe Obama can be rolled by an oil company’s slick talk about the oil slick. It hasn’t helped Obama that his administration had green-lighted BP’s drilling project — and that, in what in retrospect was quintessential lousy political timing, Obama called for expanded offshore drilling weeks before the oil started spewing from the underwater pipe.
On a CNN panel discussion, David Gergen, advisor to Presidents of both parties, says that if the United States had displayed this kind of response during World War II we might be speaking German now:
One of the most upset — at the situation and at Obama’s response so far — is legendary Democratic stategist and Clinton ally James Carville. He says it’s time to see some corporate types in jail:
Here’s more of Carville on Obama’s response to the crisis:
Even MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who came under fire from some on the left and the right for his pro-Obama comments during the 2008 campaign, has been lacing into Obama and his administration on regular basis on his show:
So the questions emerge: will the Obama administration fire a few people who could have done their jobs better?
Will Obama seize control of this crisis — and soon?
Or is the United States now seeing an environmental melt down that will have repercussions for decades coupled with implosion of Barack Obama because he seemingly can’t make the vital shift from political actor, low-key administrator and Oval Office occupant to a take-charge symbol, historical leader and top political player tackling the gravest environmental crisis in American history?
Will Obama help craft an end game to stem the environmental and corporate hubris?
Or — to paraphrase David Gergen — when it’s all over will Americans be environmental Germans?
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