The news has finally arrived about something many observers of Presidents had mistakenly assumed would come weeks ago: President Barack Obama will (finally) address the nation Tuesday night on the catastrophic Gulf Oil spill — American history’s worst oil spill that will, perhaps will emerge as the worst in history p-e-r-i-o-d, seriously impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people and brutally whacking the ecosystem.
The question that historians will be asking for decades will be: why so late? American Presidents from FDR on skillfully used their existing media “bully pulpits” of the Presidency… pulpits helpfully equipped with microphones that immediately transmitted their words to radio stations, then television and now cable. Presidents who skillfully use communication tools can rally the nation, garner support for actions and policies, ensure a government and bureaucratic focus on an emergency and enhance their own political standing in the process. If they are strengthened, response to the crisis is often strengthened since Presidents need clout
But Obama has waited so long to deliver the remarks that would have framed the situation for what it is — a national and environmental emergency of unprecedented proportions — that his remarks, no matter how solid and compelling, will have far less impact than if they had been delivered a month ago.
And, according to the New York Times, he won’t just be delivering a TV speech but will be giving the public a briefing including his plans to hold British Petroleum more accountable via an oil spill escrow account:
President Obama for the first time will address the nation about the ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday night and outline his plans to legally force BP executives to create an escrow account reserving billions of dollars to compensate businesses and individuals if the company does not do so on its own, a senior administration official said on Sunday.
“The president will use his legal authority to compel them,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.
Mr. Gibbs did not elaborate on the legal basis for such a move but said that White House lawyers have been researching the matter for days. The president is seizing the initiative after reports on Friday from London that BP would voluntarily establish an escrow account — either for compensating victims or for delaying a planned dividend for BP shareholders — turned out to be less certain than the White House initially thought.
The escrow account that the White House envisions would be roughly modeled after the fund established for victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and it would be administered by a third party to provide greater independence and transparency and to guard against the company too narrowly defining who is entitled to payments and how much.
“We want to make sure that money is escrowed for the legitimate claims that are going to be, and are being made, by businesses down in the Gulf — people who’ve been damaged by this,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior White House strategist, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” television news program on Sunday. “And we want to make sure that that money is independently administered so that [they] won’t be slow-walked on these claims.”
No matter how journalists, friendly politicians or partisans frame this the bottom line is this:
The Obama team has come across as shockingly flat-footed and tone deaf when it comes to communication.
Has the administration been as incompetent as many of the wearily familiar, always angry members of the partisan talk radio political culture have contended? Talk show hosts declared Obama incompetent and called the spill his “Katrina” before there was evidence of that because that is what they DO (partisanship 24/7 with red meat delivered in CostCo proportions). But now many including some in Obama’s own party are beginning to suggest incompetence without actually using the image-destroying word and a poll found that Americans consider this more poorly handled than George W. Bush’s career poll decimating (non) performance on Hurricane Katrina.
If that’s not the case? Then it comes down to rotten communication — rotten enough so that it’ll be noted by generations of political scientists and historians.
To be sure, as some have pointed out, the oil problem here lies not just with BP and the oil spill. But if the real story is that the government was pulling out all stops and Obama was totally engaged, then Obama needs a new communications team NOW.
At the very least the optics of Obama’s activities during this subject were shockingly unhelpful to him.
News stories highlighted Obama doing fundraisers at a time when it seemed as if Tony Soprano had hired BP to whack the environment and America’s Gulf Coast — now in mortal danger of becoming America’s Gunk Coast.
It got so bad that anyone who managed to watch or hear a White House press briefing was treated to the spectacle of a press secretary being grilled by reporters who genuinely, really, honestly, no-joke seriously wanted to know specific instances of how the President got angry– as if that would substantially change or impact the efficacy and competence of government handling and policy in the Gulf Oil spill in the end.
When it comes to handling this national emergency, some of the jury is still be out and it may be harsh to label Obama “another Jimmy Carter.”
But one thing is clear: he has not proven to be an FDR, JFK, or Ronald Reagan, either.
If anything, Obama is increasingly coming across as another Hamlet wannabe, another Mario Cuomo — agonizing, and pondering but seemingly a beat or two behind seizing his historical moment.
There is still time left for Obama. And there may even be a little time left before a catastrophe becomes the equivalent of a true environmental 911.
But not much.
The question is whether Obama and his advisors know how to tell time — and if they don’t yet, are they (finally) learning?
And will they learn before time has run out for the Gulf ecosystem?
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.