I could accept that the federal government has done everything it can about the Gulf Coast oil spill, I just can’t say the same about Barack Obama. I believe the president has been truthful, and that everything he said last Thursday in his East Room news briefing probably is accurate, right up to and including the fact that the federal government, not BP, has been “in charge” of the response.
But there’s the problem: Obama shouldn’t have had to tell us, more than a month after the spill first began, that he and the government have been in charge. We should have known it all along.
Let me be clear. I don’t subscribe to the notion popular on the Right that somehow equates Barack Obama and the BP spill with George W. Bush and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Like Frank Rich of the New York Times, I think that it’s fairly obvious that Obama has been infinitely more competent in dealing with this disaster than Bush was five years ago. Bush proved to be all swagger and bravado (“Heckuva job, Brownie”) but no substance.
An irony is that Obama, the consummate competent professional in a crisis, perhaps would have done well to be a little more like Bush, or at least maybe borrowed some of that Bush bravado. Another irony is that maybe Obama should have been more the “celebrity” that his 2008 campaign opponents tried to attack him as being.
If Obama were more celebrity, and less problem-solver, he likely would have paid more attention to an intangible, but essential, aspect of leadership: narrative. A president must establish, and then maintain, a narrative with the American people. This is what Ronald Reagan, a former actor, did almost by instinct and how he became “The Great Communicator.”
Reagan may have been planning the most foolish policy, but he always sold the American people on it by wrapping it within a great story The ultimate irony is that Obama can do it, too, he just doesn’t anymore. The president propelled himself to the White House, and pushed erstwhile 2008 front-runner Hillary Clinton out of the way, by telling endless stories on the campaign trail, stories of what he saw as wrong with America, and stories of how to make it right.
Of course, when you’re a candidate, all you have is talk and storytelling. You can’t actually do anything yet. But now that he’s actually in office, Obama is all do and not enough talk. In doing so, the president is not only failing a critical aspect of his job, he has blown a fantastic opportunity to sell the American people on the entire remainder of his reform agenda.
Yes, I know, you can search the White House website and find instances all over where the president discusses the government’s spill response. But there’s nothing there really to distinguish Obama’s talk about the spill crisis from any other issue on the site. And, no, I’m not suggesting that somehow Obama should have opened up a Cajun White House and moved down to Louisiana for the duration. What I am saying is that the president and his staff should have taken a step back and thought about the narrative and, yes, the stagecraft of their response. They should have been more pro-active, and worked to appear more out in front of the whole thing.
Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats, by themselves, never put anyone to work, or helped in the war. They were just talk. But it was talk that helped the president bond to the American people. That bond served FDR well later, when he had to get some controversial program past his Republican opponents. There’s ample evidence with the current oil crisis that the American people are still hungry for such a bond.
How The American People Feel
A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 47 percent of Americans are following news of the spill “very closely,” so Obama clearly would get their attention. Kentucky Republican Rand Paul attacked Obama’s criticism of BP over the spill as “un-American,” and most polls indicate that the American people discredit Paul’s attack as bunk. If you look at the polls, Obama generally is seen as more favorable than BP. And when Obama is seen unfavorably, it’s because Americans want to see the president as more active, not less. That’s the bigger opportunity that Obama has wasted here by not getting out in front of the disaster.
There was another story waiting that the president never really told. Without beating folks over the head, Obama could have been much more explicit and clear about the oil spill as basically a daily lesson in why some reasonable government intervention is a good thing. The President could also have been much more forceful in connecting the oil spill as an analogy to why not only is energy reform important, but also financial reform, and why just about any other reform that would increase some modest government regulation also has a place to avoid some other, big metaphorical sorts of spills in the future.
But it’s too late for all that. Obama now has to figure out not only how to clean up the oil, but also a PR mess that has left him standing in the White House trying to convince the American people that yes, indeed, their president is in charge.
The publisher of On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered government and Washington for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. The article was first published as “Maybe Obama Should Have Been More Like Bush After Katrina,” on Blogcritics.org.