It didn’t take long for James Carville’s impassioned Good Morning America rant on May 26 to make its way into the echo chamber of political journalism. By day’s end the conventional wisdom had begun to harden: President Obama’s leadership during the Gulf of Mexico crisis had been decidedly uninspiring.
This isn’t just disposable punditry. In times of crisis, Americans look to their president for inspiration, leadership, and, yes, hope. So why was the commander in chief who practically trademarked those terms on the campaign trail so publicly absent from the crisis—at least in the early days?
Several pundits have offered suggestions, but maybe NEWSWEEK’s Jonathan Alter said it best: “The inspirational figure of the campaign is under the delusion that he will be cheapening himself and the office if he uses memorable soundbites in the theater of the presidency.” But U.S. history is filled with stirring examples of presidential theater that have united, comforted, and inspired during national emergencies. By the same token, there have been plenty of Oval Office flops in the face of disaster. As Alter writes, “For all his study of history, Obama somehow has failed to notice that Lincoln’s ‘house divided’ and FDR’s ‘fear itself’ were, well, soundbites.”
With this in mind, we asked presidential historians to help us speculate as to how the past five U.S. presidents would have handled the BP oil spill if they were still in office. The question isn’t who would cap the leak quickest —all of them would have been at the mercy of BP—but, rather, how their leadership styles would have guided their responses, and what lessons Obama can learn from them.
George W. Bush: The Crowd Reader
Bush’s time in the White House was defined by national crisis—which makes it all the more difficult to imagine his hypothetical response to the spill. On the one hand, you have the post–9/11 Bush standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center, shouting some of the most quotable rhetoric of his presidency through a bullhorn and drawing spontaneous applause from the firefighters and other responders. On the other, you have Katrina’s Bush, the president who seemed to be blindly unaware of the devastation in New Orleans.
Timothy Naftali, director of the Richard Nixon Library, says one of Bush’s biggest mistakes from a symbolism standpoint was his chosen method of assessing the damage after the storm. “He got into trouble because he flew over Hurricane Katrina,” he says. “That’s the worst way of doing it. If you fly over, it looks like you don’t want to interact with the people. You either don’t go and make the argument that it would be too disruptive for the president to visit the site, or you just have the disruption and fly down.”
These two Bushes can be reconciled, perhaps, by the state of the president’s public approval ratings after the disaster. Following 9/11, Americans could clearly identify the villains, and they rallied behind the president almost automatically. As political observers have noted, Bush can work wonders with a friendly crowd. But when his numbers were down and people saw nothing but hurricane-force winds to blame for their troubles, Bush was much less effective at rallying the troops, so to speak.
Considering the BP-Halliburton blame game that muddied the waters in the first days of the spill, the gulf crisis seems like a closer political parallel to Katrina: Bush wouldn’t have been handed a villain, and angry Americans may have turned him into one.
Lesson for Obama: Don’t shun a soundbite—or the people in distress.
Bill Clinton: The Compassionate Hugger
President Clinton most likely would have let his “I feel your pain” compassion guide his public response to the oil spill. Affectionately nicknamed “Bubba” for his Southern roots, and genuinely convincing in the role of a concerned statesman, Clinton practically oozed empathy. “He would have been on the scene instantly, hugging those persons affected by the spill and sharing their pain,” says presidential historian H. W. Brands.
By contrast, the families of the 11 BP workers who died when the oil rig exploded in the gulf weren’t even invited to the White House until Thursday, a full six weeks after the rig sank. The neglect leaves the president appearing cold and insensitive. As Naftali puts it, “there’s a whole science to political symbiotics.”
Of course, Clinton’s case is especially speculative because, as Brands points out, the president didn’t face a national crisis comparable to the oil spill during his presidency. “The closest thing was the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, to which Clinton responded with airstrikes against suspected terrorist targets,” Brands says. But his ability to showcase his trademark compassion in disaster areas was exhibited most recently on his trips to Haiti.
Lesson for Obama: Make sure the people know you feel their pain.
George H. W. Bush: The Prudent Data Gatherer
When Hurricane Andrew ravaged Louisiana and southern Florida in 1992, the Bush White House was initially told that about 3,000 homes had been destroyed and that state officials were in control. In reality, the storm had left more than 180,000 people without food or shelter. As reports of the hurricane’s real damage began to trickle in, Bush hesitated to federalize the response, seeking more data before he made the call.
“He had a phase of decision making called the ‘listening Bush stage,’ where he would gather information,” says Naftali. “When he would say ‘let’s be prudent,’ he wasn’t kidding. That’s how he liked to deal with things.”
Such discretion may have prevented the type of reckless overreactions that plagued his son’s administration, but it does present a political problem. People confronted by crisis—whether they’re living in tent cities after a devastating hurricane or watching their seashores become soaked with oil—don’t want prudence from their president; they want action. In Bush’s case, it took three days before U.S. troops arrived on the scene, and the president didn’t visit the site for more than a week.
Bush’s post-hurricane reluctance to “overrule the local experts” and take matters into his own hands provides a template for how he might have handled the BP oil spill, Naftali says. “It’s a cautionary tale.”
Lesson for Obama: “I think that Hurricane Andrew is a reminder of how presidents can get blamed for the initial misreading of a crisis by local experts,” Naftali says.
Ronald Reagan: The Fighter
Reagan publicly thrived when he had an enemy to defeat, says Douglas Brinkley, who edited The Reagan Diaries. So his first order of business following the spill likely would have been to choose an antagonist, like BP, and give it a nickname (see also: “the Evil Empire”). “If you’re looking at Reagan’s style, it’s right out of the gate, you go after the polluter,” says Brinkley. “Even if behind the scenes you have to negotiate with them because they have to cap the spill.”
Whereas Obama is apparently consulting with experts to determine “whose ass to kick,” Reagan would have relied on his own innate sense of good and evil to identify the country’s foes in the gulf and start going after them.
“For a catastrophe, it takes an immediate mobilization of not just the country’s resources, but its psyche,” says Brinkley. “Reagan would know that it’s an imperative of the president to clarify this spill, and if someone has abused the American landscape, call them out right away.”
Lesson for Obama: Stop consulting, start kicking.
Jimmy Carter: The One-Track Mind
In 1979 Iranian combatants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and seized about 70 American hostages, setting in motion the defining crisis of Carter’s presidency. He immediately put on the blinders and all but forsook the rest of his agenda. “He responded by focusing exclusively on the crisis, which wound up making him a prisoner in the White House—and of the Iranian hostage-holders,” says Brands, who noted that there’s no evidence his tunnel vision managed to bring the hostages home any sooner.
Of course, comparing the hostage situation to the oil spill is a bit apples and oranges: the impacts of the latter are more long term, while the former put American lives in immediate danger. But Brands says Carter likely would have responded to the gulf disaster similarly. “He would have immersed himself in the technology of deep-sea drilling, oil capture, and the like.”
Lesson for Obama: Don’t let your agenda sink in the gulf.