Obama, the Oil Spill, and the Carter Comparisons

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President Obama, flanked by state and local officials, speaks in Grand Isle, La., on May 28 about oil-spill recovery efforts Win McNamee / Getty Images

The BP oil spill is the perfect metaphor for Barack Obama’s presidency so far. His first 500 days in office have been—with the significant exception of health-care reform—consumed in cleaning up the messes left by his predecessors in the financial sector, the auto business, Afghanistan, and now the oil and gas industry, where “regulators” in the Denver office of the Minerals Management Service under President Bush were literally sleeping with the industry reps they were supposed to be licensing. Obama’s fate is to head up what Donald Regan (Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff) called “the shovel brigade”—the crew cleaning up the dung when the elephants leave the circus.

Obama’s response has been to shovel diligently at the Wall Street–GM-Kandahar-Gulf Coast cleanup sites. But having properly stripped all emotion out of his behind-closed-doors decision making, he has neglected to add it back in for the public parts of the job. He forgets that being a great professor isn’t the same as being a great communicator. 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. 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.

The result was that his May 27 news conference left no imprint. He even failed to drive home the point that BP, not taxpayers, would foot the entire bill for the cleanup. It’s understandable that Obama likes to operate on his own timetable, not the media’s. But just as he told single-payer liberals during the health-care debate that they have to deal with the world as it is, not as they would like it to be, so he must deal with the superficial media world as it is, not as he wants. The president’s slow political reflexes are beginning to wreck his game.

Obama’s reaction to all the easy Katrina-Carter comparisons has been characteristically philosophical. I’m told by a senior White House official that he figures it’s “our time in the barrel,” and the accusations that he’s an incompetent cold fish are “something to be aware of but not panic about.” The easiest way to become Jimmy Carter, Obama rightly figures, is to drop everything else and focus solely on the crisis at hand, as Carter did in 1979–80 when Americans were held hostage in Iran for 444 days. So Obama postponed his trip to Asia and not much else. Among other issues he would have to ignore if he let the spill hijack his administration is, ironically, sanctions against Iran. Financial regulation, immigration, and Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court would also get swallowed by the gulf region. Focus groups run by Democrats show the public doesn’t want Obama to stop multitasking.

Even so, some optical adjustment is essential. The White House political team is furious with James Carville for calling out the president in public as insufficiently forceful. But Carville was right to do so—it helped dent the imperviousness. Obama is planning an address to the nation, his first prime-time speech in a place (still undetermined) other than Congress. According to reports, he’ll draw a bright line between the spill, which BP owns, and the restoration and recovery, which he owns. And he’ll use the speech and several scheduled visits to the gulf to point out the need for comprehensive energy reform. The White House’s new legislative strategy is to apparently attach a landmark change in energy policy—namely, a price on carbon—to the bill bringing aid to the region. Just as the 1969 oil spill that soiled the coast near Santa Barbara, Calif., helped lead to Earth Day and the establishment of the Clean Air Act, perhaps this spill will generate the nation’s first true clean-energy program.

But for that to happen, Obama must be seen as an emotive and creative leader. He has to not just “feel our pain,” but mobilize an army of the unemployed to clean up the tar balls that, after hurricane season hits, could spread across a swath of the South. No one expects Barack Obama to be Aquaman, diving a mile beneath the surface of the ocean to cap an oil well with his bare hands. But we do demand that he show us he’s leading, not just tell us that he has.

Alter is the author of the newly published book The Promise: President Obama, Year One.

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