Late Night: Back to the Beach for Barack Obama
President Obama visited the Gulf Coast on Friday and chastised BP for paying billions of dollars in dividends to shareholders and on advertising to save its image while some people whose livelihoods were wrecked by the company’s oil spill were reporting difficulties in getting their claims paid.. . . The president’s stern words for BP came as officials reported tentative signs of progress in their latest efforts to contain the spill, which has pumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over nearly seven weeks.
In a news briefing, President Obama described the progress being made, but cautioned that “it is way too early to be optimistic.”
The failure to stop the leak after more than six weeks has fed concern about the administration’s powerlessness in the face of this crisis, and the White House has been determined to show that it is fully engaged.
This desire to show that President Obama is “engaged” has led to his second consecutive Friday visit to the disaster zone.. .but is he going to do the same thing next weekend?
I mean, for a lot of people, spending every weekend on the beach would be an ideal situation (or, in the case of the Gulf of Mexico, used to be an ideal situation). But for Obama, there’s the risk of it starting to seem like running pointlessly on a hamster wheel.
That’s the danger of thinking in short-term PR terms when it comes to a slowly evolving catastrophe. The concern trolling from the right about Obama’s “competence” regarding the Gulf disaster exults in his inability to resolve the tragedy by himself — or, as the New York Times’ passive-aggressive conservative columnist David Brooks puts it, the public’s instinct “to hold him responsible for things they know he doesn’t control”:
They know there is nothing a man in Washington can do to plug a hole a mile down in the gulf.
On the other hand, they demand that the president “take control.” They demand that he hold press conferences, show leadership, announce that the buck stops here and do something. They want him to emote and perform the proper theatrical gestures so they can see their emotions enacted on the public stage.
Unfortunately, Obama’s repeated visits to the Gulf buy into this frame of stage-managed empathy mixed with outrage. If he really wants to present himself as effectively representing the national interest in the midst of the crisis, he should stop trying to be Americans’ symbolic daddy and instead focus on being our community advocate.
What does that mean? For starters, reporting to us on a regular basis — transparently, with no punches pulled — (1) what he’s being told in official briefings about the scope of the disaster and the progress of relief efforts, (2) how he’s challenged those reports to verify them and ensure that all alternative solutions are being aggressively considered, and (3) the progress of the required changes to make sure an immense failure like this never happens again. Even something as simple as making this the pre-announced subject of Obama’s weekly radio addresses for the foreseeable future would be a step in the right direction.
In other words, Mr. President, don’t tell us what you’re feeling… tell us what you’re doing. It might serve all of us better.