Obama’s oil spill leadership

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(NNPA)—The charge that the oil spill in the Gulf is Obama’s Katrina is bogus because there was no comparison between the swift manner in which he deployed his administration to deal with the crisis and Bush’s approach to Katrina.

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The oil explosion happened on April 20 and the Coast Guard was deployed the next day, long before Bush engaged FEMA to bring resources into Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. That same day, Obama sent the No. 2 man in the Interior Department to New Orleans and the Minerals Management Service established a headquarters near the scene of the explosion.

The Coast Guard was put in effective control of the effort to stop the oil coming out of the rig and on April 25 it approved a plan by BP to have remote underwater vehicles try to activate the blowout preventer and stop the leak. It didn’t work, but the Obama administration was fully engaged in other efforts to stop it at that point.

What appears to be the problem with critics of the response by the Obama administration is not the swift administrative attention to the crisis, such as the meetings held in the situation room to scope out the dimensions of the crisis, the deployment of resources such as the Coast Guard, or the organization of a team of experts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency to get good data on the flow of oil and ideas to stop it.

And while pundits and performers have offered a number of ideas about the oil spill, there is nothing like the wealth of information developed by NOAA’s Emergency Response Program in a systematic effort with the Environmental Protection Agency. They provide the best available information to the Coast Guard from all sources that it uses to work with British Petroleum to attack the problem.

The problem is one of leadership style, criticism that Obama is too cool and detached.

For example, Matt Lauer of NBC interviewed the president and asked why he didn’t “kick someone’s ass.” Obama responded that he had taken the approach of gathering good information so that he would “know whose ass to kick.” Lauer’s question showed a hang-over of the Bush years when people seemed to devalue the intellectual approach to a problem, similar to critics who felt that Obama spent too much time studying the Afghanistan situation before he crafted a new policy.

But Obama had gotten angry before, On June 1, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to a question in his news conference that the president had expressed “rage” over the spill and with a “clenched jaw” told his subordinates to “plug the damn hole.” Then, on June 3, on “Larry King Live” said he was “furious” that the cleanup wasn’t moving fast enough. But perhaps Lauer wasn’t listening.

Obama is now charged by some talking heads of not having moved quickly enough to deal with the crisis in the Gulf when in fact, he had, but he was doing so in the context of leading within his administration, not out in public. In the Matt Lauer interview with Obama, the president said something that was accurate when he pointed to the 24-hour news cycle of cable television and said that his job was not to create “theater.” Nevertheless, with pictures showing an oil gusher coming from the floor of the ocean endangering the livelihood of millions of people, public leadership is warranted.

Obama faced criticism during negotiations over his health bill that he had not been public enough and had not met with Republicans. However, he effectively refuted this by the public sessions he held with Republicans, other officials across the government and many stakeholders outside that were presented on television.

For lack of public leadership, some of Obama’s actions appear to be reactive. He has gone down to the Gulf four times, three of those after criticism. He scheduled a meeting with Tony Hayward, CEO of BP and the board chair, after criticism by Matt Lauer that he hadn’t met with them; he put together a proposal for BP to establish a multi-million escrow account to make people whole who have suffered from the oil spill crisis, after it was proposed in Congress, and so on. In fact, he may have been planning these things, but with the cable stations showing gushing oil 24-7, he has to match the intensity of the public anxiety that creates with public actions that show him staying ahead of the curve.

Much of the criticism of Obama comes from those whose job it is to do so and although he cannot ignore it, no matter what the source, he can fight back with a more agile leadership.

(Dr. Ron Walters is a political analyst and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park.)

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