In the weeks since the oil rigs exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama has dealt with the crisis using a calm, even-tempered demeanor.
However, as the oil spill deteriorates into the worst in United States history, and the environmental devastation approaching America’s shorelines, the president is becoming the target of the same anger that was originally fired at the BP (formerly British Petroleum plc).
“One time, go off,” film director Spike Lee recently said regarding the matter. “If there’s any one time to go off, this is it, because this is a disaster.”
Lee’s sentiment mirrors the frustration of people who want to see the chief executive get loud, take charge, and inspire them like he did in his 2008 campaign.
Remembering then-candidate Obama’s ability to energize crowds into chants of “Yes, we can,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said, “There was a feeling he was going to be one of these presidents that moved us with words like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did. Instead,” Brinkley continued, “Obama has presented himself as the unflappable president, with the engineer-like approach of Jimmy Carter and the legislative astuteness of Lyndon B. Johnson. But in a time of great crisis, people aren’t looking for Johnson or Carter. They are looking for powerful, rhetorical leadership–words that move a country in a positive direction.”
The president has visited the region twice since the oil spill, most recently the Friday before Memorial Day, and he brought the tragedy to a more personal level, telling the public that he grew up in a place where the ocean is sacred, so he understands the emotional connection.
Despite the president’s recollection, it was not as emotional as the response of Louisiana Democrat Charlie Melancon, who broke into tears recently at a Capitol Hill hearing about the oil spill.
“Our culture is threatened. Our coastal economy is threatened. And everything that I know and love is at risk,” said Melancon, who represents many of the affected Louisiana shoreline areas. Unable to finish reading his prepared statement, he submitted it for the Congressional Record and then walked out of the hearing room as other lawmakers sought to comfort him.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was pushed recently to support his claim that the president is enraged by the oil spill crisis.
“I’ve seen rage from him. I have,” Gibbs said. Asked to describe it, Gibbs pointed out Obama’s “clenched jaw” and his call to “plug the damn hole.”
The president has been actively engaged in the crisis. He has fired the head of the Minerals Management Service, extended the moratorium on further offshore drilling, and increased the federal presence in the region.
“But instead of a galvanizing cry of outrage at the failed efforts to cap the undersea gusher,” Brinkley says, “Obama’s made the ‘Let’s not panic’ appeal.
“Despite the pummeling he’s received from pundits, it’s not too late for Obama to change the narrative,” Brinkley encouraged.
The historian suggested that the White House set up a command center in the Gulf to provide a clearinghouse for ideas and that the President take on a more integral part of the catastrophe by spending more time in the area.
The White House has started to take a more aggressive approach, with Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement that the Justice Department has launched criminal investigation.
The Obama administration also will no longer do joint briefings with BP on the spill, and instead will have former Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen handle the daily briefings on his own, senior administration officials said.
“The change is an effort to control the message, release accurate information about the oil spill, and speak in one voice to deliver the daily message on the latest developments,” Gibbs said.
However, Brinkley feels that the chief executive needs to build on these endeavors with a prime-time address and a compassionate message to the American people.
“There is a craving for a different kind of crisis leadership from President Obama,” Brinkley said. “Largely because he is so capable of it, as he showed us on the campaign trail in 2008. When he lets go and talks from the heart, he is one of the most effective political figures in modern times.”