In Thursday's press conference on the federal government response to the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama was asked what he thought of criticism that his administration has reacted slowly to the crisis. His response was, "I'll leave it to you guys to make those comparisons."
Why? Leave it to anyone to draw their own conclusions, and draw them, they will.
Obama pushed back on the perception that his administration has failed to take charge, saying, "BP is operating at our direction" and acknowledged, "It's my job to get this fixed." But 38 days after explosions on the BP/Transocean Deep Water Horizon drilling platform released the oil plumes threatening the Gulf, the damage is done. At a critical time in his presidency, he gave critics—and supporters—reason to question him. Now, as the president heads down to Louisiana, he faces the charge that this is "Obama's Katrina."
Reality Is Perception
You can't compare the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—with estimates ranging anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 deaths—to the crisis in the Gulf. You can, however, compare Obama's reaction now to President George W. Bush's reaction then.
Bush committed the unforgivable sin of signaling to the country that the people of New Orleans weren't his priority. By contrast, in his presser Obama emphasized that the Gulf crisis has been his top priority since the rig exploded on April 20th—but how was anyone supposed to know?
Even if he's done everything possible, Obama's mostly behind-the-scenes response to the Gulf disaster has fueled the existing critique that he's a detached bureaucrat who "doesn't get it," and in this case, Obama hasn't done enough to combat that perception.
Thursday, Obama delivered a message similar to the one he offered in his May 2nd trip to the Gulf. Back then he said: "Your government will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to solve this crisis."
Sounds good. The problem is that nearly a month later, no one remembers that he was there.
There's no way Obama can be on the scene of every disaster, but in the current political climate, he and his advisors have to stop assuming that once they've said "we're on the case," people will automatically feel secure.
The Buck Starts Here
It's strike two for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. When she reacted to the Christmas Day bombing attempt by saying, "the system worked," Obama had to cut his Hawai'i vacation short and take over. Her new talking point, saying the feds have been in the Gulf "from day one" has been equally anemic.
By now, Obama has to accept that he can't rely on surrogates to communicate his message. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are notable exceptions—but most of Obama's domestic aides simply can't handle a microphone.
And if the president is willing to use federal power to mandate that all Americans purchase health insurance, then he'd better be willing to use it to take control of the response to an environmental disaster.
The average voter doesn't care if he inherited a hollowed-out Minerals Management Service from Bush, or about the 1990 Exxon Valdez law that places the liability for oil spills with the oil spillers. People have now seen the federal government take over General Motors to stem the collapse of the domestic auto industry. It's hard to make that case one day, then pull a Kathleen Blanco the next—quibbling among federal, state, local authorities and private enterprise while millions of gallons of oil gush into the ocean.
Early on, Obama appeared to be mollified by his announcement only weeks earlier that he would offer limited support to off-shore drilling as a means to reaching a compromise with Republicans on cap-and-trade legislation. But after getting over the initial, "oh, crap" moment, he should have realized that if he had been more aggressive toward BP in public, his support for drilling would have given him more, not less, credibility to crack down on BP. Fifty percent of Americans favor off-shore drilling and 46 percent oppose it, but everyone is against Earth-killing oil spills.
Ironically, by initially attempting to distance itself from the cleanup, the administration has associated itself with the aftermath. Had they been more public about their early efforts to deal with the disaster, they could have avoided the "Obama's Katrina" tag. No one thinks the president can single-handedly "plug the hole." They just want him to try.
Whether he likes it or not, the president's job is not just doing his job, but showing up in places and showing Americans over and over that he's doing his job. It should be a public relations no-brainer for a guy whose plane has sleeping quarters and an executive chef.
Today when President Obama arrives in the Gulf, he'll say and do all the right things and order will be restored—for now. But since the Gulf spill, Obama has delivered a National Press Club monologue, hosted a formal state dinner, given speeches on Wall Street reform, and traveled to political fundraisers. Surely, he had time in his schedule for another visit (or three) to the Gulf Coast.
If not for their sake, then for his.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.