President Barack Obama did the most CEO-like thing he's ever done on Tuesday: He under-promised and over-delivered. And if he plans to get reelected in 2012, that's what he'll keep doing.
Having lowered the bar for himself by first taking a by-the-numbers overnight visit to the Gulf Coast and then delivering a hum-drum national address from the Oval Office, Obama made news by announcing a concrete deliverable: A commitment from BP to compensate economic victims of the oil gusher that resulted from the April 20 explosion at its Deepwater Horizon off-shore well with a $20 billion escrow and $100 million to compensate laid-off oil crews.
As the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan writes, for folks on the Gulf Coast, that's "getting shit done."
Prominent congressional Republicans called the deal a "shakedown." An Economist editorial argued that Obama is "cementing business leaders' impression that he is indifferent to their concerns." But Bloomberg Businessweek's Ann Woolner suggests a win-win: "For a shakedown, this one came with terms that aren't especially difficult." BP stays afloat while putting aside $5 billion a year for four years, and its stock price leveled-off in the week after the deal was announced.
It's a heavy-handed move, no doubt. But even Fox News skeptic Bill O'Reilly took Obama's side, telling his vast cable TV audience that "Mr. Obama was correct in bringing pressure on the company to pony up the money." Perhaps most notably, 82 percent of Americans like the deal.
How did Obama get his first good headlines in the Gulf crisis? By sweating the small stuff. In his speech, he downplayed cap-and-trade, to the chagrin of progressives. But the BP deal was something doable that boosted public confidence, however slightly. Instead of hitting a home run, Obama stole a base and grabbed the low-hanging fruit. It's a cliché, but "money talks."
Yes, oil is still pouring into the Gulf. But the $20 billion was an easy win — the kind The White House needs more of this summer in order to recalibrate the president's relationship with the shareholders of the United States, also known as voters. Here are five other ways Obama can spend his summer:
Take a "Staycation"
Last summer I wrote that instead of going on vacation, Obama would be wise if he ''pulled a Don Draper, sent the wife and kids to the beach, ordered some takeout, spent the weekend huddled with his team in the Oval, and thrown the old George W. 'We're workin' hard' routine on folks.''
Now that goes double. With an ongoing recession, it does the first family no good to look like they're living lavishly while everyone else is struggling. If they really need to get away, they ought to avoid the Vineyard, the Hamptons, and Hawai'i, and instead pay a visit to a Gulf Coast resort — play a little blackjack, ride the Ferris wheel and help locals try to bring the tourists back.
The White House didn't appreciate labor's $10 million attempt to unseat Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). The "card check" union organizing bill is a nonstarter in Congress. Teachers' unions don't like to "Race to the Top" for funding. It's also speculated that unions are what's stopping Obama from suspending the Jones Act and allowing foreign supertankers, skimmers, and dredgers into the Gulf. If that's at all true, it's time for Obama to sit down the heads of the AFL-CIO, SEIU, NEA, and UAW for a "CTJ" — ASAP.
Obama has twice postponed a visit to Indonesia. If he puts the trip back on the calendar now, it won't be good enough to take a casual lap around his boyhood home. Unless he can leverage the world's largest Muslim country as a backdrop for Middle East diplomacy — like, say, a summit between the Prime Ministers of Israel and Turkey — he should just leave it off the schedule.
In the Gulf, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano looks like a bureaucratic speed bump between Obama and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. Wunderkind speechwriter Jon Favreau's well has apparently run dry. Obama needs surrogates around who will keep things simple, not complicated. Either he needs his own David Gergen — or he actually needs David Gergen.
Finish Up Strong
The White House tends to work up to an initiative with a big speech in the East Room or to a joint session of Congress and then conclude that their sales job is done. That's wrong.
By following up a speech that was light on specifics with something tangible, this time Obama managed expectations without resorting to unwieldy omnibus legislation or a draconian executive order.
It was the exact opposite of his approach to health care reform, where he started out with a big idea and wound up with a muddled compromise. Though Obama likes tackling weighty issues such as war or financial reform, the public isn't going to trust his instincts on the big ticket items unless he sharpens his eye for the little things — notes of basic proficiency that separate a Reagan from a Bush.
To follow up on last week's small success, Obama needs to be visible in the Gulf region as often as he can this summer. He has to let people know whenever progress is made — and when it isn't. The only way he'll put his slow start behind him is if he finishes up strong.
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.