A Swing and a Miss: The gulf oil spill and Obama's PR mess 

In many regards, President Barack Obama is caught in the midst of a giant catch-22 with the Gulf Coast oil spill. Commentators from both the left and the right keep saying that his response has been too detached and devoid of emotion. Constant criticism about the administration's actions are that their lackadaisicalness demonstrates that they are not in touch with the needs and concerns of the American people. The oil spill, many conservative critics claim, is yet another example of the chasm between Barack Obama and Joe Sixpack.

The criticism is starting to have an affect, too.

In a recent poll by ABC News and the Washington Post demonstrated that a majority of Americans disapprove of the President's handling of the spill. Worse yet for a president who has seemed to be Teflon coated to wide ranging criticism in the public's eyes, only 51% of respondents feel that Obama understands their problems and 57% believe that the President is a strong leader. Those numbers are down from the last ABC-WaPo poll on March 26 where they rated 56% and 65%, respectively. And they are down dramatically from where President Obama found himself at the beginning of his term, 72% apiece.

The jury is in, Barack Obama has himself a PR problem. And the President's actions of late have demonstrated that he and his team acknowledge and are trying to address that problem.

President Obama sparked controversy by saying that he was "meeting with experts" so he knew, "whose ass to kick," on NBC's Today. Some have suggested that Mr. Obama's language struck a distinctly "unpresidential" tone. Though, as Steve Bennen noted, Obama was really just responding to the question that Lauer had asked of him. The transcript is as follows,

"LAUER: Critics are now talking about your style, which is the first time I've heard that in a long time. They're saying here is a guy who likes to be known as cool and calm and collected, and this isn't the time for cool, calm and collected. This is not the time to meet with experts and advisers; this is a time to spend more time in the Gulf and -- I never thought I'd say this to a president -- but kick some butt. And I don't mean it to be funny.

OBAMA: No, and I understand. And here's what -- I'm going to push back hard on this. Because I think that this is a -- just an idea that got in folks heads, and the media's run with it. I was down there a month ago, before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf. A month ago I was meeting with fishermen down there, standing in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be. And I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick."

But talk of kicking asses wasn't the only tough talk provided by the President yesterday in regards to the Gulf spill. In the same interview, President Obama said that he would have fired BP CEO Tony Hayward by now over Hayward's comments attempting to downplay the potential impact of the spill, "He wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements," said Obama, who will be heading back to the Gulf next week for his fourth trip since the disaster began 50 days ago."

These comments seem to be in line with the kind of ferocity that many have seen lacking from the President's demeanor. However, Obama's comments are likely to ring hollow to most ears. The problem with the President's most recent efforts is that when they come after  weeks of chiding and chastising, Obama's harsh words seem forced and insincere. The average American is likely to conclude that Obama is just talking tough because that is what he thinks Americans want to see and hear, not because those words represent how he actually feels about the disaster.

Whether that conclusion is fair or not, it doesn't help the President that some of his harshest critics have been fellow Democrats.

Democratic strategist James "The Ragin' Cajun" Carville has been absolutely bare-knuckled in his critiques of the President and his administration's response to the spill, accusing Obama of, "political stupidity" and calling the administration's actions, "lackadaisical."

""It just looks like he's not involved in this," Carville said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America." Visibly agitated, Carville said: "Man, you got to get down here and take control of this, put somebody in charge of this thing and get this moving. We're about to die down here.""

And despite push back from the administration, Carville remains unrepentant about his public criticism.

"“I tried to get their attention for some time. I am a Democrat. I like almost all of their policies. But I’m trying to everything in my power to help my state — short of just going after them. But I did and I will again.”"

It would seem, then, that the curse of the "no drama Obama" brand has struck again. The fact of the matter here, though, is that Obama is who he is, just as James Carville is who he is. And Obama could have used their respective personalities to his advantage rather than the mess in which he now find himself.

Rather than having Cheif of Staff Rahm Emanuel basically sluff Carville off and then relegate a political animal to technical discussions with Adm. Thad Allen, 23rd Commandant of the Coast Guard, Obama should have engaged Carville's sharp tongue in his service of his own needs. Understanding that his own populist rhetoric often rings hollow, Obama could have called Carville himself and told the firebrand Democrat, after engaging Carville in the requisite discussion about the situation, that while his administration was doing all that it could -- and that it would take Carville's suggestions to heart -- he needed someone to bulldog BP over their negligence on the matter. Obama could have admitted to Carville that this kind of post whipping isn't really his forte, but that Carville is an ideal candidate to make sure that BP is held to account in the court of public opinion.

Not only would this have engaged Carville in a constructive fashion on the issue and drawn attention from Carville's remarks to BP and not Obama himself, but it would have been a smart use of resources and an appropriate delegation of tasks to those most adept at handling them. Part of being an effective leader is knowing when to punt and when to pass based on what the most beneficial outcome of doing so might be.

There might not be a whole lot more that Obama could have been doing to deal with the spill itself. But there remain a myriad of ways that he could have better handled the perceptions around the spill on the ground. Constructively engaging James Carville was just one of those ways. 

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Scott Payne

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