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Obama's Oil Stain

Obama's Oil Stain

By David Paul Kuhn - May 28, 2010

Barack Obama declared at the close of Thursday's press conference: "The federal government is fully engaged, and I'm fully engaged."

If this is engaged, what is disengaged?

To be fair, the British Petroleum oil spill is an especially difficult crisis for a president. This crisis does not call troops to the front or to the rescue. The president can only do so much.

But even Obama's daughter, the president recounted, has asked him: "Did you plug the hole yet, daddy?"

Kids say the darndest things. The White House communication staff apparently forgot to brief Malia. Obama's press shop keeps telling reporters: the president cannot simply order the hole plugged.

But Americans want to see him on it.

In callous political terms, a crisis can be good for presidents. It's the "rally around the president" phenomenon. Crises offer presidents the opportunity to rise above Washington's swamp and be presidential.

Some might think it superficial. But image is integral to the presidency. He is not only head of government. He's our head of state.

In crisis, Americans want to be stirred into action. They want to see a president who drives history, not one driven by it. They don't want to hear he's taking charge. They want to see it.

It's the difference between George W. Bush atop the 9-11 rubble and after Hurricane Katrina.

Obama needs the bullhorn moment. The BP oil spill has lasted 37 days. Time to express, "I can hear you!"

But that evokes Obama's dilemma. He cannot add that "the people" who did it "will hear all of us soon!" After all, we need those people to fix the problem.

"When it comes to stopping the leak down below, the federal government does not possess superior technology to BP," he told reporters.

It feels eerily like the financial collapse to many Beltway observers. Technical negligence combines with hubris, and enormous crisis follows. But only the culprits have the technical knowhow to solve the crisis. It's like hiring computer hackers to fight off other hackers. Understandable. But one must stay above the hacks.

Americans' understand why Obama works with BP. Special forces cannot go into the deep and plug the hole. The president cannot put on scuba gear and do it himself. That's for Harrison Ford movies.

But the president does not have to look this powerless. He does not have to look not on top of it.

News came shortly before the press conference that Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head oversight honcho, resigned -- or was fired? The president could not clarify.

"I don't know the circumstances in which this occurred," said the "fully engaged" chief executive.

We are told the president is angry. "Plug the damn hole!" Obama reportedly told aides. But no one apparently followed the order, or could.

Presidents are to make things happen, not wish things happen.

Obama insists he is, indeed, making things happen. "From the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge," he said.

He offered an example: "I sent Steven Chu down, the secretary of Energy, and he brought together a team -- basically, a brain trust, some of the smartest folks ... to essentially serve as a oversight board with BP."

The braintrust is on it! So Prof-in-Chief.

This White House might be stewarding the oil spill backroom. But backroom will not do. The public must see him fully engaged.

To be sure, Obama is not absent on the job. He will make his second visit to gulf region today. Obama first visited the disaster zone May 2. Since then, the spill has dramatically worsened. It's now officially worse than the Exxon Valdez. The oil slick is about the size of South Carolina and growing, according to the environmental group SkyTruth.

This second visit, this press conference, might be too late. As the crisis grew this week, consider what the president was doing instead. Headlined a San Francisco fundraiser. Honored the men's college basketball champion Duke Blue Devils. Sent off the U.S. World Cup team.

Meanwhile, "We're about to die down here!" said James Carville on national television.

Carville captured a symbolic shift. Many of those angry about the crisis are allied commentators. "He's been acting a little like a Vatican Observer here. When is he actually going to do something?" MSNBC's Chris Matthews recently told Jay Leno.

The floor has fallen out on the president. A majority of Americans believe Obama has done a poor job responding to the crisis, according to Gallup.

"No drama Obama" must join the drama, and take charge of it. Enough about what the president cannot do. Americans want "can do." And if he cannot do the big thing, do the small things. Get in the mud. Be off schedule, unscripted. Spend time with victims. Show you get it.

But at least, for now, no more political fundraisers. Obama said in San Francisco, "The situation in the gulf is heartbreaking, and we're doing everything we can."

Obama must now show some heart in the gulf. He must show that he is doing everything he can. That what he wants done, gets done. If not, it's not only the gulf region that will struggle to recover. So will his presidency.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

David Paul Kuhn

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