Why on Earth Hasn't Obama Spoken with BP's CEO?

Why on Earth Hasn't Obama Spoken with BP's CEO?

By Tom Bevan - June 10, 2010

As it turns out, one of the biggest question marks of Barack Obama’s presidency thus far is not whether he could answer a 3am phone call, but why he didn’t make one. Tuesday’s Today show interview with Matt Lauer garnered an awful lot of attention for the President suggesting he’s looking for some “ass to kick” in the Gulf oil spill, but the real revelation came when the President told Lauer that he hasn’t spoken to Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, since the crisis began more than seven weeks ago:

Lauer: Have you talked directly to Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP?

Obama: I have not spoken to him directly – and here’s the reason: because my experience is when you talk to a guy like a BP CEO, he’s going to say all the right things to me. I’m not interested in words, I’m interested in action.  And we are communicating to him every single day, exactly what we expect of him and what we expect of that administration.

This is not some run of the mill crisis, of course. It is a catastrophic event, the largest environmental disaster in American history.  To add even more context, within roughly 48 hours of the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon it became abundantly clear to everyone involved that because of its equipment and expertise, BP would be intimately involved – functioning, in effect, as a contractor for the United States government – in the effort to cap the well.

And yet the President, who is the ultimate authority for the federal government’s response to the disaster and who claims to have been on top of this issue from day one, never picked up the phone to speak directly to the man responsible for running BP’s operation.  Not once. In fifty days.

It’s a startling revelation, and Lauer was even taken aback by it:

Lauer: In all due respect, that feels strange to me, that here we’ve got the CEO of a company that’s responsible for the worst environmental disaster in US history, and I think -  I’m just curious why you didn’t, why you wouldn’t pick up the phone and in some ways just give him a piece of your mind?

Obama: Look, this has been the main critique of the administration, is “giving a piece of my mind” to these guys. Look, I would love to vent. I would love to just shout and holler because I’m thinking about this day in and day out.  But my main job is to solve the problem.

But President Obama hasn’t had any problem “venting” at fat cat CEO’s of Wall Street banks and health insurance companies over the last year in pursuit of his policy agenda. Nor has he displayed any reticence about calling them to the White House to communicate directly with them about what he wanted. And, so far as I know, Obama never expressed any concern that these meetings would be useless because the CEO’s would simply just “say all the right things to me.”

At its core, though, this isn’t about politics, policy, or partisanship. And it isn’t about Obama’s ability to show emotion, or kick ass, or anything else.  It’s about one thing: leadership.

How can someone who says they are seriously engaged in leading the country through an ongoing crisis go more than seven weeks without speaking directly with the person whose company is tasked with a critical part of bringing the crisis to an end? Why would someone who claims to be focused night and day on doing whatever is needed to put an end to the catastrophe not want to have a direct line of communication with Hayward? In fact, instead of not speaking at all with Hayward, wouldn’t a President who was serious about taking charge of the situation and being as well informed as possible do the opposite and demand that the BP CEO provide him with constant direct updates of BP’s efforts in the Gulf, perhaps even on a daily basis?

The reason Obama’s decision not to speak to Hayward felt “strange” to Matt Lauer – and feels the same way to millions of Americans as well – is not only because it simply defies common sense, but because it is an abdication of leadership on the part of the President during a time of crisis.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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