I’m going to riff off this post over at Ace of Spades a bit on something I was thinking about anyway while driving home from the office today. Perhaps in response to a couple of queries Gibbsie had to parry at a press briefing, Obama has now tacked to incoherent rage in response to the Horizon event – proclaiming “I Want To Know Whose Ass To Kick.” Ace hypothesizes that Obama’s problem is not communication (as is claimed by left-leaning folks in their tepid criticisms of Obama) but in his actions in response to the leaking crude.
I’m going to have to disagree with that notion to an extent because Obama’s biggest problem dealing with the oil leak has been an utterly dunderheaded communications strategy. Underlying that, though, are a couple of realities that will almost surely make Obamaphile heads explode when articulated.
Now I’m not an expert on offshore drilling and my public relations experience is limited to the daily one-on-one and small group dynamics of a corporate recruiter. But there are some aspects of salesmanship I’ve internalized that translate well into general PR/crisis response situations.
Much like President Bush in the aftermath of Katrina, there is very little Obama could have done to significantly change the situation as it stands today. Let’s get that out of the way up front.
Obamaphile head exploding reality the first – Obama is such an incredible narcissist he refuses to be perceived as powerless or anything but supremely intelligent. This led to a couple of PR blunders right off the bat. The declaration that “we’re in control”. Okay then, you own the crisis. What should we do now? Plug the damn hole? Brilliant, why didn’t BP think of that? Wait around until we can decide whose ass gets kicked? How does that help mitigate the damage?
I’m not convinced of it, but Obama may indeed be of above average intelligence. We can argue that another time but it’s obvious he does not think well “on his feet” as the saying goes. I’m sure that’s why he scheduled his first presser in almost a year during the day when nobody was watching rather than during primetime. The only difference I can see between Obama and Biden is that Biden is secure enough in his own skin to not care what people think while Obama has spent so much of his life crafting a cool, contemplative persona he fears ridicule over any other outcome.
Obama needed to make clear from the outset there is little the government can do stop the spill itself and the vastness of the Gulf coast makes oil-soiled birds and beaches inevitable. Working a mile deep in the ocean is extremely difficult and we should expect the worst case scenario. If he had set realistic expectations – i.e. under promised – he could have avoided the blowback he’s now doomed to experience. But that’s not his style. So now he’s stuck picking at tar balls on the beach like some puzzled child and trying to deflect blame through manufactured outrage.
Obamaphile head exploding reality the second – Barack is not a decider. He’d never been in a leadership role prior to 1/20/2009 and it shows. His actions during the campaign made that clear enough. What did Obama do when the financial crisis hit? Sit on his hands, wait until a consensus position arose, adopt that consensus position, and snipe at Bush. That’s fine for a congress-critter and the campaign trail but a recipe for failure as a leader.
This dovetails a bit with the point above. He’d rather be perceived as contemplative (i.e. indecisive) than have to accept responsibility for a bad decision. Unfortunately there are times when a bad decision is better than no decision. In the case of Horizon, Obama stalled, let the situation get ahead of him, and was forced to be reactive rather than proactive. All he can do now is feign anger as his administration belatedly rushes to adopt desperate solutions that might have helped if implemented when proposed weeks ago.
Jindal wanted 1,000,000 feet of booms and he wanted to build sand berms. Why didn’t he get it? There’s no way in hell you’re going to seal off Louisiana’s 400 miles of coastline, but you damn well better make sure the effort fails after you’ve given it your best shot. Instead we’ve got ourselves a top-quality talking point for 2012. Not fair, you say? There’s nothing Obama could have done? True that, but the same is true of Bush and Katrina. Perception is reality, and the reality today is that Obama isn’t doing everything he should.
Which is again a communications problem directly resulting from realities the first and the second above. Obama’s generally a prick, he refuses to humble himself, and he’s unwilling to accept blame. So we went from “I’m in charge” to “Plug the damn hole” to “Did you plug the hole yet, daddy” to “It’s not my fault” to “Now I’m really mad.” The only clubs left in his bag are funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to his union cronies under the guise of cleaning-up/stimulating the Gulf coast and blaming Bush.
Or maybe there’s no viable communications strategy for a disaster of this magnitude. Up to now he’s made hash of it and I doubt vindictive Obama is going to sway public opinion. As much as it sucks to find out you’re screwed, it’s sucks worse when you’re left to find out for yourself. Well now we know. And Obama will pay a heavy price for failing to clearly define that reality up front.