Obama's Gulf Oil Spill Speech Worked, But Message Problems Linger

The response failed to demonstrate an understanding about the importance of showing, not just telling what was going on.

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By Karen Finney, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

It’s not the president’s job to be all things to all people. You wouldn’t know that from the harsh criticism his speech received across the political spectrum and the punditocracy. Apparently, we should all be angry that there was not a transformational moment of Zen in which we all heard just the right words, in the speech, that would be the turning point and make everyone feel better, at least until the next crisis.

It was a good speech. Not a great speech. Not a historical, national galvanizing moment that we will remember as the turning point in this crisis. But who cares? Do we really need yet another big, emotional, moment? We’ve had plenty of them over the past 18 months. Most Americans living outside the beltway or off of the island of Manhattan have had plenty of drama in trying to keep their homes, or find a job. Instead of drama they want action and maybe, competent leadership. From that perspective the speech basically accomplished what it needed to. Despite not being the best format for him personally, using the backdrop of the Oval Office sent a very clear signal that among the many serious issues confronting our nation, this crisis is front and center, as it should be. And as he’s done in previous speeches, the president laid out a framework, not specifics. To the people of the Gulf Coast President Obama made it clear that he is fully committed to what will be a long-term, complex problem, as we are barely at the beginning of understanding the environmental, economic and human impact. To a bail-out weary nation, he took responsibility for holding BP accountable, a promise he delivered on 16 hours later with the announcement that BP will set aside $20 billion for a compensation fund.

Frankly I’m glad that he chose not to pick a fight over energy policy in a speech that was not about lobbying Americans on the minutia of legislation. He respectfully made it clear that inaction on a clean energy economy is not an option, but didn’t try to announce a pandering policy-of-the-moment. For now, what he said is a good starting point. No doubt there will be a time to pick a fight, even though it should be brutally obvious from this tragedy that now is the time to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels so we don't need to be drilling at ridiculously deep and dangerous depths in the ocean.

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the Gulf oil spill.]

It was disappointing however, that yet again we were watching a speech with incredibly high stakes to see if the president would rise to the occasion. It shouldn’t have gotten to that point.

There is little doubt that from the beginning the administration was doing what it needed to be doing to deal with a crisis full of unknown and unknowable factors. But from the beginning, the response failed to demonstrate an understanding about the importance of showing, not just telling what was going on, particularly at a time when Americans’ faith in our government, not to mention large corporations, is at an all-time low.

The aftermath of 9/11 taught me an important lesson about communicating in a crisis; New Yorkers, many of whom had abandoned their homes, schools and businesses, were both listening and watching for signs that we would pull through. That the streets would be cleaned, schools would re-open and people could return home.  And that the inevitable fear, anxiety and frustration people feel play a big role in how the response or any progress is perceived.

A picture of the president from those first meetings we’ve heard about, surrounded by his team--or Secretary Chu working with scientists and engineers to close the leaks--would have gone a long way towards reinforcing a reassuring message to America early on, that our government was on the case. It would still be good to see Admiral Thad Allen, who’s been named as the person in charge, walking the beach and leading the team on the ground, in the way that we finally saw General Honore do in the aftermath of Katrina.

[See photos from the Gulf oil spill.]

The images we saw earlier this week of the president on the ground in the Gulf Coast, the speech last night, pictures from today's meeting with BP and administration officials, and the announcement about the compensation fund, suggest that the administration is on the right track. In the long run, the president faces a much greater test: will he be able to seize the opportunity to turn this crisis into the moment where we begin to have faith again in our government?  We’ll just have to wait and see.

  • Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.
  • See which members of Congress get the most money from the oil industry.
  • See photos of the Gulf oil spill disaster.