How the Gulf Oil Spill Live Feed Changed the Obama Presidency

It’s hard to watch an environmental and economic crisis for communities and families worsen while the president is having a good time with athletes and rock stars.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

How did it all start going wrong for President Obama on the BP oil leak? He may have done some things right on the substance behind the scenes, but now the media narrative is getting overwhelmingly negative against him. My theory: it all began when Rep. Ed Markey, in a May 19 hearing with BP executives, asked that they put the live feed of the gusher on their website for everyone to see. That’s when the “optics” starting setting the tone. Having Americans watch “spillcam” for themselves changed everything. The live video stream of the leak quickly became one of the hottest searches on the Web, and cable news used it as filler during the daily chatfest. Here’s how Hank Stuever of the Washington Post described it:

There is no sound and nothing happens, except the inexorable, unending flow. You watch a little, and then a little more, and then you can't stop watching as a steady plume of dark brown oil belches upward from the floodlit, rocky ocean floor.

Depending on the depths of despair that spillcam can take you to, you might find yourself thinking of spillcam even when you're not watching it. At dinner. In the shower ... You can be in bed and wake up in the middle of the night and think to yourself: It's still coming out. Then you think: What if it never stops?

So since spillcam has been up and running, there have been very few competing images of the president, say, meeting with local families or shoreline volunteers--because, well, there weren’t any meetings to film. When he did finally visit the beach, he was brief and cerebral and wore Washington office clothes. (The shots reminded me of that famous photo of Richard Nixon walking on the beach in long shorts, wearing black socks and wingtips in the sand.) The word is that the president’s heading back to the gulf this weekend, and presumably they’ll have a few shots of him doing more than just promising that he’s not going to sleep until the leak is capped.

[ See which members of Congress get the most money from the oil and gas industry.]

Last night’s footage of the president and first lady rocking out with Paul McCartney hasn’t helped. Neither has post-spillcam footage of the president yukking it up with the Duke men’s basketball team and celebrating Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. Rather than putting these videos on the White House website, the press office should have made those events closed to the press, or at least to television cameras--which White Houses have done for exactly this reason. (And as a matter of fact, this White House just did it the other day, when it only released a transcript, not any video, of the president speaking at the May 25 San Francisco fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer.) We all know the job of president is a ceremonial one, and that one has to do events like these--but it’s hard to watch an environmental and economic crisis for communities and families worsen while the president is having a good time with athletes and rock stars. He looks insensitive. These days, he’s overexposed on all the wrong events. It’s become spillcam in the gulf vs. partycam in the White House.

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

The late Michael Deaver, President Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, put it well a few years ago, talking about the public’s image of a president: “The more you expose yourself, the more you expose yourself to trivialization ... And if things start not working, people are going to say, ‘Get off your rear, quit talking and do something about it.’”

That’s exactly what's happened now.