By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
A new media narrative has developed, that President Obama doesn’t “get it” when it comes to understanding and sharing the outrage of the American people. The story first started with the public outcry over the AIG bonuses, continued through the shock of the Christmas Day underwear bomber, and now has grown with the horror at the scale of the devastation caused by the BP oil leak. His cerebral, “No Drama Obama” style of leadership is playing against him publicly in the short term—in poll after poll, his approval ratings are dropping—and in the long term, it’s feeding a larger sense among Americans that government at all levels is failing them.
“We’re incompetent,” Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn said recently, referring to the public’s perception of Congress. But what’s going on is bigger than Congress or even the federal government. As Americans see failing schools, a lack of border security, continuing crises in the financial markets, and two wars that have dragged on for years, it’s easy to see why voters are so disillusioned. The worst oil leak in American history has slowly become a metaphor for everything wrong with government.
That’s why Obama needs to “pivot,” as political consultants say, and reverse the narrative. Here are five ways the president could take control of the BP story:
[See a slide show of the 5 ways Obama can turn around the Gulf crisis.]
1. Name a “Czar.” The president has already named over 30 “czars” for various government projects, why not one for the biggest challenge his administration faces? While National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen has done a great job on the attempts at capping the leak, it’s time to bring in a leader who can take the job from sea-level to 30,000 feet. I’ve blogged before that the president should consider naming Joe Biden his “czar” on this—as vice president, he’s got Obama’s ear and the statutory authority to command the bureaucracy. Add to that a staff and an airplane ready to go, plus goodwill on Capitol Hill. But if the president could reach out to a Republican—like General Colin Powell, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, or former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example—that would be even better. It puts the whole thing above politics, and sends a great message about both parties coming together, like former Presidents Clinton and Bush No. 41 did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
2. Show me the money. Recently, the government presented BP with a bill for cleanup measures but the president should announce that starting immediately, fines will be imposed on BP that would accrue every day that the leak remains uncapped--and BP should be charged by the day, not by the gallon, so execs have no incentive to low-ball the size the of the leak. It’s hard to believe that the government “has its boot on the neck of BP,” as Secretary Salazar likes to say, until there is a real, well-publicized price to pay for a mishap like this one. The money should be put aside for restitution for individuals, businesses and communities hurt by the devastation so the victims can see that financial help is on its way.
3. Hold a daily presser. In the days after 9/11, Giuliani was a frequent presence on radio and television, and spent many hours at Ground Zero with workers and firefighters. Of course this leak is different from 9/11, but politically, it has the potential to be just as big. Until Obama's May 27 appearance, the White House went 10 months without a presidential press conference, which contributed to the narrative of the president being out of touch and aloof. The administration should reverse course and hold a daily high-level press conference, with either the president or his “czar” at least until the leak gets capped and clean-up efforts are well underway. He should also consider holding a press conference with reporters from high school and college newspapers, to reassure young people who, in the long run, have the most to lose from this.
4. Convince the public “I’m your Daddy.” Speaking of young people, the only time President Obama really seemed to “connect” during his press conference on the leak was when he talked about his 6th grade daughter asking if he’d plugged the hole yet. I’ll bet every family in America has talked about this disaster, and every parent understands the simplicity of Malia’s question. The Obamas should consider heading south as soon as Sasha and Malia’s school gets out for the summer. Not only should they visit with local families and tour clean-up sites, they should take a day or two of vacation on one of the so-far unstained gulf beaches, maybe on the Florida side. Pictures of the Obama family on a clean Florida beach would send a message that Florida is still open for business. And it would be great if Mrs. Obama could sit down and talk about the cleanup with school-age kids, which she’s good at doing.
5. Don’t let a good crisis go to waste, as Rahm Emanuel would say. For a lot of young people watching this disaster unfold, American consumption of oil—whether foreign or domestic—just makes less and less sense. There’s a great opportunity here for the president not only to convey that he “feels the pain” of the people on the gulf coast, but that he knows how to turn their anger and frustration into something positive: an end to our oil addiction. He’s a very effective public speaker, and he’s said before he hopes to be a “transformative” leader, as Ronald Reagan was. He could use the rest of his presidency to change our nation’s direction on energy. It's time to ask for Americans’ help in retooling our economy and our way of life toward new, alternative energies. Time to remind folks that as a nation, we’ve done bigger things before. Time to get back to “Yes We Can.”