The White House Bubble

Every president is a victim of it.  Each one, sometime during their Administration, hears that he has locked himself in “the White House bubble.”  This means that, immersed in his daily work, spending most of his time isolated in the Executive Mansion, he has distanced himself from the country’s realities.  That he doesn’t understand what’s happening on Main Street.  That he doesn’t understand any longer the daily concerns of the common citizens. These criticisms are now aimed at President Obama.  The reason?  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The White House is on the defensive regarding this issue.  During the first weeks of the crisis, the polls stated that the public had decided on a clear responsible party for the disaster, British Petroleum (BP), and approved of the way the government was handling the situation.  However, opinions have been changing substantially since then and the confidence on the Administration has fallen significantly.

Many pundits criticized President Obama for, apparently, not giving the crisis the importance it merits from the very beginning.  The April 20 incident has already become the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. 

The President responded by holding a press conference on May 27 and said that his Administration has always led the response to the crisis and that those who doubted this, simply “don’t know the facts.”

However, even well-known Democratic activists such as James Carville, who lives in the affected area, have directly confronted the White House, accusing it of responding to the crisis too slowly.  Carville even added that if the crisis had taken place on the coasts of California or on the beaches near the Washington, DC area, the response would have been completely different:  quick, efficient, forceful, well-coordinated.  Carville, a key advisor during the Clinton Administration, has grown more aggressive in his critique of the way the White House is managing the situation.  And he is doing this publicly, completely aware of the resentment that he is creating in the Administration.  Still, Carville isn’t the only one.  Louisiana’s Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu, also stated “the President has not been as visible as he should have been on this and he is going to pay a political price for it, unfortunately.”

The Republicans state that if this had happened to former President George W. Bush, rather than to President Obama, the Democrats would be criticizing him mercilessly 24-hours a day.  They would accuse him of incompetence and of not being actively involved in the crisis because of his ties to the oil industry.

During the press conference President Obama insisted that this is a clear priority for his Administration and that from the onset they have devoted the necessary experts and resources to solve the oil spill as fast as possible.  According to him, this situation is first on his mind when he wakes and last when falling asleep.

We won’t put in question the President’s statements regarding his efforts, but the truth is that many people think that the government has not done enough and that they have let BP take the lead in dealing with such an important issue.  These people qualify the spill as a national crisis and add that, therefore, the government should clearly have a leadership role and attitude.  According to them, this leadership has either not been in place or has not been properly communicated to the American people.  And as we all know, in politics perception is 90 percent of reality.

I think that the President’s press conference took place too late.  It was not proactive but reactive.  I believe that if President Obama immediately named US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen to be in charge of the Federal response to the disaster, from the beginning Allen should have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with BP’s representatives during the daily press conferences.  This also applies to the local and state authorities.  But the US public only saw one person:  the BP spokesperson.  I think that the President cannot hold a press conference without being informed that a key player in the situation had been fired or had resigned.  This person is Elizabeth Birnbaum, the former director of the Minerals Management Service, an executive who answered to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. This is the very government agency that President Obama criticized for its responsibility in allowing the oil industry to have improper influence in the environmental control area and security regarding oil rig accidents.

On Friday, May 28, the President once again to the affected zone to witness the effects of the disaster.  The government now asserts that instead of the five thousand barrels of oil it had previously stated were being spilled, the real number is 19 thousand.

President Obama went to one of the beaches suffering the effects of the crisis and later met with the leaders in charge of fighting the spill.  After the meeting, he left Louisiana.  He left without even speaking with the fishermen and citizens of the area.  Those clearly most directly affected by the disaster.  It was a flyover type of trip.  Taking into account the criticism, right or wrong, regarding his behavior up to then, why not take advantage of the long Memorial Day weekend to stay a couple of days in the area and become more deeply familiarized with the situation where it is happening?  Why not stay to listen to first-hand accounts from the victims?  Why not stay and convey the clear message that he doesn’t have a priority more important than this one?  I think that it was a great lost opportunity for the President and that this has highlighted even more Louisiana’s belief that Washington truly doesn’t understand what this situation means to the state.  A state already very resentful with the federal government for its response to Katrina.

President Obama was universally praised for being a master in his relations with the media during the presidential campaign.  He is undoubtedly a great communicator.  He’s also has left his mark in history by being the first who knew how to mobilize massive popular support for his campaign through social media networks.  Something that enabled him to raise more money than any other presidential campaign in history with an average contribution of $100 or less.  He also has shown that he is not afraid to “grab the bull by the horns.”  In just a year he has led the fight for health care reform, financial reform, and significant economic stimulus packages.

President Obama said in Louisiana that he has tripled the aid to deal with the oil spill.  He has even given his White House phone number to the local community authorities so that they can call him directly if something that has been promised is not taken care of.  His advisors confirm that he is constantly briefed about everything that is happening and that stopping the oil spill is one of his main priorities.  That this issue takes up many hours of his day.

Nevertheless, the truth is that the ongoing perception is that there hasn’t been enough presidential leadership on this matter.  To this day, many people still don’t know who is really in charge of this crisis.  Yes, the President stated that he is ultimately responsible, but, who is responsible on a day-to-day basis?  BP? The Coast Guard admiral?  The governor of Louisiana? The local authorities?  Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar?  Someone in Washington? Who?  I, who have been following this situation closely since it began, must admit that I have no idea.  The Administration has yet to put forth a face that we can all identify as the person responsible for the daily management of the crisis.  Something fundamental in terms of public perception is that someone specific is designated as being in charge.

And that it’s not enough to do things, but that you must know how to efficiently communicate what is being done.  It is difficult to understand how an Administration such as this one, so aware of the importance of public opinion, has allowed for this perception to spread regarding an issue as important as this one.  Now, in addition to solving the problem, they will have to communicate extremely well everything being done to prevent that this ecological disaster also becomes a political one for the White House.

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One Response to “The White House Bubble”

  1. Joe Says:

    It took the Mexican government 10 months to cap the leaking Ixtoc I. 3 months into the Deepwater Horizon and its beginning to look as bleak.

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