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Gulf oil spill: Is Obama really mad now?

Democrats have been desperate for President Obama to find his inner Bill Clinton – to convey to people that he really gets their anguish and trauma. Did he do it in Louisiana Friday?

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Politically, the stakes are higher for Obama. The public still holds BP most accountable for the disaster, but public confidence in the Obama administration’s handling of the situation is slipping. Obama demonstrated his commitment to dealing with the Gulf crisis late Thursday by postponing, for the second time, a trip he was supposed to take later this month to Australia and Indonesia.

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"People don't blame him for the causes" of the disaster, says Kirby Goidel, a political scientist at Louisiana State University. "It's more about his reactions and whether he's responding effectively to the crisis. Clinton would be down here feeling our pain."

Administration officials – including Obama himself – argue that arm-waving and emoting aren’t the point.

"I would love to just spend a lot of my time venting and yelling at people," the president told Larry King at the White House. "But that's not the job I was hired to do. My job is to solve this problem. And ultimately this isn't about me and how angry I am."

Even if the core issue is solving the problem, not public relations, modern presidents always have to contend with the PR dimension of major events. That means TV cameras, and the “optics” of how a president is reacting and what he is conveying to the public.

During the presidential campaign, Obama’s cool demeanor seemed to be an asset. Though he had little executive experience, he came across as someone who would think before acting. Now, that “highs not too high, lows not too low” mindset is coming back to bite him as the Gulf coast comes under oily assault.

“Americans do like their leaders to show some compassion and empathy; the words are right, but he just has such a deadpan approach to this,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications strategist.

At the same time, Obama can’t suddenly appear super-emotional. “If he did the jumping up and down thing, people would wonder, what’s got into Barack Obama? They would smell a phony,” says Mr. Fenn.

Still, he adds, Obama is going back down there, “and the fact is, he’s on top of it. At the end of the day, it’s results that count rather than how many eyebrows you raise or how angry you look.”

Staff writer Peter Spotts contributed to this report.


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