On the massive BP oil spill, triggered by an oil-rig explosion nearly two weeks ago, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs endorsed the language of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who had used graphic tough-guy imagery in talk-show appearances Sunday. “Our job basically is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum,” Secretary Salazar said, citing the company that leased the rig.
President Obama also dramatically ramped up his rhetoric and personal oversight on the disaster Sunday, with a hastily arranged visit to the Gulf Coast and language aimed at showing he “gets it” about the magnitude of the crisis. Mr. Obama called the spill “a massive and potentially unprecedented disaster.”
On Monday, Mr. Gibbs also described the foiled attack Saturday in Times Square as terrorism – after other administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, had declined to make that assertion. By Monday afternoon, news reports cited unnamed administration officials as saying that it increasingly appears that the failed bombing was a multiperson plot with international ties.
At his briefing, Gibbs did not equivocate. “I would say that that was intended to terrorize, absolutely,” he said. “Whoever did that would be categorized as a terrorist.”
The careful parsing of language and deploying of key words reflect an administration trying to calibrate its public posture on events – or, in the Goldilocks analogy, not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Whether they have succeeded on the public-relations front remains to be seen, as major polls have yet to show public perceptions of these two events.
Some news media promoted a hurricane Katrina analogy on the Gulf oil disaster, suggesting that the Obama administration was underreacting. The administration vehemently objects to that suggestion, saying they’ve had “all hands on deck” from Day 1. Obama’s trip to Louisiana on Sunday appeared aimed in part to put any image of disengagement to rest.
Indeed, Obama did not just fly over the affected area, as President Bush did in the Gulf region several days after Katrina struck in 2005. Obama landed in Louisiana, got a firsthand look at the response, and was briefed on the ground by officials addressing the disaster. The image of Obama delivering a statement in the driving rain – no umbrella-toting aides in sight – added to the sense that he was engaged in his environment and unprotected from adversity.
Still, if the Gulf of Mexico oil slick does rise to the level of catastrophe, the history books may not be kind to Obama. On Saturday, he opted to continue with his planned schedule – a trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., to deliver the commencement address at the University of Michigan, followed by his speech to the ultimate inside-the-Beltway schmoozathon, the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
The White House spent Friday insisting that Obama was planning a quiet Sunday in Washington, then changed gears Saturday morning and announced the Gulf trip for Sunday. By then, it would have been too late to plan a presidential trip that day, with all the logistical and security issues involved.
As for the failed terror attack in Times Square, a big consolation for Obama is that the SUV bomb did not fully detonate, and no one was injured. The impact on the administration’s image in the public eye is likely to be minimal. The situation in the Gulf of Mexico, and along the coastline, however, appears to be worsening by the day. The coast’s ecology and seafood industry are on the line. Even if the oil-rig explosion and massive leak are not the administration’s fault, any catastrophe takes a toll on the administration in office.
For Obama, “it’s a no-win situation,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, speaking of the Gulf oil slick. Obama doesn’t want to look like Chicken Little, racing to the scene of every brewing potential disaster, he says. But “if he goes late, even if for a good reason, he winds up getting criticized.”