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?

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama makes a statement after being briefed on the BP oil spill relief efforts in the Gulf Coast region, Friday, June 4, at Louis Armstrong International New Orleans Airport in Kenner, La.

President Obama lit into the BP oil company Friday during a visit to Louisiana, complaining about the firm’s $50 million in spending “to manage their image” during the oil spill disaster and a plan to pay out $10 billion in dividends this quarter.

The president said he didn’t have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations. “But I want BP to be very clear,” he said, showing a flash of anger, “they’ve got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf, toward the damage that has been done.”

“And what I don't want to hear is, when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they're nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time,” Mr. Obama continued.

The president has faced stinging public criticism in recent days that he has not been showing enough anger about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Friday’s appearance seemed to counter that a bit.

Just the day before, contrast between Obama and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) could not have been more stark: Obama asserted that he was “furious” over the oil disaster, but his tone was measured. Governor Jindal, meanwhile, was visibly agitated and passionate as he slammed the CEO of BP for “idiotic” statements.

These two scenes – Obama appearing on CNN’s Larry King Live and Jindal speaking to reporters in Grand Isle, La. – captured the diverging narratives of two key political figures embroiled in the largest oil spill in US history.

Obama went back to Louisiana Friday afternoon for his third visit since the disaster began on April 20 with the explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama was in Louisiana last Friday, but his visit did not produce the kind of visceral presidential reaction that some observers have been looking for.

Democrats are desperate for Obama to find his inner Bill Clinton – to convey to the people of Louisiana that he really gets their anguish and trauma, as the scenes of oil-soaked pelicans and coated marshlands blanket TV coverage. Republicans are watching Jindal and once again talking up his prospects for national office, after stumbling in his 2009 GOP response to Obama’s first address to Congress.

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.

"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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