Obama taps inner memoirist to tell BP oil spill story

President Obama has struggled to show he’s engaged and concerned during the BP oil spill. But as the disaster wears on, showing emotion and tapping his inner writer could help Obama's standing.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama greets residents Friday after he visits Camardelle's, a live bait and boiled seafood restaurant shop, to meet with residents regarding the BP Gulf Coast oil spill in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

As tarballs sullied Florida's bone-white beaches and a runaway well continued to pump below the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama tried on Saturday to transform a perception of himself as an academic stoic into one of Clintonesque empathy to repair a slipping bond with the American people over the BP oil spill.

Instead of Clinton's "I feel your pain," however, Obama is going with, "I feel your fury."

In an unusual Saturday weekly radio and internet address filmed near the docks of Grand Isle, La., Obama called the "man-made" Deepwater Horizon rig accident, which killed 11 and caused the massive Gulf oil spill, "brutally unfair, and … wrong" as he promised "to make sure [BP pays] every single dime owed to people along Gulf Coast."

Recounting the stories of several Louisiana residents – an oysterman, a shrimper, a motel owner – Obama said, "This spill is not just about damaged livelihoods, but the wrenching recognition that this time their lives may not be the same."

Obama's writerly address hinted at a change in approach for the President as he faces both a massive disaster in the Gulf and a perception – perhaps unfair, some say, given the unprecedented federal response – that he's not fully engaged in the BP oil spill disaster.

The president's attempt to connect deeper with distrustful Gulf residents is also a recognition, some say, that Obama's personal response is becoming increasingly important as the spill threatens to "taint something else: national confidence," as the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board put it.

"The problem here for Mr. Obama is that, almost 18 months after assuming office, he still seems to regard himself as something of an intellectual critic of government, when, in fact, what Americans expect from him now is markedly different," writes Matt Bai in the New York Times.

A new CBS News poll showed 44 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the spill, down from 45 percent last week. That's an acknowledgement that, despite myriad setbacks for the spill relief effort, Obama is not in dire straits, says Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

"Incompetence is not the stereotype that he labors under," Mr. Beinart told Voice of America.

But last week, press secretary Robert Gibbs defended the president's scholarly demeanor when he said that, though Obama was privately angry about BP's response to the spill, "Pounding on a podium isn't going to fix a hole in the ocean."

And judging by more recent public statements and the earnest Saturday address, something seems to have clicked in response to what energy analyst Kevin Grandia at says Americans are clamoring for in the spill response: "Authenticity."

On Friday, Obama showed a rare flash of anger as he criticized BP for its $50 million "We'll make it right" TV advertising campaign and an upcoming dividend payment to shareholders while many on the Gulf coast clamored for economic survival.

"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," Obama said.

Saturday's weekly address, for regular listeners, also had a different feel. It seemed by some of the familiar phrasings that at least part was written by Obama himself – a man who began his presidency with two best-selling memoirs, "Dreams From My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope."

"In 'Dreams From My Father,' Obama showed passion, lyricism, empathy and an exquisite understanding of character and psychological context — all the qualities that he has stubbornly resisted showing as president," New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote last week. "How does a man who invented himself as a force by writing one of the most eloquent memoirs in political history lose control of his own narrative?"

Indeed, even if Obama is searching deeper within for answers, getting control of the plotline at this point could be difficult.

"The writer in him, perhaps, sensed that the oil from a snapped-off pipe on the ocean floor might yet come to signify something deeper about his administration," writes Mr. Bai. "But chaos-weary Americans no longer needed him to share their outrage at the leak. They needed him to finally shut it off."


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