Oval Office speech: Obama's 'take charge' moment in Gulf oil spill

In the Gulf oil spill crisis, President Obama has shied away from theatrical moments that symbolize he's in charge. Tuesday's Oval Office speech is his attempt to take charge on his own terms.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Newscom
President Obama chats with workers attending a training class for Gulf oil spill cleanup workers during a tour of the Theodore Staging Facility in Theodore, Ala., Monday. Mr. Obama is slated to give an Oval Office speech on the crisis Tuesday night.

President Obama will address the nation from the Oval Office for the first time Tuesday night in a bid to convince the American public that, in his response to the Gulf oil spill, he is more Lyndon Johnson than George W. Bush.

For weeks, Americans have been clamoring for Mr. Obama to show more outward resolve and leadership in facing the crisis. In short, it has been asking him to be more like President Johnson, who did not merely respond to hurricane Betsy in 1965, he became personally and politically invested.

Upon arrival, he shouted his speech from the airport tarmac because there was no electricity for microphones. At one point during a tour of the flooded city, he ordered a Secret Service agent to go find a bottle of water for a parched woman. Then, upon departure, he took direct control of the relief effort.

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Forty years separate that moment from hurricane Katrina, which many political scientists pinpoint as the beginning of the downward arc of the power and popularity of the Bush presidency. Mr. Bush at first only flew over the city, not deigning to land. The relief effort that followed was slow and chaotic.

[Editor's note: The original version misstated the length of time between hurricanes Betsy and Katrina.]

Once again, that fecund coastal curve is testing a president's crisis-management credentials, and for Obama, Tuesday's Oval Office address is an attempt to have his "Johnson moment." The gravity of Oval Office addresses indicates once and for all that Obama is taking ownership of the crisis.

Oval Office address suits Obama

He is expected to speak about the administration's long-term efforts to restore the Gulf Coast, as well as his plan to have BP create an escrow fund from which all damage claims would be paid. With Obama set to meet with BP officials Wednesday, the Oval Office speech is a clear effort to heap more pressure on BP ahead of the meeting.

Yet the speech also indicates that Obama is still trying to shape the Gulf oil spill relief effort in his own image.

Even as he employs carefully chosen curses and plans more trips to the Gulf, Mr. Obama is in many ways pushing back against the image of Johnson on that tarmac, bellowing his defiance. Obama's famous "whose ass to kick" quote widely cited as a sign of newfound edge was, in fact, part of a defense of his studious strategy: Assess the situation, put the best people on the job, and monitor them.

An Oval Office address plays to this Obama worldview. It conveys Obama's sense of urgency in the crisis while allowing a studious and measured president to remain in his element.

Obama's challenge is, at its core, one that Founding Father John Adams identified from the very beginnings of the nation, say historians: the apparent need for a symbolic president in addition to a practical one.

"This is a very professional president and a very professional administration," says Patrick Maney, a presidential historian at Boston College. "Its weakness is not policy, but its weakness is fulfilling the symbolic dimension of the presidency."

Johnson set the tone for a new period of presidential engagement – call it the bullhorn presidency – in 1965, and Bill Clinton added expectancy of "I feel your pain" presidential empathy when he gave a notable speech in Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing. Before Katrina, Bush had his own successful bullhorn moment at Ground Zero in New York after 9/11.

Until recently, however, Obama appeared to have focused on trying to ensure that his presidency is not boxed in by the Gulf oil spill. The 1979 Iranian hostage situation, for example, virtually imprisoned Jimmy Carter, weakening him politically. Obama has tried to steer clear of this by vacationing in Asheville, N.C., shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and at another time clowning around with New York Yankee players at the White House.

A question of presidential power

But the enormity of the Gulf oil spill has drawn him. While maintaining that BP is liable for the spill, Obama two weeks ago took responsibility, telling Gulf residents, "The buck stops with me."

It was the declaration demanded of him – the symbolic gesture of presidential power. But it illustrated the problem presented by the Gulf oil spill: The national demand that he take action is not in line with his actual ability to find a solution.

"Obama's dilemma is to keep it from becoming a metaphor for all the problems he seems powerless to solve now," writes Bill Schneider, a public-policy professor at George Mason University, in Politico.

Obama might be no more powerless than Johnson was in 1965, but Johnson radiated purpose. Obama's early inability to summon an inner Teddy Roosevelt is integral to the perception of how he was handling the crisis, pundits say.

A USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday found that 71 percent of respondents wanted Obama to get tougher on BP.

"Generally speaking, rationally, Obama and the government have been doing everything possible, but the unrealistic expectations of what a president can do are way out of control," says Professor Maney. "I just don't know if there's anything reversing that."

Obama is trying, and Tuesday's Oval Office address is his biggest gambit yet.


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