Editorials

Obama needs to act the part

There's nothing quite as bracing for a president, I am certain, as a moment when the political becomes intensely personal.

That was President Obama's message late in his hour-long news conference about BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when he brought up his daughter Malia's interruption of his morning shave.

"... And Malia knocks on my bathroom door," he said, "and she peeks in her head and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?'"

He wanted us to know that he hears the rest of us Americans as we ask that same question. "In case you were wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility," Obama said Thursday. "It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down."

It is technically not the president's job to plug up the oil gushing out of BP's well. That's BP's job. The Obama administration held tightly to that position in the early days after the April 20 blowout. But more than a month later, conservative pundits and bloggers are not the only voices asking whether the Gulf oil disaster is "Obama's Katrina."

Before his news conference, a Gallup/ USA Today poll found more than half of Americans, 53 percent, rated his response to the spill as "poor" or "very poor." BP fared worse with 73 percent disapproval. The president fared a little better in a CBS News poll with only 45 percent disapproval, compared to BP's 70 percent.

But the president's numbers could easily slide in Bush's post-Katrina fashion if he fails to get ahead of this story. As President George W. Bush found in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we may not blame a president for causing a disaster but we do expect them to do all they can to prevent disasters from getting worse.

If Bush looked inactive, Obama has looked powerless. His news conference was intended to set the record straight, or at least more favorable to his administration. Yet as political theater, news conferences have not been his best stage. This time he seemed about as awkward and self-contradictory as his last news conference, which misfired in ways that led less to a resolution of the health care debate, as intended, than to an odd "Beer Summit" about racial profiling.

This time Obama took "responsibility" for the leak and its deadly slop in the Gulf coast wetland while leaving the blame with BP. He insisted that his administration was "in charge" of efforts to plug it up, yet he admitted that the government lacked resources and "superior technology" to deal with the disaster.

His worst moment for showing his command of things came when he told a reporter he did not know whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, who resigned that morning from the directorship of the Minerals Management Service, had resigned or been fired, even though she was catching blame for failing to overrule the oil industry's environmental and safety shortcuts.

Obama needs to overhaul the appropriate watchdog agencies and hold BP accountable, not only for fixing the problem and paying for all of its damages and cleanup costs but also for transparency.

Politics is 90 percent perceptions. "Optics" is the chic Washington term these days for the difference that visual perceptions make, a usage that probably was dreamed up by a political consultant. Bush had good optics when he mounted the rubble at the World Trade Center with a firefighter and a megaphone and bad optics when he was perceived flying over New Orleans.

Now it is Obama's turn in the crisis-management spotlight. The public may not hold him responsible for what happened before this disaster, but it surely will hold him responsible for what happens afterward.

Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at cpage@tribune.com.

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