President Obama has received significant criticism over his handling of the BP oil spill. Some of the criticism lacks much legitimacy; after all, Obama can’t personally go stop the oil spill. Obama has to rely on the oil industry to fix the leak because no one else has the ability to complete the task.
However, a good portion of the criticism strikes home because it addresses problems with Obama’s leadership. James Carville, the long-time Democratic political consultant and Louisiana native, lambasted Obama last week. Carville said on Good Morning America, “You got to get down and take control of this, put somebody in charge of this and get this thing moving. We’re about to die down here.” He continued, “These people are crying, they’re begging for something down here. It just looks like he’s not involved in this.”
People might expect too much of Obama. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows 42% of Americans disapproving of Obama’s handling of the oil crisis, with only 39% approving. However, Obama has an odd unwillingness to create political capital for himself outside of elections. Why not go to Louisiana and show empathy? Why even allow critics to compare him to Bush’s actions after Hurricane Katrina?
Obama did visit Louisiana late last week, a necessary move but one that felt like he was simply responding to criticism. When Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans in 1965, Lyndon Johnson rushed to New Orleans and promised Louisiana the full power of the federal government to rebuild the city. In doing so, he made a moral and political calculation. Helping Louisiana was the right thing to do. Johnson also intended it as an appeal to Louisiana voters to stay with his party after alienating white voters through civil rights legislation.
Obama seems unwilling to make these political calculations. He also doesn’t seem to understand that Americans want to see their presidents demonstrate strong and vocal leadership in times of crisis.
Americans are demanding strong leadership on the oil spill. They are angry that corporations dominate American life. They don’t want to see dead dolphins on the beach. They hate canceling their Gulf vacations. For residents of Louisiana, they want to know that the president cares about their plight. They want to know what he is going to do to ensure this never happens again. They want to know how he will help the fishing and tourism industries recover.
Obama consistently fails to provide that vocal, powerful leadership that inspired so many Americans to vote for him and his mission of change. He simply doesn’t seem to understand what Americans want and need, nor how to take advantage of events to shape the political agenda and expand his electoral coalition.
Time after time Obama has allowed others to take control of the discourse surrounding the major issues facing the nation, including health care and financial reform. His reticence to take on immigration has allowed racists like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to set the agenda.
Despite Obama’s campaign rhetoric about change, what we elected is a technocrat who believes in expertise and consensus above all. But in a nation that may not want consensus, Obama has not shown the political acumen to respond to the oil spill or other issues in ways that satisfy the nation.
Obama’s technocratic nature seems to lead him to defer to corporations who can claim expertise on particular problems but who really just work for their own benefit. Both the banking crisis and the oil spill are fantastically complicated issues that require the expertise few can provide. But by not positioning himself as outraged by those corporations, Obama seems to be in bed with them rather than protecting the American people from their rapacious ways through a powerful and activist central government.
Obama has learned just enough history to massively overcorrect for the errors of past administrations. He knew Bill Clinton made a mistake when he dictated health care reform to Congress in 1993. So instead he allowed Congress to form health care policy. Without active presidential leadership, critics of the plan took the initiative and shaped the debate.
Obama has also learned from George W. Bush. Rightfully disdainful of Bush’s cowboy approach to the presidency, Obama has refrained from making emotion-driven broad statements that might later prove damaging. Certainly this strategy has worked well in Obama’s foreign policy. While Iran has proven more intractable than Obama might have realized, overall, Obama has improved the nation’s standing the world.
However, many Americans liked Bush’s grandiosity. Bush’s Manichean view of the world appealed to America’s evangelical leanings that have shaped the country since its founding. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech was profoundly stupid because it was wrong. But his rhetoric was good politics at the time.
Obama has had ample opportunities to speak to these tendencies in the American psyche but has consistently refused. Americans have historically responded to strong leadership, often regardless of actual policy—whether from Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama during his presidential campaign.
While we have to explain political shifts in more complex terms than leadership, Americans have consistently supported politicians who inspired them. Barack Obama convinced millions of Americans to vote for him not because of his health care plan but because he made them believe he would make their lives better. But when he took office, Obama forgot about this. His lack of vocal and inspirational leadership opened the door for the Teabaggers, oil companies, and special interests to fill the leadership vacuum, possibly threatening his presidency.