President Obama is now on a TV binge to show that he is aggressively on top of the oil spill crisis. Today he’s in the Gulf again. Tomorrow night he’s doing a primetime Oval Office address to the nation, his first. It’s his pattern to hang back from doing media until there’s nothing on but commentators and cable shouters demanding that he show us he cares. Then, as the audience does a slow clap, he trounces the critics with a charismatic big speech.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. Tomorrow he’s announcing something concrete—an escrow account out of BP to get the cash to all the Gulf workers whose livelihoods have been trashed. But will this be deemed leaderly enough to assuage the angst among his supporters that the oil gushing into the Gulf is seeping away like his presidential potency? Obama fans become more and more glum that he keeps flubbing the very role he was expected to be so good at: Therapist to the nation. The Great Comforter.
What Obama lacks in Big Daddy empathy skills he has to make up for in raw politics.
The irony is that George W. Bush played the Daddy role with conviction. He grabbed a bullhorn at the World Trade Center and shouted, "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." When he went to West Point and made speeches, there was no dispiriting nuance to his message to the troops. We were over there in Iraq to kick ass and take names.
Mark McKinnon: Obama’s Next Trick—Live from the Oval Office!
• Tina Brown: Obama Floats Above the ChaosWe know what happened next. Just as we also know now about a lot of things Bush was so commander-in-chiefy about. How the new Homeland Security agency he announced with such fanfare soon ballooned from the “agile and elite staff of 300 people reporting to the Director of National Intelligence…who would break up the bureaucratic layers” recommended by the 9/11 Commission to a bloated 2,000 staff members so confused about their chain of command that a new report cited by Peggy Noonan an unidentified Justice Department source claims: "We are totally unprepared......Right now, being totally effective would never happen. Everybody would be winging it."
We also know that Bush stuffed agencies charged with overseeing our safety, like FEMA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, with incompetent political cronies—nothing nuanced about that—and that under the Bush-Cheney rule of Big Oil, the Minerals Management Service agency became a crew of corrupt, lethargic backscratchers signing off on egregious lapses in offshore drilling safety in return for the usual cheesy perks of the good ol’ boy business culture. (If you want a laugh, take a look at the picture in Rolling Stone this month of the now-former MMS associate director Chris Oynes. Even the most foaming liberal movie director would hesitate to cast this 300-pound Rush Limbaugh lookalike clamped in a necktie.)
Obama can’t change his cool disposition though it would be nice if he lost the vaguely grudging air he gives off that problems of management get in the way of ideas. What he lacks in Big Daddy empathy skills he just has to make up for in raw politics. Bill Clinton was the master of that, mostly because unlike Obama he enjoyed it. By now Clinton would have reached out to every one on the planet (even James Cameron) who knew anything about deep sea drilling, BP, big oil, and wetland wildlife and absorbed those competing opinions into the radar of his responses. He would have convened all those Republican Gulf State governors at the White House right away, and in doing so won political points for showing the true meaning of bipartisanship. He would have summoned not just this new BP character, the faceless chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, but the familiar, juicy target, Tony Hayward—if only so the public could see the delinquent CEO ordered like a chastened schoolboy to the principal’s office. He would have convened not just BP but all the other oil companies to force out the best ideas in a fanfared Oval Office meeting. And for sure he would have called James Carville personally and got his yelling fetus-face off CNN. That alone would make us all feel better about what really ails us. The feeling that the black, gushing oil spill is a huge and terrifying metaphor for the seeping of American power, an overwhelming karmic punishment for the profligacy of our civilization as we burn up billions of dollars of biological material in a few short hours.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.