In his second visit to the region, President Obama could have shown he was engaged. Instead, he said it.
There’s little dispute in the gulf region as just how bad the oil spill actually is. After the sludge made landfall early this month and has been methodically seeping through the Mississippi Delta, the anger has also bubbled to the surface. The region’s fisherman, coastal residents, and parish presidents have all shaken their fist at the oil, the company that caused it, and the Obama administration directing the response. Don’t tell us all the things you’re trying to do, they say, just show us that you care.
That’s why President Obama’s visit to the region today was such an opportunity. Over the past five weeks, the administration had been impressively comprehensive in mobilizing word that it was responding. Aside from repeated trips to the gulf by cabinet members, the White House at least once a day has sent out exhaustive updates of the “administration-wide response to the spill,” noting repeatedly that 20,000 relief workers are in the region, some devoted to capping the well and the others feverishly scrambling to rescue the wetlands from being suffocated.
At yesterday’s press conference, Obama made the issue noticeably more personal, revealing a private moment when his daughter asked him if he had “plug[ged] the hole yet, Daddy.” He also reminded us he was from “where the sea is sacred.” But when Obama got to the scene of the crime today for his second visit since the incident, his tone was noticeably more rigid. He attended a briefing with on-scene commander Adm. Thad Allen, then toured some beaches to look at tar balls and other effects of the spill washing ashore.
In front of cameras, Obama addressed the crisis as if it had already happened and that all anyone was dealing with now was the fallout. “This is something that has to be dealt with immediately, not sometime later,” he said—a bizarre statement, since no one had suggested delaying the cleanup to a more convenient time. He also vowed that “the cameras may leave, the media may get tired of the story, but we will not”—despite the near round-the-clock focus on the gulf beaches and the underwater camera monitoring the subsurface leak. He deadpanned that the spill had become “the largest oil spill in American history,” before calling out several top officials who had been working hard in the region.
There’s some dispute about the effectiveness of the response—whether the administration is doing as much as it can, and everywhere it can. But even if efforts are fully deployed, it’s beginning to appear that words may have passed their point of efficacy. On presidential visits, imagery is everything (which explains why President Bush’s flyover of post-Katrina ended up doing such damage). Obama’s bullet listing of actions taken might have shown his engagement, but it didn’t win him much sympathy in the region. Getting his shirt dirty by picking up a dead bird might have gone a long way. As would a figurative or literal fist-shaking during his statement to reporters. People just want to see anger. At this point, it probably doesn’t matter at whom.