WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama likes to play poker, so he knew he had a very bad hand headed into his first press conference in months.
Maybe BP's “top kill” plan will work, but that didn't change the circumstances of Thursday's game. At the podium, the president didn't play his cards very well. He took responsibility for the Gulf Coast spill, but as a person, he seemed remote from the catastrophe.
The politics of the disaster are Cajun hot, but Obama is cerebral cool.
That disconnect — plus administrative mistakes and bad assumptions about the oil business — is why this Q&A session was not a shining moment for the president.
Technocratic, lawyerly, detail-oriented, bureaucratic: each of these qualities has its value. But they add up to a mess when they sum up a president, especially when he’s on a split screen showing an ecosystem (and way of coastal life) under siege.
No one expects Obama to be a Clinton-like master of syrupy empathy. No one wants him to be a Bush-like bull-horned cheerleader. But voters expect him to convince them that he cares, that he's focused, and that he can somehow put himself in the shoes of an average American.
It was difficult to watch him try, as he ended his press conference with what he evidently hoped would be a flourish of “I-feel-your-pain” emotion.
He said that the threat to the Gulf of Mexico and its people was on his mind both morning and night. He said that, as he was shaving, his older daughter, Malia, poked her head in the bathroom and asked, “did you plug the hole yet, daddy?”
He grew up in Hawaii, a place, he reminded us, where the “ocean is sacred,” which is why he worried about birds and turtles and such. He knew that people along the Gulf Coast had “grown up fishing in the wetlands.”
And so, the president reasoned, “to see that messed up in this fashion would be infuriating.” He sounded like a sociologist writing conclusions of a field test.
To his credit, this was his attempt to show sympathy (in his own clinical way), but given the scope of the disaster, the nation may need more.
One a scale of one-to-10, with 10 being Clinton on a bad day and one being Michael Dukasis’s abstract 1988 answer to a question about rape, I’d put the Obama recitation at about a three.
It came off as an unfortunate mix of noblesse (even my daughter is concerned!), mid-Pacific animism, and spin.
“Look, he was in a tough situation but I thought he handled it well,” said Rep. Ed Markey, the Democrats' leading environmental spokesman. “The problem was that BP told him initially that it wasn't that big of a problem. It is.”
But another Democrat, a leading political consultant who would only speak on background given the firm's client list, was harsh. “He didn't inspire any confidence, especially in contrast to those pictures from the Gulf.”
In fairness to Obama, he likely had no idea that he was being perceived this way. He doesn’t quite get it. And the reason we elected him was, in part, precisely because of his cool, sometimes almost chill, demeanor (coupled with his evident intelligence, studiousness and unflappability).
But if there was a time to flap, this was it.
At the end of the long and lugubrious hour, Obama conceded error and manned-up on the buck-stops-here question. “I take responsibility,” he said. “It’s my job to make sure that everything is done to shut” the well. “The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.”
As forthright as that was, much of the rest of the press conference was lawyerly, bureaucratic and political. At various times he blamed the Bush administration, the Congress, the past practices of the Minerals Management Service, the 1990 law under which he was “operating” and politics in general.
He half-way hung his interior secretary out to dry (a couple of times), saying that Ken Salazar had moved — but not fast enough — to change the culture of the famously corrupt and toothless MMS.
“Salazar came in and started cleaning house, but the culture had not fully changed in MMS ... There wasn't sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place,” said the president, who later reiterated, “Ken Salazar was in the process of making these reforms ... obviously, they weren't happening fast enough. If they had been happening fast enough, this might have been caught.”
The president even claimed he didn’t know that the head of the MMS had just that morning been let go, an assertion that drew skepticism from his questioner and elicited from Obama the first broad grin I have ever seen that looked completely — I mean completely — disingenuous.
“I found out about her resignation today,” explained Obama. “Ken Salazar had been in testimony throughout the day, so I don't know the circumstances in which this occurred.”
Like a good bureaucrat, but not a good leader in a crisis, the president kept referring to the decisions of someone most people have never heard of – in this case Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who has the title of “national incident commander” under the 1990 oil spill law.
But Obama needs to understand — and show that in a situation like this there is only one “national incident commander,” and that is the president of the United States of America.
And put some Tabasco on it!