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Obama and the oil spill: Gergen to the rescue?

There is a core problem at the heart of the Obama administration’s public relations efforts in the oil spill: The government has neither the formal power nor the expertise to stop the spill on its own. Yet in a mess of this sort, everyone expects the president to be able to fix things.

To my mind, the administration’s basic problem is that it did not realize early enough that (1) the oil would keep spilling, because (2) BP didn’t have an effective worst-case scenario plan in place. Therefore it (3) underestimated how long this would last; and, thus, (4) didn’t jump in early enough to show that it was as on top of things as it could be. To a significant degree, these are problems of public relations, but they are also problems that stem from believing -- as most Americans did -- that BP would be able to solve this early on because there’s no technological fix that’s beyond us. Well, this one was a lot tougher than anyone thought it would be.

What the administration does control is the effort to mitigate the impact of the spill and clean up the shoreline. It should be devoting all the resources and public energy it can to this job. As for the larger issue of giving a sense that it’s in control, the administration could do worse than take a look at the shrewd public memo David Gergen offered on the CNN website. Gergen, an adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents and now a CNN commentator, argues that the “whole country now has a keen interest in the White House now taking full command” and that “the government needs to summon all the big oil and drilling companies to the White House on an emergency basis and seek faster answers.” Here are the first eight planks of the Gergen plan:

-Set up a daily command center in Washington where a presidentially appointed leader runs the show, calls the shots, coordinates the overall effort, briefs the president and briefs the country.

-Have two deputies, one to direct the leak-stoppage and the other to direct the clean-up. Ex-CEOs and generals would be excellent candidates.

-Summon all the major oil and drilling companies to the White House for emergency efforts to get the hole plugged.

-Get BP out of the picture for clean-up; just send it the bill. If it is still needed for hole-plugging, okay, but ensure that it answers every day to directions from the government. If BP needs new internal leadership, figure out how to get that done.

-Employ the U.S. military for organizational coordination and where needed, for anything else such as clean-up.

-Make more aggressive efforts to tap the best minds in the world for help.

-Provide the country with the kind of daily briefings that the military has mastered for wartime -- bring in people who are smart, straight and tough.

-Ensure that economic assistance is provided to families, small businesses and communities that need it with dispatch and generosity

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea whether all this would work, either in getting the problem solved, or even as a public relations exercise. The administration is almost certainly already doing some of these -- for example, consulting with other oil companies to get their expertise. But many of the ideas make sense.

There are competing risks here. One is that the administration will be pretending to be able to control events that it can’t control. But the other risk is that the president and his aides look helpless. The second is the greater risk, and Gergen has provided Obama with the rough draft of a plan. It’s as good a place as any to start the debate over what should be done next.

By E.J. Dionne  | June 1, 2010; 11:11 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Next: No amount of 'emoting' from Obama will suffice

Comments

First to say that David Gergen's assesment is sound advice. Mr. President please implement those portions not in place now.

Posted by: classicskins | June 1, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

If you are stuck and don't know what to do perform a tap dance. That is basically what most of the advice to Obama amounts to. It is not the lack of solutions that is the problem but finding the one that works.
What is on display at this time is the lack of experience with this kind of event. Engineering expertise often comes from doing many things that fail before finding one that doesn't. That is what is happening today. Unfortunately, the learning process that should have happened before drilling an oil well one mile deep in the ocean is taking place in the middle of a catastrophe. The whole oil industry is on trial here and other companies should be working overtime supplying advice to BP.
Perhaps Obama could facilitate that process but one should not expect the government to come up with a solution, the expertise is simply not there.

Posted by: serban1 | June 1, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

The worst lie we can ever tell is the lie we tell ourselves. President Obama is not an Oil man and we should be grateful since Oilmen like Dick Cheney and his Bush League legitimized the unbridled greed of BP and other Corporate Robber Barons, especially our Banking Institutions. While we certainly don't need another Bullhorn PR event without substance. Clearly, the President and his administration are working, but in times of extreme emergency, Americans need visible assurance. As a PR/Communications person, I'd prefer my President on the job, rather than on the lawn assuring me he's on the job. I trust this President, despite his tendency toward long term all inclusive solutions. He is of course correct as an International leader, but BP's oil destruction of the gulf needs visible short term action to save us from this and all Corporate greed. Beginning an official legal investigation of BP by our AG is definitely the kind of action response we need from our government. Declaring Marshall Law, limited to the affected Gulf area, which puts EPA in direct on site daily supervision of a joint BP & Army Corp of Engineers effort, and units of the National Guard protecting all involved. Surely history, especially that of our 21st century should have taught us that "We the People" can not trust either Corporate America nor our Government can police itself. From this crisis, I hope we will develop a new approach to sharing the earth with all that lives upon it.

Posted by: Marcello3 | June 2, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

The worst lie we can ever tell is the lie we tell ourselves. President Obama is not an Oil man and we should be grateful since Oilmen like Dick Cheney and his Bush League legitimized the unbridled greed of BP and other Corporate Robber Barons, especially our Banking Institutions. While we certainly don't need another Bullhorn PR event without substance. Clearly, the President and his administration are working, but in times of extreme emergency, Americans need visible assurance. As a PR/Communications person, I'd prefer my President on the job, rather than on the lawn assuring me he's on the job. I trust this President, despite his tendency toward long term all inclusive solutions. He is of course correct as an International leader, but BP's oil destruction of the gulf needs visible short term action to save us from this and all Corporate greed. Beginning an official legal investigation of BP by our AG is definitely the kind of action response we need from our government. Declaring Marshall Law, limited to the affected Gulf area, which puts EPA in direct on site daily supervision of a joint BP & Army Corp of Engineers effort, and units of the National Guard protecting all involved. Surely history, especially that of our 21st century should have taught us that "We the People" can not trust either Corporate America nor our Government can police itself. From this crisis, I hope we will develop a new approach to sharing the earth with all that lives upon it.

Posted by: Marcello3 | June 2, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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