Communication Gulf

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

The president, consumed with cleaning up after his predecessors, can't just strip emotion from the public parts of his job.

The BP oil spill is the perfect metaphor for Barack Obama's presidency so far. His first 500 days in office have been--with the significant exception of health-care reform--consumed in cleaning up the messes left by his predecessors in the financial sector, the auto business, Afghanistan, and now the oil and gas industry, where "regulators" in the Denver office of the Minerals Management Service under President Bush were literally sleeping with the industry reps they were supposed to be licensing. Obama's fate is to head up what Donald Regan (Ronald Reagan's chief of staff) called "the shovel brigade"--the crew cleaning up the dung when the elephants leave the circus.

Obama's response has been to shovel diligently at the Wall Street-GM-Kandahar-Gulf Coast cleanup sites. But having properly stripped all emotion out of his behind-closed-doors decision making, he has neglected to add it back in for the public parts of the job. He forgets that being a great professor isn't the same as being a great communicator. The inspirational figure of the campaign is under the delusion that he will be cheapening himself and the office if he uses memorable soundbites in the theater of the presidency. For all his study of history, Obama somehow has failed to notice that Lincoln's "house divided" and FDR's "fear itself" were, well, soundbites.

The result was that his May 27 news conference left no imprint. He even failed to drive home the point that BP, not taxpayers, would foot the entire bill for the cleanup. It's understandable that Obama likes to operate on his own timetable, not the media's. But just as he told single-payer liberals during the health-care debate that they have to deal with the world as it is, not as they would like it to be, so he must deal with the superficial media world as it is, not as he wants. The president's slow political reflexes are beginning to wreck his game.

Obama's reaction to all the easy Katrina-Carter comparisons has been characteristically philosophical. I'm told by a senior White House official that he figures it's "our time in the barrel," and the accusations that he's an incompetent cold fish are "something to be aware of but not panic about. …