President Obama’s Oval Office speech about the Gulf oil spill was almost enough to make you miss President George W. Bush. Maybe not the actual presidency of George W. Bush, but at least the platonic ideal of the presidency of George W. Bush—the MBA president, the chief executive as CEO.
Since the oil spill began, it has become clear that BP and its bumbling CEO Tony Hayward lack the foresight, competence, and managerial skill to contain the damage. The Oval Office speech had been promoted as an attempt by President Obama to show that he’s in charge, and that he will do what a good CEO should do: hold accountable those who screwed up, stop the bleeding, and lay out a clear strategy to recover and avoid a repeat. But those who expected Obama to go Jack Welch on BP came away disappointed. My guess is that the speech, far from sending BP’s stock into a new downward spiral, will turn out to be something of a non-event.
Obama certainly offered some Churchillian, take-charge rhetoric. “We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”
And he issued some mild warnings to BP. He promised that on Wednesday, “I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.” But that’s a relatively hollow threat. The chairman of BP reports to BP’s suffering shareholders, not to the president of the United States. I’m not sure President Obama has the authority to order the chairman of a privately held, Britain-based company to set aside specific resources. Besides, the public and investors already presume that BP will do that, which is why its stock has been scythed in half.
Like a CEO, Obama made an effort to delegate. He did speak specifically about some of the leaders who will be tabbed to help execute the recovery and prevention strategies. He spoke of a team led by Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu, and of the “nearly 30,000 personnel who are working across four states to contain and cleanup the oil.” He has authorized the calling out of the National Guard and urged “the governors in the affected states to activate these troops as soon as possible.” But CEOs have to find competent contractors and subordinates to execute the plan. And so far, the most important task—capping the well—continues to be outsourced to BP. He didn’t explain why BP is still on that job.
The most un-CEO like behavior came toward the conclusion. Obama hit the right tones in noting how we’ve entered a period of difficult-to-find oil, how we need to cut our addiction to oil, and how his administration has proposed policies that will hasten that. He mentioned the “strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill” energy bill passed by the House,” and swore that “the one approach I will not accept is inaction.”
But he didn’t call out the inactors in the Senate, who have been sitting on the House’s bill. And while he spoke eloquently and specifically of his faith in America’s ability to innovate in the long-term—a faith I share—he was vague when it came to the specific, short-term steps the organization he runs can take. As John Dickerson notes here, there was little mention of tough, controversial, but necessary initiatives such as placing a price on carbon, or sharply raising the tax on gasoline, or instituting a cap-and-trade regime. Obama’s speech was like a PowerPoint presentation with the last few slides missing.