Getting Out of the Box

Looking for creativity in Obama’s response to the oil spill.

How do we judge a president in crisis? There are those things about the Gulf oil spill for which Obama is blamed but for which he and the administration are not at fault, like the inability to stop the flow of oil. There are those things for which he is responsible but not at fault, like the long nightmare of federal bureaucracy that allowed the technology for deep-water drilling to get so far ahead of the technology to stop a leak or clean it up. Then there are those things for which he is responsible and for which he can be at fault—like the success of the cleanup.

These different strands have gotten all mixed up. In part, that’s because politicians and partisans—on both sides—make this all more confusing. The president’s opponents want him to be on the hook for not being able to stop the flow of oil so that every time you look at those images you get irritated at him. This is not only unfair, it’s illogical: As the president said at Thursday’s press conference, the government doesn’t have the expertise to plug the leak. But the president’s supporters play their part, too. They’d like the story to be all about BP’s inability to stop the flow of oil. Focusing on BP’s incompetence detracts from the story of the cleanup, on which Obama and his administration should be judged.

Partisans make judging the story of the cleanup difficult, too. They would like to blame Obama for all the sins that predate the disaster: the lack of planning for such a nightmare and the delays and inefficiencies that have followed. This is a little fairer than blaming him for not finding the “Press Here To Turn Off Flow of Oil” switch—but barely. It’s been a rather busy presidency—two wars, economic collapse, major legislative battles, etc. Is it really reasonable or realistic to think that Obama should have also taken time to completely rethink the regulatory scheme governing deep-water wells and the government’s level of preparedness in the case of their failure?

No need to answer that: Of course it’s not. All the same, Obama is vulnerable on this issue because he embraced a policy that called for more off-shore drilling about 20 days before the spill. This president prides himself on thinking through his policies and testing his subordinates’ assumptions. Yet according to sympathetic environmental experts, Obama trusted oil companies more than he should have, a mistake he has admitted.

Still, all of this blame-fixing relates to behavior before the spill happened. The president’s greatest exposure is on decisions he made after learning about the spill. On that front, the White House has been working hard to show that the president has been engaged from the beginning. Pundits have seized on the idea that he hasn’t been sufficiently emotive. He needs to show more anger and empathy. In his press conference and in his visit to the region, he has been working hard to show these qualities.

This is all valid—to a point. The theater of the presidency is important, even if some people would prefer otherwise. So another conversation about Obama’s cool professorial demeanor is not entirely unexpected (or entirely unhelpful). The bigger problem, however, is not the theater; it’s the substance. And it’s here that the president’s response seems most lacking.

Wait, administration officials would point out. Obama had an emergency meeting in the Oval Office before it was even disclosed that any oil was leaking. Since the leak, the White House has been sending daily updates on all of the measures have been taken to respond to the historic spill. But the substantive and political question in the end may not be the speed of the response but the smarts of it.

Federal officials who have been in big crises all talk about a moment when someone figured that the answer was not to apply more of the same remedy (or even “historic” amounts of it) but to look for an entirely new approach altogether. This sounds great in theory, but is very hard to do in the moment because the immediate needs take up 25 hours of the day. There’s no time to think, and even if you have a great idea, there may be no organizational capacity to carry it out. There’s also the problem that every hour someone spends on your creative idea is an hour they’re not spending producing outputs that can be measured by the media and your political opponents. Also, creative ideas open you to ridicule. Why are you wasting your time on that and not ordering more boom?

The Obama administration has a playbook it can follow, but the question is knowing when to rip up the playbook and start anew. When I asked the president’s top environmental adivser Carol Browner this Sunday about tearing up the playbook, she said the administration had been improvising all along, but her answers were about reacting to the failures to cap the well. * There has not yet been that moment in the federal response when an observer might think, This is something new.

The solutions the administration is offering mostly feel incremental. There’s a leak in the roof, the feds say. Bring more buckets. Why not: There’s a leak—let’s punch a hole in the roof to keep it from spreading. Bringing in supertankers to vacuum up the oil is the kind of solution that seems different. (BP officials say supertankers won’t work because the oil from this spill is too spread-out.)

There is a political benefit to showing innovative thinking even if it yields modest results. Voters knew Obama wasn’t an emotive guy when they elected him. But there was the theory that he and his smart team would follow a process that would yield answers. He would engage smart people, build consensus, avert the perceptual narrowing that comes with crisis and find a new way. The Obama administration wouldn’t just flip through the existing playbook faster—it would know when to rewrite the playbook on the fly.

Administration officials repeatedly say the “best minds” are working on the issue, but even if that’s really true, the problem is that innovation runs on a different clock than the news cycle. Before the big idea arrives, you can hardly call in the cameras for a shot of the smart guys in a room breaking their pencils. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu seems to be the best place to look so far. He used gamma rays to help focus on the extent of the damage to the blowout preventer. In other quarters there’s also brainstorming that might lead to a spark. For example, federal officials are now talking to Titanic director James Cameron.

None of this is to argue that innovation equals success. But in judging the administration and its response, one category worth watching is how innovative its thinking is. Often it’s a quality that makes the difference between greatness and mere competence.

Correction, June 2, 2010: The piece originally and incorrectly stated that Carol Browner was the head of the EPA. She held that job under President Clinton. She is Barack Obama’s director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Slate V: BP’s Blame Game

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