Read Slate’s complete coverage of the BP oil spill.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have come a lot of new rules for presidential behavior. Based on what Obama has been criticized for —and the length he’s gone to avoid criticism—he and future presidents battling a crisis will be expected to make weekly visits to the disaster area and cancel foreign trips, White House cultural events, and courtside interviews. Also, quit playing golf in advance of the crisis. Oh, and in a lasting (everlasting) crisis, the president must show anger, or at least urgency—in press conferences, on cable shows, and in leaked newspaper accounts—that includes, but is not limited to, jaw clenching and mild swearing.
Most of these rituals are ad-hoc—a pinch of tradition and a big dose of free-floating political pressure from opponents and pundits. The newest item on the crisis etiquette list concerns the president’s use of the telephone. In the 50 days since the gulf oil spill, Obama has not called the CEO of British Petroleum, Tony Hayward. Is this another example of Obama’s ironic detachment from his duties as president or a meaningless act of theater he has wisely blown off?
It might be both. We require a lot from our presidents, and our demands are contradictory. They must be able to stop oil leaking from the center of the earth and reverse the momentum of a $14 trillion economy. Then, under the weight of those kinds of stressful demands, we also ask that they sit through countless ceremonies, celebrations, and other time-consuming tedium. The presidential phone call encapsulates this confusing tension nicely. Presidents call Super Bowl coaches and congratulate negligible dignitaries on their elections. But they also are supposed to have the ultimate hot line, calling world leaders to bend them to America’s will.
It is one of the symbols of the boundless power of the office that a president can pick up the phone and say, “Get me X,” and X will be on the other end of the line shortly. (This one knows not to say, “Get me Osama Bin Laden.”)
Every White House spurts out pictures of the president on the phone, issuing orders and pressing the case, to show action: Look how busy he is! The most famous case was in 1969, when Richard Nixon called Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong just after they set foot on the moon. Every chief executive should be seen as in command on the phone (if perhaps not as detail-oriented as Lyndon Johnson was when he called to dictate the particulars of his trousers to his tailor Joe Haggar).
Obama has boasted about being a phone-talker. Even when he was a senator, he told the New York Times that he loved that “everybody takes your phone calls.” Obama also said in that interview, “If there is a topic I’m interested in, I can call the smartest people in the world on that topic and talk to them about it.” His aides have promoted this image of a president who is not only curious but actively engaged in reaching out to communicate. The caption is the same for each one: “taking care of business.” If it’s an irritating ritual of the presidency, it’s also one they’ve encouraged.
So we’re not crazy for wondering whether Obama has put in a call to Hayward. When NBC’s Matt Lauer asked the question, Obama said that “my experience is when you talk to a guy like a BP CEO, he’s going to say all the right things to me. I’m not interested in words. I’m interested in actions.” Fair enough. But. If words are going to be defined as the absence of action, Obama is in trouble. Indeed, that’s what Obama is promising us with his response to the spill. He’s talking a lot but also promising that he’s going to act. You could imagine some number of voters saying about the president, “He’s going to say all the right things to me. I’m not interested in words. I’m interested in actions.”
At the same time, what would be the point of calling Hayward? The president brushed off Lauer’s suggestion that on the phone he could give the BP CEO a piece of his mind. He said that simply getting angry might be what commentators want but won’t produce a solution. It’s true. They’re not going to come up with a new strategy for plugging the well in a one-to-one chat. Nor would a call really satisfy the vast and conflicted pent up demand for a public display of emotion. To do that, the president would have to bop around like Bobby McFerrin.
Of course, in a sense it doesn’t matter that a call would be substantive or puny PR. When it came out last fall that Obama hadn’t talked with his Afghanistan commander, Stanley McChrystal, in the month after the general submitted his assessment of conditions there, that was shocking. The president had said Afghanistan was his top foreign-policy priority, and yet with his penchant for direct inquiry, he hadn’t talked to the general he’d put there to turn things around? (Days later, the White House put together a quick meeting with Obama and the general.)
But calling the BP CEO is not really analogous to the McChrystal case, because Obama is not gathering facts from a subordinate who serves under him. Plus, he wouldn’t trust Hayward to be straight, anyway. By the end of the day Tuesday, Sarah Palin published a long critique of Obama’s lack of a phone call, saying it showed he was too trusting of BP. “The current administration may be unaware that it’s the President’s duty, meeting on a CEO-to-CEO level with Hayward, to verify what BP reports,” she said. It’s hard to see how a president would have the time or inclination to do the fact-checking himself, given other priorities related to the spill—or the special knowledge to it (though he had deputized his Ph.D. energy secretary to do it). Given Hayward’s performance and the larger BP confusion or evasion about the oil flow, it’s hard to imagine how a phone call would spring the truth, either.
A phone call can send a message. But the messages Obama wants to convey to BP are more powerful when made in public. The time has passed for the low-grade spin of a phone call. Obama scoffs at the demand that he vent, but it’s not that he doesn’t want to do it. He’s already tried and it didn’t work. Three weeks ago in the Rose Garden, he chastised company executives for finger-pointing. Showing anger at BP executives in front of the cameras puts public pressure on BP, shows the government isn’t too close to the company, and shows the public that the president is doing something. His public warning to press BP not to “nickel and dime” Gulf area residents is a good sound-bite example.
In a crisis, the silly duties of the presidency go from merely annoying to threatening, because they distract from fixing the problem. Another such distraction will no doubt arise over the location of the president’s summer vacation. If Obama vacations in Martha’s Vineyard as he has before, critics will pounce. He’s not on the job and not heeding his own travel advice, which has been that families should vacation in the Gulf. He has made the pitch that the waters are safe during his emergency visits. Why not send a stronger message by vacationing there himself? The president will have to decide whether this is a silly question that can be ignored or an ad-hoc ritual that must be performed. In the end, it’s his call.
Click here to view a slide show of presidents taking important phone calls.