Monday, June 14, 2010

BP and Obama: Phases of a crisis

The United States and England played to a 1-1 tie in round C of the World Cup on Saturday before 38,646 vuvuzela-powered fans at Royal Mafokeng Stadium in Rutenburg, South Africa. Before the match, President Obama proposed to Prime Minister David Cameron a friendly wager: "the best beer in America" against the best British lager on an American win.

The fact that the match ended in a draw may be just as well: Given what’s lately been complicating the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., if they met right now, they may well drink the beer and throw the mugs it came in. At each other.

They’ll be late to this fractious party. According to numerous recent reports from the U.K. the British are getting fed up with the relentless drubbing that the oil superconglomerate BP has taken in the press — which pales in comparison to the beating that BP stock has taken lately, down nearly 50 percent at one point last week.

And in the States — particularly the Gulf states most directly impacted by this, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — BP bashing is all the rage (or the manifestation of rage), with the Web crowded with protest sites, many showing the raw video feed of oil oozing into the Gulf of Mexico, or the crude lapping against the shoreline, thick as brownie batter. Even the theatrical world got into the act. At the Tony Awards on Sunday, emcee Sean Hayes offered a shoutout to Bernadette Peters: “She’s the B.P. that isn’t ruining the planet.”

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President Obama, fully reacting to the flow-volume of public outrage (and hoping to head off anything uglier than mostly rhetorical protest), has ratcheted up the call for resolution. The administration, through the Coast Guard, set a Monday deadline for BP to find a better solution for stanching the flow of oil, now estimated at between 1.6 million and 2 million gallons a day.

And he’s called for the setup of an oil spill claims fund, directed by an independent director (like the special master of the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund), and funded in advance by BP money in an escrow account.

But much of this week’s presidential schedule finds Obama in a defensive crouch like never before. On Monday and Tuesday he goes back to the Gulf, with plans to visit towns and regions in three of the four affected states — Mississippi, Florida and Alabama — on his fourth trip to the region since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up April 20.

And the president, stung by those calling for direct contact with BP leadership, plans a White House meeting on Wednesday with top BP officials, including BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and the embattled, media-tone-deaf BP CEO Tony Hayward.

But the main event may well be Tuesday evening, when he’s back from the Gulf. That’s when Obama plans to make, from the White House, a prime-time presidential address on the BP spill and the efforts to contain it — just maybe the singular rhetorical focal point many of his detractors have been after for weeks.

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There’s a lot in all of this that suggests we’re at a pivot point, the point in a crisis at which that crisis either moderates or careens out of control at every level.

Everything’s hanging in the balance: one of the nation’s most prized and environmentally sensitive regions; the financial future of the world’s fourth largest energy company; the strength of the relationship between two old political friends and global powers; the reputation of a president whose quicksilver brand is as tarnished by the oil as anything in the Gulf; and possibly, just possibly, the political future of that president.

Obama has a history of deliberating long and hard, and defending that process when necessary. In March 2009, in a news conference punctuated by an exchange from CNN’s Ed Henry — who was pressing a point about Obama’s seemingly tardy response to the AIG bailout bonuses — Obama explained his procedural approach: He didn’t respond then immediately: “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

He’s known for some time what he’s talking about when he talks about BP. The president is certainly on the record in reactions to the oil spill; but the comments so far have been pretty much exactly that: comments — roadside, press-gaggle, anecdotal, not exactly incidental but lacking the sense of mission, the optics of a straight-up Address from the White House.

That much changes on Tuesday. What else happens — how the nation moves forward through this environmental nightmare, and Obama’s ability to effectively govern for the next two years despite this nightmare — may depend on what’s said and how.

Image credits: Obama: Pete Souza/The White House. BP logo: BP plc. Phases of a Crisis graph: American Press Institute/Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

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