Why the Oil Spill Tells Us Nothing About the Effectiveness of Obama’s Management Style

The punditocracy’s willingness to derive lessons for Obama’s presidency based on his (mis)handling of the Gulf spill seems to grow daily in proportion to the spread of that spill. Much of the recent criticism centers on what the spill reveals about deficiencies in Obama’s “management style.” Unfortunately, pundits do not always agree regarding to what “management style” refers. Some, like Jonathan Alter,  emphasize temperamentpointing to Obama’s rather cerebral demeanor, and his failure to show anger over BP’s inability to stem the flow of oil.  Others focus more on his willingness to delegate authority to “czars” across a range of issue areas, and a general overreliance on his White House staff. Still others point to misplaced faith in “elites” – particularly policy experts – more generally.  Mixed in with these criticisms are the inevitable analogizing to previous presidents and events (Obama’s “Katrina”, Jimmy Carter’s “Passionless Presidency”).

I understand media commentators’ need to derive some overriding lesson about Obama’s approach to the presidency based on his response to the oil spill.  But I think these efforts are misplaced.  In fact, the oil spill tells us absolutely nothing useful about the pitfalls of a particular management style. This is partly because the spill is sui generis; as an unprecedented event, it is hard to derive generalizations from Obama’s response to it.  Moreover, most of the efforts to pin the crisis on the managerial aspects of Obama’s presidency are simply too ad hoc and imprecise to be very useful.  The criticisms are much like the celebrated “proverbs of administration” that political scientist Ed Banfield skewered about a half-century ago in his biting criticism of the “science” of administration. For every “management principle”, he pointed out, one could always cite an equally well known but opposite nostrum. (Two heads are better than one!  Too many cooks spoil the broth!)  So it is with Obama’s management style.  When elected, the pundits praised his cerebral demeanor.  Now he’s not angry enough.  Early assessments cited his ability to strike a happy medium between over reliance on experts versus micromanagement.  Now he is too aloof from the details of governing and too dependent on his White House staff.

This explains, I think why commentators are able to extract so many managerial lessons from Obama’s handling of the Gulf Spill – no single lesson stands out. So pundits are free to pass off their own conjecture (Not angry enough! Delegates too much!) or historical allusions (Obama’s Teddy Roosevelt moment!) or policy preferences (A chance to wean us from carbon fuels!) as a substitute for careful analysis.  In truth, I see no evidence that a different management style – whether one defines that as a more demonstrative temperament, or more hands-on staff supervision, or less reliance on experts, would have prevented the spill or done very much to halt its spread.  Indeed, the focus on management style, in the end, is premised on the mistaken assumption that Obama, as president, somehow controls the levers of government – and that government controls Mother Nature (or BP).  At best one might conclude that Obama has very little working knowledge of the executive branch.  I happen to think that is true, but I’m not willing to conclude that a more experienced administrator could have prevented the blowout, or even done much to plug the leak or hasten the government’s response.

If we persist in trying to find some meaning in this event – some telltale window of insight into the Obama presidency – let me suggest focusing instead on the Obama’s administration efforts to sharpen its communication strategy in the aftermath of the spill. In an interview, Obama senior White House adviser David Axelrod portrayed the aftermath of the crisis as primarily a public relations problem rather than a management failure: “Nobody can look at the response and say we were slow in doing what we were doing,” he said, adding, “We didn’t communicate it well.” However, even as administration press secretary Robert Gibbs belittled the idea that “pounding on the podium” could “fix a leak in the ocean,”  the administration began a concerted public relations effort designed to convey the public equivalent of pounding on the podium: Obama canceled overseas trips, invited the families of those killed in the oil rig explosion to the White House, and made several well publicized trips to the Gulf Coast to dramatize his interest in the matter.  Meanwhile, his Attorney General promised legal action against BP. This focus on tightening the message in the absence of policy solutions does seem very characteristic of this administration.

But even this emphasis on public relations probably says less about Obama’s presidency and more about the modern presidency – particularly the way we select presidents in a media-mediated, primary-based nominating process, and the lessons winning candidates typically extract from that campaign, as well as the modern media environment more generally.   And, lacking any viable policy solution, it’s not surprising that the Obama administration would focus on trying to frame the media narrative in a more positive light.

I should be clear here: I’ve written extensively about presidential management styles.  If, by style, one means the characteristic way that a president interacts with advisers, receives and processes information, and communicates decisions, then yes – style matters, at least at the margins of presidential decisionmaking. (I’ll try to write a separate post on this topic.)  But I need to see more evidence before I can believe that Obama’s particular management style – however defined – either contributed to the Gulf oil spill or slowed the government’s response to it.

2 comments

  1. Prof. Dickinson,

    Can you speak to the character of Obama’s DOJ at all? What’s notable about the proposed action on BP is that it’s criminal (there’s an obvious civil claim). I don’t know the details of the criminal charge on BP, but it strikes me as at the very least incredibly convenient to be pursuing this and the Goldman Sachs case, which everyone knows is an incredibly speculative case that hinges on materiality of investing information. Is Atty. Gen. Holder particularly activist in relation to past AGs? Is the DOJ, like most things today, more polarized than it has been in its history (the only other DOJ with which I’m familiar is Bush’s)? I suppose that more polarized politicians could beget more polarized cabinet officials.

  2. Jeff – I think Holder’s action is consistent with the Obama administration’s focus on reshaping the narrative of the oil spill to emphasize a) that BP is the culprit here and b) that the Obama administration is actively involved in finding a solution and holding BP accountable. I’m not willing, at this point, to generalize from this one incident regarding the activism of Holder in comparison to previous Attorney Generals. If there is an overriding lesson from recent history regarding the AG’s role, however, it is the necessity of appearing to remain above politics at all costs. Whether Holder is succeeding in doing this is an open question.

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