Tag Archives: Gulf Oil Spill

Stop the Presses! Obama to Hold Live Press Conference in One Hour!

President Obama is scheduled to hold a news conference today beginning at 12:45 p.m. – about an hour from now.  By my count, it will be his first full-fledged conference since July 22, 2009 – just over 10 months – when he infamously said that officers from the Cambridge Police Department acted “stupidly” when they arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  in his own home.  Obama later backed off from that statement, and subsequently held the famous ‘beer summit” at the White House with Gates and the arresting officer.  But he has never held another formal press conference until today.  In the interim, he has carefully managed his interactions with the press by either relying on smaller, less formal interactions, handing exclusives to favored journalists (particularly favoring, according to critics, the New York Times) or bypassing the media directly and speaking directly to the public.

Although I would not have predicted he would go this long between formal press conferences, the fact that he has tried to avoid them should come as no surprise.  Even before the ‘Gates-gate”, I had predicted that Obama’s promise of a more “transparent” administration would, in the area of press relations, fall prey to the realities of the modern, televised press conference.  That is, Obama would realize what previous presidents invariably learned: from the president’s perspective, the televised press conference serves no useful purpose.  In theory, of course, the press conference is an opportunity for the media to hold the president accountable for his actions to date, and for the President to explain those actions. In practice, neither of those objectives tends to be met.  Given the constraints under which they operate – reporters must be called on by the president, and they have no time for follow-up questions to probe answers in depth – journalists too often feel pressured to ask The One Question that will elicit a controversial and thus newsworthy response.  Presidents, anticipating this, become adept at eating up time with long opening statements and by answering questions with the equivalent of the Senate filibuster, or by “suggesting” questions in advance to favored reporters.

In a previous post discussing the history of presidential press conferences I have suggested a way to reform the press conference so that it addresses the interests of both reporters and presidents – and thus the public.  In the meantime, however, Obama’s failure to hold press conferences has led to no little grumbling from the media who accuse him of treating the press with contempt.  Several of them, citing my previous post, have castigated Obama for his failure to meet regularly with the press (see, for example, here and here.)  Most recently, Chuck Todd complained of Obama’s “disdain” for the press.

Rather than disdain, I would argue that Obama is motivated by the same feelings that led previous presidents to shy away from formal press conferences: political self-interest.  If so, what has prompted Obama to finally hold another press conference today?  Two words: Oil Spill.  As I’ve discussed in my last two posts, the growing public backlash, spearheaded by officials from both parties, to the allegedly slow response by the federal government to the spill is threatening to have Katrina-like implications for Obama’s presidency.   Obama has evidently calculated that the risk of losing control of the oil spill narrative (see here and here and here) outweighs the risks inherent in holding a press conference.   Look for him to start the conference off with a lengthy statement detailing everything the government has done, and will do – such as tightening regulations governing drilling, extending a moratorium on off-shore drilling and making organizational changes to the agency responsible for issuing drilling permits – before taking questions.  He will likely stress two themes in his answers: it’s BP’s fault, and the government will hold them accountable.  Journalists, meanwhile, should try to get him on the record to respond to the charges leveled by Governor Jindal and others about the bureaucratic obstacles that have prevented local and state authorities from placing booms and using dredging to prevent the oil spills from endangering delicate coastal areas.  Note as well the tone of the questions – has Obama’s reluctance to meet directly with the press in these types of exchanges turned journalists against him?

My big fear, however, is that journalists will chase the wrong rabbit – that they will spend much of this conference pressing Obama on relatively minor issues, such as the alleged attempt to clear the field for Arlen Specter by offering Joe Sestak a government job.  Explaining the intricacies of government organizations, which is at the heart of the government’s slow response to this spill, is an inherently unsexy task and one not easily done in the context of a televised Q&A.  And yet the performance of these agencies – the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department – is of far more consequence to the public interest than is the Sestak issue.

The conference is in an hour.  You can watch a live feed at the White House website.   I’ll try to follow up with a post-conference post.

P.S.  You should be able to watch a live feed of the press conference at the White House link:  http://www.whitehouse.gov/live

I’m tempted to live blog this because it may be the last press conference before the midterms!

P.S.S.  I think I can get the live  feed from the White House here at:


so I’ll try to live blog.  I realize it’s last moment, but join in if you want.

Spill, Baby, Spill! Obama’s Katrina Moment?

As the nation’s chief executive, presidents are often assumed to be “in charge” of the executive branch’s departments and agencies. In truth, however, in our system of shared powers at the national level, presidents exercise joint control – and control is probably too strong a word – over the federal bureaucracy with Congress.  Indeed, many government agencies are much more responsive to members of Congress than to the President. Moreover, in many policy areas federal agencies’ authority is shared with state and local government agencies.  Think law enforcement, or education.

Despite this, when a crisis occurs that calls into question the performance of a government agency or agencies, presidents invariably take the brunt of the blame.  So it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the Bush administration shouldered primary responsibility for the failure of the system of levees protecting low-lying areas of the Louisiana delta, and for the less than stellar evacuation efforts. Never mind that it was the Army Corps of Engineers – an agency long viewed as primarily responsive to Congress – that actually designed and installed the levees that failed. Nor did people much care that the bungling of the evacuation was at least in part due to the failure of the state agencies and local municipalities to coordinate actions with the feds. Critics also overlooked that FEMA, the federal agency charged with disaster relief, had seen its traditional mission altered when it was incorporated – at congressional behest – into the Department of Homeland Security prior to the Hurricane. Instead, it was the Bush administration that was charged with “incompetence” – a charge that helped the Democrats regain majority status in the 2006 midterm elections.

We now see the same political dynamic at work with the Gulf oil spill.  In this case, the Obama administration has been accused of failing to properly regulate off-shore drilling because of its close ties to “Big Oil”. Environmental  groups such as the Sierra Club have filed suit charging  that the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which issues drilling leases and oversees drilling, violated federal law by not first forcing oil companies drilling in the Gulf  to disclose their plans for preventing blowouts and for dealing with worst-case oil spills. Critics also accuse the Obama administration of failing to react quickly enough to the initial spill and of hiding that failure to respond.   To be sure, compared to Katrina, the Obama administration got lucky in its choice of disasters; it was able to deflect criticism for a while by pointing the finger at “Big Oil” in the guise of BP. In contrast, Bush’s only recourse was to blame “Big Deity” for causing a Category 5 hurricane.  But that distinction is gradually losing effect the longer the spill goes on. As we near the end of the second month since the explosion that first ripped the pipeline apart, criticism against the White House is mounting. The latest accusation comes from Louisiana Governor Bob Jindal, but Obama has been hearing it from members of both parties who have piled on during Senate hearings, and from those representing districts most likely to be affected by the spill.

As Bush found out with Katrina, federal agencies are not all alike, and they certainly do not always respond with the speed and effectiveness that a president desires. In fact, bureaucracies charged with different missions, and reacting to different political pressures, may often appear to work at cross purposes.  The net effect is to further erode the perception of presidential leadership effectiveness. Thus, even as Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was threatening to take charge if BP failed to stem the leak, the Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen was telling reporters that the government simply lacked the expertise to do the job.  Moreover, in hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee Salazar acknowledged the need for changes in the Minerals Management Service which is ostensibly under his direction.

In truth, about all Obama can do at this point is appoint the requisite presidential commission to find out what went wrong and to continue to show the flag by sending officials down to the coast – and hope he doesn’t have his own “Heckuva job, Brownie” moment.  Unfortunately for him, his earlier announcement touting the need for, and safety of, off shore drilling is beginning to get play on YouTube – the bane of all politicians today.  He will continue to point the finger at BP, of course, but the longer the leak continues, the greater the likelihood that this will be his Katrina moment in 2010.  Almost since the spill happened local papers (see here and here) along the Gulf region have been castigating the Obama administration for its slow response.  It has been a particularly big issue in areas, such as Florida, that are politically highly contested and which may determine whether Democrats hold onto the House and Senate in 2010.  Progressives and environmentalists, meanwhile, have used the spill as an opportunity to renew their criticism of Obama’s earlier decision to encourage off shore drilling.  In fact, despite Obama’s recent decision to impose a moratorium on issuing new permits for drilling, new off shore wells continue to be drilled in existing oil fields.   In all likelihood, this won’t be the last off-shore oil spill that happens.

In addition to the political consequences, Obama needs also to worry about the policy consequences of the Gulf spill. Some readers will recall the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.  Although no lives were lost in the accident, and it in fact spurred myriad regulatory changes that made nuclear power production even safer, the political fallout from the incident put a damper on the construction of nuclear power plants for the next two decades – a consequence that even some environmentalists – concerned about global warming – are now viewing as unfortunate. Obama has to hope that the Gulf spill will not so poison the political waters as to prevent a sober-minded analysis of the costs and benefits of future off-shore drilling.

The immediate lesson here, however, is to drive home a point I made earlier in the context of Dennis Blair’s resignation as DNI.   For better and for worse, presidents are held responsible for the performance of government agencies, even though presidents rarely have the tools, expertise, or experience to fulfill this expectation. It is a rare president – think FDR, Eisenhower or the first George W. Bush – who takes office with a decent knowledge about the executive branch. More often, however, presidents are like Obama – they know next to nothing about the bureaucracy and typically learn about it only the context of crises. Moreover, our system of shared power and of federalism makes it easier for government agencies to shrug off actual responsibility – whether it is evacuating residents in the teeth of a hurricane or preventing an oil spill from contaminating shorelines – when such crises occur.   In these instances, the media – taking its cue from politicians – typically lays the blame for bureaucratic failings at the president’s feet.

As Obama undergoes what may be his Katrina moment, he becomes but the latest president to discover that his control over the bureaucracy is not nearly as strong as the media portrays it to be.