Managing a crisis while everyone is looking

George Lakoff

“The choice is not doing or communicating. It is doing and communicating” I wish these words were mine, but they belong to George Lakoff, the guru for progressives in properly framing our language so that conservatives don’t mis-define the landscape.

Lakoff is talking about President Obama’s response to the oil rig disaster in the Gulf, particularly in the president’s press conference on Thursday, May 27.

Lakoff summarizes the president’s narrative this way: This is a tough, unprecedented situation, but I’m in charge, and I’ve been very busy, in the Situation Room where I belong, not on TV. I’m fully competent. I’m a good policy wonk – ask me any question about details. I’m honest. I admit my few policy mistakes. I think about the details day and night. Don’t think I’m oblivious.

Lakoff goes on to state:

It’s not that he said nothing to tie them together.  But there was no home run, no unifying narrative, no patriotic call to the nation on the full gamut of issues. Instead, there were only hints, suggestions, possible implications, notes of concern – as if he had been intimidated by the right-wing message machine.

And yet Obama, of all political leaders, could have done it, because he did before in his campaign.

The central idea is Empathy. Democracy is based on empathy, on people caring about one another and acting to the very best of their ability on that care, for their families, their communities, their nation, and the world. Government must also care and act on that care. Government’s job is to protect and empower its citizens.

Every president brings his (or hopefully her) comfort zones into the White House.  President Obama is cerebral and has been methodically trying to solve a problem that unfortunately is largely out of his control.  But Lakoff is concerned about perception, and that’s where the president has fallen short.  Consider what actions the previous two Democratic presidents have taken in showing their connection to the American people and that they care:

Bill Clinton had ways of sharing people’s tears; of emoting in ways that others did.  Perhaps the best example of this was after the Oklahoma City bombing.  While Clinton mounted an organized (and successful) effort to address the immediate problem of capturing the perpetrators, he connected with Americans by sharing their outrage, despair, and desire to “end the madness.”

While Jimmy Carter seemed aloof at times and not always in touch with the “heartbeat of America,” he did something that may well have been the “home run” that Lakoff and others felt was necessary and missing so far from President Obama’s response.  As president, Carter continued something he had done as a candidate: actually staying in the homes of regular American citizens.  He shared dinner and breakfast with them; talked about what was on their minds and on his.

When President Obama went to south Louisiana on Friday, May 28, he spent only a few hours there.  He didn’t go out into the most distressed areas, in the Bayou marsh.  He also did not pick up on the advice of pundits and perhaps advisors that he follow Jimmy Carter’s example and arrange to stay with people who were suffering from the effects of the rig explosion and oil leak.  Bill Clinton said and could act as if he could “feel your pain.”  While we can’t expect Barack Obama to emote in ways that seem contrived to him, he might have taken the step of staying with a family that makes its living off the economy of the Gulf Coast and that is now in distress.

Lakoff tried to paraphrase president’s thoughts as “I’ve been very busy, in the Situation Room where I belong, not on TV. I’m fully competent. I’m a good policy wonk. I’m honest.”  While Lakoff is somewhat critical of Obama’s priorities, the president’s commitment to studying and implementing policy is one of his characteristics that I admire most.  He is doing his “day job,” and as citizens of the United States, we are entitled to expect him to do that.  Parenthetically, this is why it is extremely irritating to me when he leaves the White House to (sometimes semi-surreptitiously) attend fund-raisers for candidates or the party.  It borders on shameful (though probably necessary in the absence of campaign finance reform) for the president to shill for money.

Billy Nungesser

As the president does his day job, I wonder about others who have become darlings of the media during the oil rig disaster.  Billy Nungesser is president of Plaquemines Parish (County) in Louisiana.  It is almost as if he came from central casting as the south Louisiana insider; I’m almost expecting him to take John Goodman’s place on “Treme” next week.  But he does a great job of expressing a reasoned outrage about what has happened, with most of his ire directed at BP.  I see him doing interviews with Anderson Cooper (his favorite) and others from CNN, as well as virtually every other cable and broadcast news outlet .  It’s hard to imagine anyone describing the situation more vividly than Billy Nungesser.  But at the end of the day when he’s doing his final interview with Anderson, I have to ask myself, “What did he do in his day job today?”  While he has apparently become good friends with Barack Obama, at times he appears to be the “anti-Barack,” because he is “feeling others pain” while the President is trying to devise solutions to take away people’s pain.  Too bad they can’t be melded.

Thad Allen

Another is Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen.  He seems to be extremely competent and committed to ensuring that the federal government is doing everything that it can to keep the government’s “boot on BP’s neck,” while using much more delicate language.  He was widely praised for his work in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.  But with the BP disaster, he seems to be on television so much that he might be out of the information loop. In fact, he was in the dark when BP suspended its “top kill” approach to plugging the leak on the first day of the effort.

So as it might be advisable for President Obama to see if he can spend more time with more citizens in the Gulf Region, it might be good for Billy Nungesser and Thad Allen to hold one press conference a day for all media representatives and then perhaps a single one-to-one interview with someone like Anderson Cooper.  When it’s 2:00  in the afternoon, I’d feel better knowing that they are doing their “day jobs,” as is the president.

None of this is easy.  JFK called courage “grace under pressure,” which is what he exhibited during the Cuban missile crisis.  But that grace may have been learned from his failure during the Bay of Pigs.  We all have our good moments and our not so good ones.  Let’s have empathy for all who are sincerely trying to improve the situation, but no one should be immune from a little outside critiquing.