05/28/2010 03:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Press Conference: You Can't Negotiate With Disaster

There's a lot to admire about the President's consensus-seeking style, however frustrating it can be to activists. But his press conference yesterday, and the management problems that led up to it, show the limits of that style in times of crisis. Hopefully the oil tragedy -- let's not call it a "spill" when it's more like a sustained explosion -- will help the Administration understand something that seems to elude them at times: You can't negotiate with disaster or compromise with danger.

The President's tendency to see and sometimes embrace both sides of an issue was in full view yesterday. One example: "You never heard me say 'drill, baby, drill'," he said about offshore drilling. True enough -- but he did say "drill," most famously a few short weeks before the BP disaster. "I don't agree with the notion that we shouldn't do (any drilling)," he said. "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced."

That statement's been used against him a number of times since, and the lawyerly use of the word "generally" hasn't helped him. (We'll be discussing "progressive strategy in the Obama era" and lots of other interesting topics with a host of lefty superstars at the America's Future Now! Conference June 7-9. Check it out ...) The President alluded to this quote when he admitted he was wrong to believe "oil companies had their act together when it comes to worst-case scenarios," adding: "Now that wasn't based on just my blind acceptance of their statements. Oil drilling has been going on in the Gulf, including deepwater, for quite some time. And the record of accidents like this, we hadn't seen before."

But that's not a rational way to assess risk. It's like an alcoholic saying "I've driven drunk for years and haven't had a serious accident yet." When a brilliant person like the President says something like this it looks like his desire to consider all viewpoints has overwhelmed his ability to see things as they are. That's how this gifted man sometimes winds up saying things that are mind-bending in their denial of reality ("There is no dividing line between Wall Street and Main Street ... we stand or fall together.") Sometimes reality makes consensus difficult, but it must be seen as it is.

The President's message about future drilling yesterday was equivocal at best. He seemed to indicate a pro-drilling bias when he said his upcoming commission would ask the question, "How should this (drilling) proceed in a safe, effective manner?" What about asking if it should proceed, or whether it really can be done in a "safe, effective manner"? And why such a nuanced tone when addressing a shocked nation in search of leadership (53 percent of whom rate the President poorly on his handling of this crisis, according to Gallup)?

President Obama would have been better served by skipping the regulatory disquisition and focusing on the bullet-point list of actions he gave after his regulatory comments: He's going to suspend explorations, cancel lease sales, extend moratorium, and suspend action on exploratory wells. More action verbs, please, Mr. President!

Other remarks also illustrated the limits of the President's favored style -- one that might be described as "pause, cogitate, absorb, find middle ground" -- during a catastrophe. Sometimes the solutions are found by cutting through assumptions, not compromising with them. Consider Chuck Todd's question, "Why not ask BP to simply step aside on the onshore stuff?" Obama's response was a discourse on the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, BP's contracts with contractors, and the fact that "the Coast Guard and our military are potentially already in charge."

29 days later and they're potentially in charge?? That's a regulator's answer, a description of governmental structure and not governmental action. Another response would have been to build a command center in the Gulf in the first week, then announce that BP could either voluntarily submit itself to its management or engage in a legal battle with the US government.

His response to BP's lack of cooperation was equally unsatisfactory. He told the public what it already know -- that the oil company "wasn't fully forthcoming." But why was the Administration willing to make do with satellite data because BP wouldn't show them what their camera was picking up? Here's an option that apparently wasn't considered: Having the Department of Justice inform BP that it considered their lack of cooperation a potentially criminal act, that of concealing evidence.

The President's under a microscope now. Expect more stories like this one, entitled "Obama biggest recipient of BP cash": "BP and its employees have given more than $3.5 million to federal candidates over the past 20 years, with the largest chunk of their money going to Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics ...On top of that, the oil giant has spent millions each year on lobbying -- including $15.9 million last year alone -- as it has tried to influence energy policy." Just as with financial reform, the President and other Democrats need to act forcefully to demonstrate their objectivity to the American people.

The President's strengths were on display, too. His closing comments were powerful, poetic, and beautiful. His emotional reflection on the ocean as a sacred place served both him and the nation well. But his seemingly Buddhistic tendencies toward refinement and acceptance need to be tempered at times with the forcefulness of an Old Testament prophet. His use of the word "infuriating" was a good start, and so was his description of the way oil law was written by and for the oil companies. That reflects the reality: He won't always find common ground with people whose billion-dollar interests are contrary to ours, whether they work on Wall Street or in the oil business.

Consensus-building is a gift that the President's used brilliantly on many occasions. But a gift in one situation can be a bad habit in another. The President, like all of us, has his comfort zone. But there are times when it's a comfort zone that neither the President nor the country can afford -- not with an oil crisis and a financial crisis both in urgent need of repair.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""