Thursday, June 3

Considering Spin: Obama Administration


"Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred." — President Obama

Depending on whose accounting of the Gulf Coast oil spill you read, the Obama administration was either on top of the crisis from day one or it was woefully behind. The truth, as it often is nowadays, is somewhere in the middle.

The differences in how the story is reported relates to whether you include the federal government in the timeline, the Obama administration, or the President himself; whether you accept statements over actions; and whether you account for the results.

"From the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort." — President Obama

While the U.S. Coast Guard was on scene from day one, most federal agencies represented were merely overseeing BP efforts.

It wasn't until April 29, nine days after the accident and four days after the unified command inaccurately estimated the leak was spewing 1,000 barrels or 42,000 gallons a day (which was estimated at five times as much and later much more), that the Obama administration recognized the spill to be of national significance.

The reporting reveals how much of the communication would be handled from that point forward. On April 25, the unified command provided the inaccurate oil leak estimate, which included federal officials. On April 28, federal officials say BP provided an inaccurate estimate.

Meanwhile, the same press conference Media Matters uses to build its case to prove the administration was in control of the situation paints an obvious picture. The President was "following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico," the EPA was monitoring, and the secretary of the Interior accurately describes the operations as one of "anticipating," "planning," and providing "oversight."

April 29 is also the day President Obama pledges "every single available resource," including the U.S. military, to contain the spreading spill. He will visit the Gulf Coast to see cleanup efforts firsthand three days later. At the same time, almost every communication from the White House reinforces that the cleanup responsibility belongs to BP.

Almost a full month after Obama made the pledge, Bobby Jindal, Louisiana governor, said that he and other Gulf Coast governors were “taking matters into our own hands.” On June 2, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley questioned why parts of the Gulf Coast are left unprotected. On the same day, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is no longer downplaying the crisis. And while Florida continues to invest in tourism advertising free unlicensed fishing weekends while it can, the fishing industry has already been called a disaster.

Worse, the Gulf Coast may no longer be the only region to be impacted. There is growing concern that oil will reach the Atlantic Coast.

And yet, during President Obama's second visit to the area on May 28, with the prospect of the Top Kill procedure working, he declared "I am the president and the buck stops with me." Shortly after the procedure failed, the President launched a public relations offensive against BP and started to see the accident as an opportunity to press for an energy reform plan.

"I'm confident people are going to look back and say this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis." — President Obama.

According to a release by the Global Language Monitor’s NarrativeTracker, President Obama's confidence ought to be shaken. Overwhelmingly, the public sees the the administration was slow to respond and more than half still don't believe the administration is in control.

• 95 percent of the social media conversations characterize President Obama as "slow to respond."
• Despite what President Obama has said, 52 percent still believe that BP is in charge of the spill containment.
• Most people compare the spill to Exxon Valdez, not Hurricane Katrina, which was a natural disaster.
• The public is split in deciding whether or not Obama is hands on or hands off on this event.

So where is the middle? The federal government (specifically, the U.S. Coast Guard) was on top of the spill from day one. The Obama administration merely positioned itself as an armchair player. Politically, it seemed like the safe bet. If things went well, the administration could claim being on top of it. If things went bad, they could blame BP. The communication bears this out.

As for public perception, it has become a result unto itself. With a catastrophe this large, the only possible way the public might be confused over who is in charge is a direct result of the communication delivered by the administration. As for the President himself, his schedule suggests he is correct in that this has been his administration's top priority, but not necessarily his priority.

And now? The most obvious priority is finding the right scapegoat. Even the international press sees it for what it is, with the President's reported "rage" framed up as just another sign of weakness. BP might be responsible for the spill, but it is not responsible for a plan that reads like more spin than response.

Other Reactions Around The Web.

Welcome to the Obama BP Spin War.
Obama Begins Spill-To-Bill Pivot.
Oil-Spill Spin: Who Can You Trust? (Obama Is Not Even On The List)
• James Carville Slams Obama on Oil Spill.
• How Washington Just Worsened the Gulf Oil Spill.

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