Obama’s Handling Of The Gulf Disaster: The Psychology Behind The Criticisms

Criticism of Pres. Obama’s leadership during the Gulf of Mexico disaster has been mounting in recent weeks.  People are worried and concerned about the huge, unrelenting flow of oil and what it may do to our entire ecology.  The President’s press conference mitigated some of those criticisms, but many view his response as too little, too late.  They ask why didn’t he take command and speak to the nation several weeks ago?

A great deal of the criticism is justified, and it’s coming from both right and left. It includes not only his personal leadership but more broadly, the role and response of the federal government.

But I think there’s another, additional basis for the criticism:  The psychology of people’s fears when they’re confronted with such disasters, and how that shapes what they look for in a leader.

That is, the psychology of the criticism directed at Obama reflects something deeper than questions about BP’s performance and/or untrustworthiness, given the cozy relationship big oil has had with the federal government.  It’s also deeper than debate over what government’s proper role should be in dealing with this or other man-made disasters.

To explain, let’s take a look at some criticisms coming from both the left and the right:  On May 17, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews erupted in anger at the oil disaster. He railed about the profits BP reaps as it fails to fix it, but also criticized the Obama administration for letting BP control the disaster response.  Calling this “disaster capitalism,” (from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine) he questioned why the President doesn’t just “nationalize that industry and get the job done,” adding that in China, “they execute people for this.”

That’s typical of Matthews’ sometimes over-the-top passion, but he’s been making solid criticism of the President for, in essence, looking like an observer, standing on the sidelines, instead of getting in there and doing something.

Similarly, other critics have openly wondered why Obama hasn’t shown more passion, like pounding the table, showing outrage; perhaps shouting.

Some conservative critics have implied the same, but link their criticism with an attack on Obama’s entire presidency, as you might expct.  For example, the title of Peggy Noonan’s May 29th op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, stakes out her position: “He Was Supposed to Be Competent: The spill is a disaster for the president and his political philosophy.”

Noonan makes the connection crystal clear, in case you didn’t get the message from the title.  She calls this “…his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president’s political judgment and instincts.”

She adds that Obama has been “…chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen.  How could there not have been a plan? How could it all be so ad hoc, so inadequate, so embarrassing?”

Getting to the emotions of the issue, Noonan says that Obama “…attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language—”catastrophe,” etc.—but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won’t see the big picture.”

Then, there are the remarks of conservative columnist George Will.  Appearing on ABC’s This Week, he placed himself somewhere in the middle…sort of, saying that President Obama “is being unfairly blamed” for oil spill response, “and it sort of serves him right,” he added.  He’s apparently defending the President’s leadership and “lack” of passion, while arguing that it just goes to show that big government can’t do the job, so, one assumes, it’s better to leave it in the hands of private enterprise – which created the problem to begin with.

I think that one strong thread weaving together these critiques is not just that President Obama and the government have not responded quickly enough, but that Obama himself has not shown the emotional outrage and arm-waving that are so important for doing….well, what, exactly?  That’s the question they don’t address.  What’s the outcome they’re looking for? Or do they just want to be reassured by what looks and sounds “passonate?”

I think many of the complaints about Obama’s coolness, his being too cerebral, too measured and reasoned in his responses are fueled by this: A wish for a strong “Big Daddy.”  A commanding, strong-sounding, protective figure who will somehow “take command” and “do something” to fix things and make us safe again.

That kind of wish is largely unconscious.  It’s likely driven by unacknowledged, terrifying  feelings of helplessness, similar to what lies behind much of the denial about climate change.  Then, the emotions of fear and longing for safety trump your ability to stop and ask what, exactly, do you want a display of more “passion” and pounding the table to result in, with respect to solving the problem?

When you realize that the best minds and technologies are working on this – even with the criticism that corporate greed and government collusion with the oil companies have created this disaster – that realization should point you towards supporting all efforts to create the best solutions asap.

That is, it would steer you towards crying out for fact-based, results-oriented leadership, which is what Pres. Obama is now, apparently, trying to deliver.  That requires being focused on the reality of the situation, mobilizing the means we have to achieve the results, and creating a strategy that works.

That’s where reasoned criticism is important.  Unlike the flailing of those who psychologically long for a Commanding Father to make you feel secure, some are actually proposing constructive critiques.

For example, David Gergen, a truly bi-partisan figure who’s served both Republican and Democratic administrations, has posted both a strong critique of Obama’s leadership as well as specific, strategic actions by the Feds to take over the strategy and structure of the whole operation.

He writes:

It’s time for the White House to get in the driver’s seat and get us to safety – fast ….Even if BP were reliable, the problem has clearly become too big for it to handle… (and)…this catastrophe is increasingly threatening the nation’s welfare.

Gergen proposes 10 actions.  For example:

  • Set up a daily command center in Washington where a presidentially-appointed leader runs the show, calls the shots, coordinates the overall effort, briefs the president and briefs the country.
  • Have two deputies, one to direct the leak-stoppage and the other to direct the clean-up. Ex-CEOs and generals would be excellent candidates.
  • Provide the country with the kind of daily briefings that the military has mastered for wartime – bring in people who are smart, straight and tough.

Gergen’s 10-point list is well worth reading.  His critique and proposals are the kind that are sorely needed in our polarized, self-serving political culture.  If the President embraced them it would be consistent with the strong, rational leadership that many people believed him capable of to begin with.  And that’s a psychologically positive wish for a leader!


One thought on “Obama’s Handling Of The Gulf Disaster: The Psychology Behind The Criticisms

  1. Tom

    Well-written and insightful piece. Ironic that the President’s cool, rational approach (his singular strength) to the spill, which the author argues, correctly I believe, is a realistic and ultimately correct approach to the crisis, is clashing with the nation’s psychological desire for emotional reassurance (his recurring blind spot) at a time of war and intense economic stress. In the end, the President will be judged by results (whether in his control or not). For now, he can only hope that one dimension of the “Big Daddy” emotional response the nation seeks includes a calm and rational hand on the ship of state in stormy waters.

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