The oil spill in the Gulf: Obama’s leadership crisis

Ed Ross Contributor
Font Size:

President Obama’s critics have called him many things. Now, criticizing him for his reaction to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they’ve begun to call him “incompetent,” comparing him to Jimmy Carter. If that label sticks, the Obama presidency, like Jimmy Carter’s, is doomed. Even worse, if President Obama doesn’t act decisively and quickly to stem the tide of destruction, the oil spill will cause irreparable damage to millions of people’s lives and to the country.

With each passing day—48 of them now—it’s becoming abundantly clear that the BP oil spill is an unprecedented disaster with far reaching implications that could make Hurricane Katrina pale by comparison. We likely won’t know its full impact on fisheries, wetlands, and sea life for several years. Its impact on domestic energy production and on the people who depend on the Gulf for their livelihoods is obvious and immediate. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that, weeks in, President Obama has yet to come to grips with how best to react to the situation.

Discussions about how much anger and emotion President Obama should show when he speaks on the subject miss the point. The American people want results, not staged events. Obama didn’t cause the problem, but Americans expect him to see to it that it’s fixed.

The federal government has neither the technology nor the expertise to stop the leak a mile beneath the surface. BP does; and it has every incentive to stop it as quickly as possible. If there are experts in or out of government who can assist them, as some already have, BP should consult them; and the U.S. government should oversee BP’s efforts intensely, as it appears they are.

What the U.S. government must also do, however, is prevent as much oil as possible from washing up on the U.S. coastline. However many people, boats, and equipment are now involved in that effort, they’re not enough. However much assistance it’s providing to the Gulf coast governors, it’s not enough. What’s required is a national mobilization of people and resources to stem the tide of an ever worsening catastrophe. BP is responsible and must ultimately pay for the clean up, but managing it is beyond its capability.

What’s also needed is someone to lead this effort. President Obama has wars to fight, rogue states developing nuclear weapons to deal with, and an economy on the brink. No one expects him to manage the situation day to day. What they do expect of him is the competence and the wisdom to understand that this situation calls for extraordinary measures and for him to move quickly and decisively to appoint someone with the ability to execute them.

None of the cabinet secretaries involved—Homeland Security’s Janet Napolitano, Interior’s Ken Salazar, or EPA’s Lisa Jackson—are up to the job. They’re typical politicians serving as political appointees whose principal responsibility is developing and coordinating policies that support the president’s political agenda. None of them have the leadership skills, experience, and expertise necessary. U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen has his hands full overseeing BP’s efforts to plug the leak. By all accounts he’s doing a fine job. But he isn’t the right person to direct the broader containment effort either.

President Obama needs what he has with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the Department of Defense he was fortunate. A team of generals and admirals headed by Robert Gates already was in place. All he had to do is keep Gates there and give them the authority and leeway necessary to successfully prosecute two wars. It was a wise decision. The results reflect that. Unfortunately, he has no Gates to do what’s necessary in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the domestic front, he hasn’t appointed strong, capable leaders to head the departments involved with the oil spill. Moreover, Obama’s leadership has been a litany of hard-knuckle political battles and questionable decisions. On his top priorities, healthcare and energy reform, he ceded his leadership to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Those efforts consumed more than a year of his presidency, and Reid and Pelosi made a mess of them. Obamacare passed, but only with coercion, back room deals, and legislative heavy handedness; and the overwhelming majority of Americans want it repealed and replaced. Cap and trade is dead on arrival.

In deciding how to deal with three terrorists recently captured on U.S. soil, one of which killed 13 people and wounded more than 30, Obama deferred to Eric Holder, whose views on the rights of captured terrorists, like Obama’s, are out of sync with the majority of Americans and put the country at risk. Only after great public outcry did he overrule Holder on trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in New York City.

Why President Obama appears to be dealing with the BP oil spill as if it was just another domestic political issue is mystifying. Or is it? The skills and the team required to win elections are much different than those required to effectively lead America and respond to national crises. Elections are about image making, talking points, campaign promises, avoiding fatal mistakes, and winning votes. Winning wars and effectively responding to crises are about selecting and delegating power to able and effective leaders, making difficult choices, and doing what’s right for America.

Obama isn’t the first president to believe that the political operatives that helped put him in the White House were the same people he needed to run the country and respond to crises. The sooner he recognizes that mistake the better off he’ll be. In the meantime, streaming videos on web pages all over the internet show oil flooding into the Gulf of Mexico along with counters tracking minute-by-minute the millions of gallons spilled. American’s expect Barack Obama to find the right person to win this war against an out of control oil spill, and he better do it fast, before it’s too late.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.