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Obama Faces ‘A Defining Moment’ in Oval Office Oil Leak Speech

As President Barack Obama began a two-day trip to survey oil leak damage along the Gulf Coast, Judy Woodruff gets several points of view about the president's authority and public reaction related to the environmental disaster.

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    For some additional perspective on the president's handling of the oil spill, we are joined now by presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jonathan Capehart, columnist for The Washington Post and contributor to MSNBC.

    Thank you all for being with us.

    Kathleen Hall Jamieson, I'm going to begin with you. How has the president done so far? How do you assess the job he's done?

    KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, director, Annenberg Public Policy Center: He's working in a very difficult circumstance, in which what the public expects of him and what a public — what the president is able to do are two very different things.

    Today, he made a good start at establishing that he's going hold his own agencies accountable, in particular by eating seafood for lunch. He suggested that it's still safe to eat seafood from the Gulf, and suggested that the agencies under his control will police that vigilantly to ensure that we can continue to eat seafood, but also that we will watch carefully through these agencies about the clean water and clean air.

    So, there's a beginning of a start of scaffolding up an argument to suggest that government has action it can take here. He's also been arguing that he's going to hold BP accountable. We wait to see whether in fact that's going to happen.


    So, Jonathan Capehart, is it — is it a matter of whether he's held agencies and BP accountable? Is that the question?

  • JONATHAN CAPEHART, The Washington Post:

    That's part of the question. I think the American people want to know whether these agencies are working.

    We have been talking a lot about the Mineral — Mineral Management Service, the agency that is charged with regulating oil rigs, and the rather cozy relationship the regulator has had with the regulated. So, I think Kathleen is right.

    You know, the — the president saying that he's holding his agencies accountable and he's holding himself accountable is — is right. But, also, he's got to do — and I think he's starting to get — he's starting to get there, — do a better job of making sure the American people understand everything that he's doing.

    Up until last week, I think people thought that the president and his administration was just sitting on their hands and letting this environmental disaster happen. And he's getting ahead of it, I think, to letting people know that he's been, you know, on the ball from the very beginning.


    Michael Beschloss, what's your take on how the president has done?

    MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, in terms of substance, the oil is still spilling into the Gulf. So, the way people are going to look at this two years from now is going to be, how fast was this stopped, how much did he go after the people responsible, and, also, how much did he help the people, you know, people who were fishing in the Gulf and others, people involved in tourism, who were suffering from this?

    But as far as the — you know, what he's done the last month-and-a-half in terms of talking to the public, there's one way he could have done this which would have been different. And that goes back to Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis November of 1979.

    Carter said, as you well remember: I'm not going to leave the White House until this crisis is solved. I'm just going to spend 28 hours a day working on it.

    And the result was that his administration was chained to every twist and turn.


    He was held hostage — hostage to what happened…


    He sure was. And so I think — this is a minority view in America right now, but I think it may not have been a bad idea for him to say, Barack Obama, a month-and-a-half ago: It may take a very long time to plug this leak. It's going to be very frustrating. If I look as if I'm spending 24 hours a day trying to stop this, and it doesn't happen, people are going to think I'm ineffective.


    Kathleen Hall Jamieson, how much does it matter whether the president is seen to be devoting a lot time to this problem?


    It matters more to the media than it does to the public or to solving the actual problem.

    When the president said the other day in an interview with Matt Lauer that he wasn't holding academic seminars, he was meeting with experts for a purpose, and then won't define the anatomical outcome of that discussion, it was nonetheless saying something very important about what presidents do.

    Presidents should gather information systematically and ensure that the people who work for them are doing the same, and then take action that is responsible and has positive long-term consequences. We look to the speech Tuesday night to find out what he's learned from all of those discussions, including the discussions he had today on the Gulf.


    And, Jonathan Capehart, let's continue this question about what — what are the criteria we should be using to judge whether the president has handled this well or not?


    Well, what I think we need to do is see if he is successful at marrying the policy with the presentation. I think we have all been watching what the government's been doing, what he says it's been doing., the daily briefings that we have been getting from Coast Guard commandant Thad Allen, who is the crisis commander. We know what they're doing.

    But, on the other hand, the president hasn't been able to — to make the connection that everything that he's doing is a reflection of the anger and the frustration that he and, by extension, the American people feel over this incident.

    So, I think, if tomorrow night, we walk away with a clear — a clear sense of what the administration has done and then what — what the president wants to do as a result of all of this — I mean, we — we were just talking in the last segment about the escrow account. Then there are other people saying that the president is going to use this as an opportunity to talk about a more expansive comprehensive energy plan.

    We will know if he's successful if the words on the paper and the words we hear tomorrow night are actually things that have happened and have occurred two years from now when he runs for reelection.


    Michael Beschloss, do the standards or the — the criteria that we hold a president to in crises like this, do they stay the same over time? Do they change?


    Different with every president, because, especially with a new president like Barack Obama a year-and-a-half in office, we're still learning things about him. And everyone has subliminal worries about every new president.

    In Barack Obama's case, they may be, didn't have enough executive experience, didn't have enough national experience, maybe the temperament a little bit too laid back. So, the second you have got a crisis like this where people are frustrated, they immediately say, aha, you know, we're seeing all those things in play, we had better worry about this president, sort of like George H.W. Bush in 1991.

    The economy was going into a bad recession. And he wasn't giving the impression that he was on top of it. And, so, the narrative emerged the president is out of touch, and people connected that to an incident where he was seeing a supermarket checkout scanner. He said: Oh, isn't that interesting? I have never seen that before.

    People said, Bush is so out of touch, he doesn't even know the way most people shop. As it turned out, it was new technology, but something like that tends to get attached to worries that people have about a new president. That's one thing that I think the administration has been very unsuccessful in managing.


    Kathleen Hall Jamieson, is there a danger that perceptions could set in or perception about one or two things the president does now that he couldn't shake for the rest of his presidency? Or are we just over-reading that sort of thing into this?


    Crises create opportunities and they create presidential capacity.

    So, for example, right now, what we have are visuals that are extremely difficult for the president to displace: dying endangered waterfowl, oil spilling on to beaches and children trying to pick it up. You also have a situation in which he has trouble with the metrics. He talks about thousands and tens of thousands of workers and boats and equipment, when the oil is hemorrhaging in hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

    But what he can do is harness all of that into a speech Tuesday night that is, for him, a speech the equivalent of delivering the Marshall Plan speech for Truman, the Monroe Doctrine speech. A house divided against itself cannot stand, the civil rights legislation speeches of Lyndon Johnson.

    He could give us the speech that talks about how this crisis is a defining moment for this people, and we will come out of it with a healthier planet, fueled by economies that have clean, safe energy, and he will tell us how we can get there, what the costs will be, and why we have to pay it. He can harness what he called in the campaign the fierce urgency of now, and control those perceptions.


    Jonathan Capehart, do you agree the president needs to take it to, in essence, a higher level tomorrow night?


    Yes, he absolutely — he absolutely does.

    I think the president understands that, which is why we're seeing him give the first — his first Oval Office address, and it's on this particular issue. What I will be curious to find out is whether he will take that fierce urgency of now and use it in the same way that President Carter did in July '79 — correct me if I'm wrong, Michael — it was either '79 or '77 — when he gave his crisis of confidence speech.

    And that speech…


    That's '79, Jonathan.




    And it was all about energy and how this nation needed to wean itself off of its dependence on foreign — on foreign sources of oil. And he laid out a very strong and dynamic plan, a policy, when you read it, it's breathtaking. I just — just read it an hour ago.

    It's breathtaking. And then, once you finish reading it, you realize none of those things happened. None of those things occurred. So, I think President Obama, he can give this Marshall Plan, he can give this landmark, groundbreaking speech, but the important thing will be, how does he back it up with actions to make those words become reality?


    So, how much does this speech really matter tomorrow night, Michael?


    It helps in terms of momentary view of Americans of Barack Obama, but two years from now, presumably, he's going to run for reelection.

    And I guarantee you that all of us and all Americans are going to have a pretty settled view of how Barack Obama did in this crisis. And if he didn't do very well from that perspective, he could give the speech of his life tomorrow night, wouldn't help.




    All right, we are going to leave it there.

    And we thank you, all three, Michael Beschloss, Jonathan Capehart, Kathleen Hall Jamieson.




    Thank you.


    And we will have live coverage of the president's address tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on PBS and online.

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