Washington Week

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The Politics of Panic

It felt as if everyone was rushing to the ramparts this week. From Times Square to the Gulf Coast to Greece and Wall Street, the world has seemed positively out of breath.

Part of the reason, of course, is the pace of events. If you weren’t already terrified by the idea of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil gushing toward New Orleans, you were certainly rattled by the panicked shouting on CNBC Thursday afternoon when the Dow suddenly plunged nearly 1,000 points.

But if you step back a moment (and the financial reporters finally did when the market rebounded mere minutes later), it’s easy to discern a more nakedly political reason for all of the frantic antics. I believe politics drives decision-making more often than we like to admit, and everyone plays the game. But it’s easier to see what drives the politics by watching White House strategy.

Think about it. If you are President Obama, you have already lived through several news cycles that veered out of control before you had a chance to tell your side of the story. So the very moment that bloggers and the punditocracy began calling the Deep Horizon spill “Obama’s Katrina,” he moved to expunge that notion as quickly as he could.

On Sunday, the Obama White House released a lengthy and detailed memorandum to the press titled “The Ongoing Administration-Wide Response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill.” It listed every member of the cabinet who visited the region; every conference call that was held with regional officials; where to call for help; and even how much volunteers would be reimbursed.

By Wednesday, when a yet another memo landed in my inbox, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill had been renamed the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, in case you were wondering where the blame should really lie. Now we were offered details about marsh imaging flights, seafood inspection, the number of personnel deployed (7,900) and the number of vessels at sea (200.)

The President spoke about it publicly six separate times, including at the University of Michigan’s spring commencement. This would not be Obama’s Katrina.

The Administration decided to flood the zone in the wake of the Times Square bombing attempt in much the same way. After having been caught flatfooted in the immediate wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, (remember when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the system had worked?) they left no room for the wrong storyline to take off.

Umar Abdulmutallab, you will remember, was read his rights after he was arrested trying to blow up a plane. This caused weeks if not months of outcry from the President’s critics, who said this proved that Mr. Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, were weaklings at prosecuting terrorism.

This time, Faisal Shazhad – a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen, -- was also read his Miranda rights. But law enforcement officials quickly let it be known that he had told them much; that they had tracked him down within 53 hours after the smoldering SUV was discovered in Times Square, and that they got their man. Unlike with Holder’s earlier decision to try alleged September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, there would be no daylight this time between the Obama Administration and New York lawmakers.

Racing to define the story can be the key to success or failure in almost any high profile crisis. Certainly Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal saw what happened when his predecessor Kathleen Blanco appeared rattled in the wake of Katrina. This time, a widely circulated photograph showing Jindal in deep tarmac conversation with a recently-arrived President Obama helped both men.

Bully pulpits can be very effective. Expect more of it. Even as I was writing this, another email popped up from the White House. This one detailed every single thing the President has done this week – this time, to address the financial crisis in Greece.