The Leadership Deficit

Joseph C. Phillips

6/21/2010 9:58:10 AM - Joseph C. Phillips

Appearing on CNN with Anderson Cooper, film director Spike Lee implored President Obama to infuse his handling of the Gulf oil spill with more emotion. Demonstrating the astute analysis we have come to expect from the director, Lee implored Obama to “one time, go off.”

Perhaps he is of the same mind as Bill Maher, that the authentic black man is one who is always armed and resorts to violence and loud-talking when things do not go his way. (Note to self: On the way home from the liquor store, I must pick up my Glock from the gun shop.)

Rush Limbaugh

Both Lee and Maher seem to share the opinion of a great many progressives that emotion is the same as leadership and that problems are most easily solved by decree. It is no mistake that following criticism by Lee and others, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was declaring to the media that he had “seen rage from him [President Obama].” Apparently, when Obama gets angry, he clinches his jaw.

Soon after the Gibbs press conference, the President showed up in Louisiana, walked the beach in shirt sleeves and then, with clenched jaw, he spoke of growing up in a culture where the water was sacred. The administration meant this to be a demonstration of leadership. However, in some quarters, this is also known as street theatre.

Still seeking to enhance his “street cred,” the president then appeared on morning television, lowered his pants down below his buttocks, flashed his gold teeth, and announced that he was looking for some tail to kick.

In the meantime, the oil continues to gush from the well and the resulting slick is now the size of a small state.

As it turns out, sending the attorney general to Louisiana and ordering BP to “plug the damn hole” and then “going off” on national television didn’t solve the problem.

If the poll numbers are to be believed, it would also appear that Americans are not impressed with how much booty a president can kick, especially if it is not accompanied by decisive action, which actually addresses the problem. Over the course of the last two months, the president has had several opportunities to take bold and determined action--to be a leader. He has dithered instead.

A few of the missed opportunities:

Fire-booms that were supposed to be a part of any oil-spill response were missing in action. When they were finally located there were too few to do much good.

In the event of a major spill, federal responders had pre-approval to begin burning oil. They waited more than a week before doing a test-burn and then stopped. Experts have suggested that had the burning begun right away, 90% of the oil could have been burned away before it spread.

Thirteen countries have offered the United States the advantage of their technical skills. To date, the Obama administration has declined to take advantage of all of this experience and expertise.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers delayed the building of protective sand-berms until they could study the issue. The administration finally approved six berms, but only agreed to pay for one of them. Government officials say they want to first see if they work. Of course, by that time building more berms won’t do any good.

Two months into the crisis, Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. official in charge of the Gulf of Mexico crisis, (or is he?), is still talking about asking Congress for a waiver of the Jones Act, which would allow foreign vessels involved in the crisis to operate in American waters. However, that may not do much good. Louisiana boat owners who have volunteered to aid in clean-up efforts are complaining that bureaucratic red-tape is keeping them out of the water.

On a positive note, the president did create another government commission.

Leadership of the statesman variety--as opposed to the shirtsleeves and furrowed-brow-look-of-concern variety--would have the president with a large pair of scissors cutting through the red tape. A leader scours the private sector for the most knowledgeable folks he can find and asks for their help. He gets on the phone with our allies and says, “Yes! Please send me your experts!” He says to the governors of the Gulf States, “Tell me what you need.” Leadership is putting aside political agendas and mobilizing the power of the executive office in order to solve an immediate crisis.

Leadership doesn’t always need big speeches or street corner bravado. Leadership can be quiet; it can be cool and determined. But if it isn’t focused and it isn’t active, it ain’t worth the price of admission to a “Spike Lee Joint.”