The Leadership Gulf

Posted: Jun 18, 2010 1:54 PM
The Leadership Gulf

Gulf Coast water may not be clear, but the difference between talk and action, between inexperience disguised in a well-scripted package and actual leadership, is. You can see it in the persons and performances of President Barack Obama and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. In the wake of the oil spill, President Obama has been widely considered missing in action, ineffective, and impotent. Jindal, on the other hand, was noticeably and commendably quick on his feet, on-the-scene and effective. It's a tale of two men many a national commentator wouldn't have predicted as recently as last year.

Rush Limbaugh

To fully appreciate the contrast, rewind to February 2009, when the president delivered his first State of the Union address. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute praised Obama's "effortless eloquence," calling it a "sharp contrast with former president George W. Bush's oratory."

And the commander in chief had the body language and camera-ready moves down perfect, too. "As President Obama made his way off the dais, he stopped to hug Tom Coburn, a senator from Oklahoma and his friend. The same Tom Coburn who is as conservative as any member of Congress," Ornstein wrote in the Washington Post.

(Add "huggability" to "who would you rather have a beer with?" as a completely useless presidential-preference test.)

Bobby Jindal was the Republican tapped to give the traditional opposition-party response that night. Jindal's speech was nearly universally trashed. So were his future near-term political prospects.

"This was not Bobby Jindal's greatest oratorical moment."

"I think he had a really poor performance tonight ... It just came off as amateurish."

"Even the tempo in which he spoke seemed like sing-song, and he was telling stories that seemed very simplistic and almost childish."

And that was just the response on the Fox News Channel.

The current messages coming in from the Gulf are a testament to the fickleness of political punditry. By now, former Clinton political war-room adviser James Carville's criticism of the White House's "hands-offy" approach is the stuff of YouTube legend: "Man, you've got to get down here and take control of this, put somebody in charge of this thing and get this thing moving. We're about to die down here." But Carville is far from alone. His fellow Clintonite turned CNN commentator Paul Begala didn't disagree.

Nor does the general public in Louisiana. A survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic outfit, found that Jindal, who has an overall approval rating of 63 percent (vs. 31 percent disapproval), gets a 65-25 score when it comes to his handling of the spill. President Obama, by contrast, has an approval rating of 37 percent (vs. 57 percent disapproval). When it comes to the spill, the president's rating is 32-62.

CNN found similar results, which it took as "evidence that the public's view of Obama's leadership is following the same pattern that George W. Bush experienced after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005."

So much for the problem-solving audacity of speechifying.

The leadership gap is not lost on Jindal. In an interview at the end of May, the governor explained that "lines of communication are great" between him and the White House but that talking only goes so far. "Now we need action."

The only real action the president seems to be achieving involves an energy tax. Moving back to his transformational political agenda, the president scattered a recent primetime speech with not-so-casual warnings about the associated costs of any spill cleanup.

Democrats, too, have inaction in mind: halting offshore drilling. Believe it or not, that same poll that found Louisianans unimpressed with Obama and his BP performance haven't dramatically soured on offshore drilling in their state. Seventy-seven percent of Louisianans polled still support it. We should pay attention to them.