Al Pacino Wouldn’t Need to Talk Tough to BP: Margaret Carlson

A president should give no speech before its time. The one that Barack Obama delivered Tuesday night was too small for such a big problem, the Oval Office setting too august for mere updates.

Obama spoke as if we are at war, but without any discernable plan of battle. He missed a chance to call for sacrifice, whether from a new conservation corps or from his party’s senators, who at some point face a tough vote on energy legislation. Obama said he’s going to get to that “in the months ahead” -- which means after the midterm election in November.

In a choice of whether to save the planet or Blanche Lincoln, he went with the latter. Talk about wasting a crisis.

Obama, who surely would have liked to announce some breakthrough on Gulf oil spill compensation, was at the mercy of BP Plc (BP/)’s timetable. News of the company’s $20 billion commitment came the day after the speech.

On the face of it, Obama couldn’t ask for a more perfect adversary. The day of his speech, oil companies called to testify before Congress said they wouldn’t have built a rig in such a shoddy manner.

Evidence of BP’s corner-cutting, to the point of intentional negligence and reckless endangerment, is everywhere. According to lawmakers, BP used six instead of the usual 21 centralizers before cementing the well, didn’t test the cement bond, chose a cheaper method to prevent gas from rising unchecked to the surface, and stinted on a backup blowout preventer -- all to “save time/money,” to borrow a phrase from one internal BP e-mail.

Press Conference Partners

And yet for weeks, the administration has treated BP as an equal, a partner at press conferences, rather than a breaker of laws, scores of them. Eliot Ness didn’t share a podium with Al Capone.

A strong leader bides his time, keeps the culprits at arm’s length and acts like the boss. And he doesn’t invite them into the White House. Meetings with BP should be held in a windowless conference room at the Justice Department. That would prevent scenes like the one yesterday, when BP executives leaving the West Wing met the press as if they were heads of state.

Obama’s Oval Office address was the latest in a series of actions that seem overly reactive to the drumbeat that he’s not showing enough fury. The public, which likes to see its leaders in control, is clamoring for no such thing.

Just because the press likes nothing more than an angry outburst -- I’m guilty, too -- doesn’t mean the president should oblige. Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone -- they shared a cool stare and a steady voice. They meant business and didn’t have much to say.

Kicked Himself

After days of being told he was insufficiently upset, Obama flashed some temper when NBC’s Matt Lauer prodded him about butt-kicking and the president was ready to play a tough guy on TV. Score one for the press, and take one away from the president, who was diminished by it.

For weeks, Obama’s been making up for listening to aides determined to distance him from the oil spill’s political spillover. He’s been overcompensating ever since. Stop him before he wastes valuable presidential time on another trip to the Gulf to hug a local resident. Once is enough.

Obama didn’t use the speech to fix what’s under his control. He could have told the country that, contrary to the reigning Republican ethos, government -- sometimes big government -- is needed to regulate the BPs of the world. Otherwise, corporations run amuck and cause harm that can never be fixed.

He also could have declared he will replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for not doing a heck of a job.

Excuse You

Since 2008, when Congress got a report from Interior’s inspector general, we’ve known that the Minerals Management Service was beset by financial self-dealing, cocaine use, gifts and sex. While Salazar didn’t create the corruption -- three decades of regulatory coziness took care of that -- he had 18 months to fix it, and didn’t, other than adopting some new ethics guidelines. In his speech, Obama basically excused Salazar for not knowing “the problem there ran much deeper.”

The speech shows that this White House is fighting the last one’s mistakes. It wasn’t George W. Bush’s infamous flight over Hurricane Katrina damage that ruined his presidency. It was his failure to do what he could to relieve the human suffering visible on the ground.

People don’t want an emotional president. They want the president to bring the power of the government to bear on the bad guys, alleviate the suffering of people and the planet and punish those who could have done something but didn’t.

Do that, and there’s no need to give a speech.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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