You can't choose your crisis
Q: President Obama finally meets this week with BP chief Tony Hayward on the Gulf oil spill. From a leadership perspective, which man has been the less effective in his handling of the crisis? What should he have done differently?
The measure of leadership is what you do when trouble hits.
The late Martin Ritt, an accomplished movie director, once said that he cast the lead roles by seeing if an actor could handle the film's climactic scene. Never was this truer than when he was casting his best-known picture, Norma Rae.
Actress Sally Field then was known more for her light entertainment roles; some doubted she had the grit and gumption to play a union organizer, based on real life character Crystal Lee Sutton.
Ritt had Field do the scene where the character stands up on the shop floor and holds up the sign that says, "union." Field aced the test, earned the role, and won an Academy Award for her performance.
While neither Obama nor Hayward will win prizes for their current performances, President Obama has done a far better job. We have not seen him complain about having to visit the Gulf repeatedly, or complain as Hayward has that he wants to get the crisis over with promptly so he can "get his life back." Neither has the president stooped to starring in a self-serving television commercial.
Leaders seldom get to choose their issues. Few remember that Tony Hayward, who became CEO in the wake of a scandal that forced its previous CEO Lord John Browne to step down, was regarded as one who could clean up BP's shoddy record of environmental and safety violation. Remember the 2005 Texas City refinery fire that killed 15 workers? That was a BP facility. Obviously Hayward has failed the cultural cleanup test.
The crisis in the Gulf is an ecological disaster; it is also a crisis that has ruined the livelihoods of many thousands who earn their living from the sea's bounty or the seashore's tourist appeal. Therefore, President Obama has a unique opportunity to deliver on a simple premise held by Abraham Lincoln who believed that the role of government is to do what the people themselves cannot do. Leveraging that concept, Obama needs to do two things:
One, demonstrate that government can be the operative force for good in the Gulf. It must do more than hold BP accountable -- That's the easy part. It must continue to activate all available resources to stop the leak. But even more importantly it must mobilize every available private and public resource to prevent more shore contamination and clean up soiled wetlands and beaches post-haste. Stopping the spill may be akin to rocket science, but shore clean up is not. We have the technology and manpower to do it; what's lacking is centralized focus and willpower.
Two, change the equation on how we derive our energy. The president can seize the "bully pulpit" to use the crisis to push forward an environmentally responsible, comprehensive energy plan that ensures the safe utilization of coal, oil and natural gas as well as stimulates the development of alternative sources of energy.
Disasters that change natural resources policy have occurred before. Teddy Roosevelt, as author Timothy Egan writes in Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, used a destructive fire that ravaged forests in Washington and Idaho as the catalyst for upgrading the U.S. Forestry Service and protecting national park lands.
History will judge President Obama not by his speeches or his photo ops, but by how well his administration can fulfill Lincoln's mandate to do what the people themselves cannot do.
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