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Oil spill, failed bombing offer Obama a challenge of message, management

By Karen Tumulty
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A08

Barack Obama's presidency has not lacked for crises. But the two that have dominated this week -- a spreading environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and a failed car bombing that narrowly missed creating carnage in Times Square -- have produced a delicate challenge of management and message at a moment when the country's mistrust of government is running high.

The particulars of the two situations, which are 1,200 miles apart, could hardly be more different. Yet the crises present some of the same questions for the president and his team: How can they convey a sense that they are on top of a rapidly changing situation? Must they set aside other business on their agenda to reassure the public that they are fully engaged, or does that make them look rattled? Which words must be said -- and which avoided?

There have been times when you could practically hear the gears grinding as administration officials dodged the potholes appearing before them. As questions were raised about whether they recognized the danger in the gulf quickly enough, they put out timelines of what they had been doing behind the scenes, emphasized the resources that were being brought to bear, scheduled a presidential visit to the area after saying Obama had no plans to go, and made sure that "from Day One" was part of everyone's talking points. Nor has anyone from Obama on down missed an opportunity to declare that BP will pick up the whole tab for cleaning up the mess spewing from its oil well.

If, in an echo of the response to the attempted Christmas airliner bombing, the administration was a little slow to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat in New York, there has been no subtlety in its stampede since then. As late as Monday morning, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was refusing to describe the failed car bomb in New York as "a terrorist incident." In the brief opening statement at his news conference Tuesday, he used the words "terrorist" or "terrorism" eight times.

Ultimately, of course, the president will be judged not on stagecraft, but on results. It remains to be seen whether subsequent examination will reveal lapses or missed signals. There was plenty of dazzling police work in the New York case. But it is undoubtedly awkward to explain how accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad managed to be on both the no-fly list and a plane that was about to take off for Dubai.

As one White House official put it: "Actions are more important than words. You can't spin your way out of reality." Handled right, these two crises have the potential to restore an increasingly skeptical public's faith in Obama, much the way that President Bill Clinton's handling of the Oklahoma City bombing did in 1995. Bungled, either or both could go down as his administration's Hurricane Katrina.

In the meantime, though, this is an election year, one in which Obama's party could potentially lose its majority in the House. And that means politics will come to bear as well. In the oil spill and the failed bombing, Democrats and Republicans have been presented with an awkward paradox: Obama has been made less vulnerable to partisan attack by virtue of earlier decisions that alienated his base.

A month before the spill, Obama proposed opening up more areas to offshore drilling. Although the president has put a hold on new drilling until the government gets to the bottom of what happened off Louisiana on April 20 and why, some Democrats are demanding that he scrap the plan. Meanwhile, Republicans -- who made "Drill, baby, drill" their mantra during the 2008 election -- have largely refrained from any criticism of how the administration is handling the crisis. The exception has been the demand for more federal aid by some of the same Southern lawmakers who have often pegged Obama as an avatar of Big Government.

Similarly, Obama's handling of the failed bombing has brought little criticism from the opposition party. But the New York incident appears likely to diminish any remaining possibility that the White House would push ahead with its controversial plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in a federal courtroom in Manhattan. And it might be another setback in Democrats' efforts to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For many Americans, this could go down as the scariest week of the Obama presidency. But depending on how well Obama and his team do, it might also be an opportunity. After all, this is a White House whose watchword was once summed up by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

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