May 28th, 2010
10:15 AM ET

The president's clashing symbols

Program Note: Be sure to watch Tom Foreman tonight on AC360° at 10pm ET.

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Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

You know why the faces on Mount Rushmore are four presidents instead of the Marx Brothers? Because symbolism matters. As much as we have a sense of humor in this nation (hey, we bought LaToya Jackson albums) we understand the enduring importance of leadership, especially when it comes to carving mountains into giant, granite heads.

So you know why the Obama Administration was in such hot water this week? Because the White House team members seem to have ignored the symbolic importance of everything they do during a crisis. As the Gulf oil spill spun out of control, they appeared for weeks to be mildly interested at best, and slightly miffed with the inconvenience of it all at worst. Like a Greek chorus, a variety of officials repeated the mantra, “We were there from day one!” as if those words alone would suffice.

But it was the shocking lack of there-ness on days two, three, four, and more that burned them. And it didn’t help that on the very day the men killed in the explosion were being memorialized; President Obama was attending a Democratic fundraiser. Talk about symbolism. The apparent disregard for the tragedy and the puddles of oil gathering at the president’s feet were noticed even by admirers in his own party, some of whom were by mid-week wondering openly why the White House did not respond earlier and more robustly.

No one with any weight in DC is disputing that this is BP’s fault, and the money to pay for it should come out of BP’s piggybank. Many have even accepted the Administration’s argument that the feds quite simply do not have the expertise they would need to take over the operation wholesale. What has troubled them, however, has been the symbolism.

Presidents, although they don’t like to admit it, spend a lot of time being primarily symbolic. When they throw out the first pitch, when they visit a closed factory, when they greet returning soldiers, when they hold town hall meetings to discuss health care; that’s all about symbolism. When President Bush flew over the wreckage of Katrina and just kept flying that was symbolic. And though the White House team is scrambling now to show their concern, those weeks of apparently lackluster involvement by President Obama were symbolic, too.

See Tom Foreman's column in Metro here.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Keeping Them Honest • Tom Foreman
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Greg Autrey

    I have noticed that the Obama administration seems to be held to a much higher standard by the Republicans. Three examples:

    1. When Ronald Reagan propsed that illegal alians be given amnesty, the Republicans never said a word! Why?

    2. When other Presidents did not attend the Memorial Day activties at Arlington where waas the uproar from the Republicans? Incidentally, I do not think Bush EVER attended the Arlington ceremonies. Others attended periodically. Not one work by the Republicans.

    3. During Katerina, a proventable disaster, the Republicans DEFENDED George Bush and the administration, although it was obvious that the Government had failed to provide basic services. Yet for the oil spill which was not created by the Obama, the Republicans offer no solutions, just attacks. Wasn't it the Republicans who wanted drilling so badly? How's that "drill baby drill", working for you now?

    Where is the sense of fairness among Republicans? What hypocites to attack the President for the very things that Republicans that other Presents proposed and supported. Oppostion to polices is one thing but it is obvious that these attacks are personal.

    May 31, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  2. Mike Salmon

    This is a many dimensional problem. Due to emotion, politics invariably gets in the way of the administration of technology. Should've, would've, could've and blame are of no use with this problem. The press is now only stirring emotion to no good end other than selling "News". It is an engineering and technological problem and failure and its repair and future prevention will ultimately be a technical solution. As with the current wars, there is no easy happy ending.

    Fixing this oil release in the Gulf of Mexico, learning from the experience, and cleaning up the mess are all long term opportunities for either success or failure with other problems we are or will encounter as an energy dependent consumer nation. The promise of the future is tied to how this debacle, as well as increased use of nuclear power, the cleanup of mining wastes and other large contaminent plumes and our stewardship of natural resources is kept on the technological front burner. Political leadership must be used to facilitate technically competent, complex, real world, outcomes while helping educate an informed but impatient electorate.

    I prefer a thoughtful president with a superior intellect in these times.

    May 31, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  3. Scottish Mama

    As I predicted President Obama, Helping the people would of helped you. Since Katrina was damning to Former President Bush, the oil will stick to you like the eco-system of Grand Isle. Livelyhoods of these people are devistated. In Houma, Grand Isle, and Chauvin alot of these cajins are just everyday fish to eat and share people.
    I guess cutting the pipe with a torch, and then putting another pipe over the original with a gasket has eluded British Petroleum the disaster maker. The united states have submarines in Calif. that have arms to take in different kind of plankton for study. No underwater torches? How about a the look of a rubber inserted over the leak with a pool liner tube to the surface tankers. At least till the drills are thru in August. How about a Concrete ring with a flexible tube or large pipe around the oil spirting out to the surface tanker.
    No waiting till August, Blow the well up on itself first. If you can insert a pipe in the disasterous leak, you can drop some type of explosive inside the shaft and implode it upon itself.
    NOPE WE WON'T WAIT TILL AUGUST. America unite. You see a BP pass it by. Send a clear message now America.

    May 31, 2010 at 8:41 am |
  4. Indigos

    I wouldn't call President Obama a symbolic president. I think he has been pulled in so many different directions not only that he has people there on his behalf to see through the oil issue. No one would of thought that the oil problem couldn't be solved by the oil company that created the problem to begin with. Lets not judge so harshly. Everyone can say what they think the president should have done or what he should being doing. But, he's the president let him make the decisions about what needs to be done. The majority wouldn't be able to walk in his shoes for half a day or even an hour for what he has to deal with on a daily basis.

    May 31, 2010 at 2:21 am |
  5. Mark H

    This oil spill is a devistating situation my heart goes out to those affected not these so called journalist. When Bush was in Office during Katrina he got more respect then this President and that's a dog on shame and all of you know it . I have no problem with constructive criticism of the President but be fair and realistic President Obama has so much going aganist him that seeing what this man has to deal with and how little cooperation he is getting from Repubs & some from his own party and all of these anti Government Lunatics. THINK ABOUT IT USA ,PUNDITS, JOURNALIST I BELIEVE (AT THIS TIME IN OUR HISTORY) ONLY SOMEONE LIKE PRES. OBAMA CAN LEAD THIS COUNTRY.

    May 30, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  6. jerry

    Symbolism Shmisbolism. If asked, would any of the presidents on rushmore
    want their heads carved into the mountain? I like to think not.
    Obama would sign up for it in a second.
    Actions(or lack of actions) are all that matter.
    Symbolism is NOT important. It is just another form of manipulation.
    "LOOK LOOK Here I am at an oil spill!!"
    SO WHAT!! The facts are nobody around the president has any idea how to handle this.
    He could go there 500 times and it matters NONE!
    Does the navy or coast guard have any way of helping with this?
    If so, he should send them in.

    May 30, 2010 at 12:55 am |
  7. Roberto Javellana

    The leaking oil every second pollute the environment. and getting worse. After the failure of the "big kill" another option within a week?
    President Obama must act now. This oil leak is a big treat to our nation security / economy.
    Oil leak can be stopped. I can help.

    May 30, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  8. stormy lady

    Where are all the smart BP guys and big oil giants. They are going to continue the destruction of the environment while the media idiots play the blame game bashing the president. How stupid is that. Where is the report, how, why did it happen, Answers and no more media persuasive propoganda, no one is listening anymore. It's reckless behavior and the next election strategy. Win you foolish ones, it will not matter in the end.

    May 29, 2010 at 11:03 pm |
  9. Mance

    Didn't he go to the funeral of the coal miners? Are the oil rig workers less important? Didn't the government get all over the mining industry? Why the double standard?

    May 29, 2010 at 9:38 pm |
  10. Scott

    It is well known that perception is truth in the absence of fact. However, there were other pressing domestic and international issues in the past few weeks. While the headlines have been dominated by the oil spill there is still the situation in Korea, the high level talks with the Chinese government, the uranium enrichment deal going on with Iran, Europe is sitting on the brink of a euro crisis, and not to mention pretty horrific month for the stock market. In light of those things I can forgive the President for not walking the shores of Louisiana beaches and wading throgh the marshlands of the Mississippi River Delta on day 2, 3 or 4. But, what we need to be demanding from the him is a comprehensive plan to end our love-hate addiction to big oil. If this country demands symbolism and power leadership in this crisis, President Obama should stand in a puddle of oily water on those beaches and demand that we as a country finally realize our oil addiction isn't sustainable and we need to change our ways. If that doesn't happen, then we should all be dissapointed.

    May 29, 2010 at 3:54 am |
  11. david greene

    Excellant reporting on the oil spill. As a former fed inspector I see Bp's plan. Their lawyers and bean counters have figuired it is cheaper to pay the government fines and lawsuits then to cleanup the spill. Or evan set back and hope the feds step in and takeover cleanup operation and allowing them to claim they are no longer liable.

    May 29, 2010 at 3:49 am |
  12. Lorna Roberts

    I am watching you report from the Gulf. I am taking exception to James Carvilles remarks, "we are different people down here".
    That just is not correct. No matter where a disaster or calamity happens, it affects people all the same way, help can never come fast enough. It happened that this catastrophe happened in his home state, in his backyard. But for him to spout that no one else cares about the people "down here" is just wrong. It was also wrong for him to say that if this had happened in San Francisco, or in Michigan, the response would be different, that is not true. Disasters are usually not a planned event. Wherever they happen, response time can not happen fast enough. Reality is it takes a certain amount of time to mobilize.
    This is an event that was not even anticipated, no plan in place of what to do when the crisis occurred. It seems to me people are doing a lot of hollering and castagating, how does that help? Does anyone really believe that BP and Government want this suffering to happen? I do not think so.
    I look at those Oil Riggs. To me they look like an accident waiting to happen. All is well as long everything works as it should. This was bound to happen somewhere, someday. I just so happens it happned in The Gulf of Mexico. Terrible, heartbreaking, misery, and broken dreams. Tell James Carville, wherever that would have happened, people are the same, people would be angry, and help could not come fast enough. Lorna

    May 29, 2010 at 12:23 am |
  13. Ruby,MS Gulf Coast

    This is horrible, and it's going to get worse!! The Gulf Coast may have a very active hurricane season coming up!! Everyone needs to start calling their insurance companies to see if they will cover "wind driven oil"!!!! They never should of sunk the oil rig by spraying water on it , that fire was burning off all the oil that is presently in the Gulf of Mexico killing an entire ecosystem.

    May 28, 2010 at 11:53 pm |
  14. pjb

    I have heard that for big oil spills off the coast of Saudi Arabia,
    there are large ships that can be deployed that essentially suck up the oily water to get the oil out of the water. I dont know if such vessels exist, but I would really like to know if they do, and if so, why the hell they arent in the Gulf of Mexico right now sucking up this leaking oil. Maybe Anderson Cooper and CNN could find out.

    May 28, 2010 at 11:17 pm |
  15. Susan, CA

    Couldn't agree more. I understand that they can't stop the oil flowing, but they should have immediately pulled out all the stops to try and prevent the oil from reaching the shoreline. Ships, tankers, berms, whatever it took and they should have over-ridden all the "red-tape" of environmental impact studies......THIS is a huge environmental impact that will make any other side issues look like peanuts!

    What were they thinking?

    May 28, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  16. Char

    I would like to know what Bobby Jindal is doing? When Katrina happened, the first persons to get blamed was the governor, then the mayor. President Obama is expected to be everywhere all at the same time and we all know that is impossible, so this is why states have a governor and cities have mayors, so where are they and what plans do they have in place for disasters such as this? This is what needs to be reported on and what we want to know.

    May 28, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  17. frank roder

    The way to stop this leak in the gulf is to insert a CATHETER into the pipe and then once the CATHETER is inserted INFLATE AN AIRBAG into the pipe to cause a blockage ..These air bags we use on the fire department can withstand the pressure of 5 ton trucks and will hold up to the chemicals . So why doesnt anyone smarter then me think of doing this!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 28, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  18. Charie McMahom

    I couldn't agree more. There has been several reports that President Obama will not be attending Arlington cemetery this weekend nor will he visit the unknown soldiers grave. instead will be vacationing with his family. Is this true? It seems he is more worried about seats then our country. This BP disaster should of been addressed immediately. The voice of the people is louder and more abundantly known than ever, yet never more ignored.

    May 28, 2010 at 10:48 am |
  19. Ellie

    I am an enthusiastic Obama supporter and have been from the get-go, but I have to agree with this post in it's entirety. More often than not, perception is reality because people believe what they see. If Obama would have been making more of a presence, people would at least feel a little more at ease that this (oil spill) is being taken care of and the proper people are taking responsibility. Symbolism is part of the job and Obama and his staff need to do a better job of upholding our national traditions.

    May 28, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  20. Arlene

    Had the President been on the scene from beginning to end there would be complaints about him being too involved and ignoring other important matters.

    May 28, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  21. Pete

    "Mission Accomplished" was symbolic. Look where that got us. It's about time we had a President that devotes his time to dealing with issues at his desk meeting with people of specific expertise and delegating like a manager, instead of wasting time donning a flight suit. Be patient, America.

    May 28, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  22. Maria H-Miami

    The Symbolic act, the Leadership act I will always remember of President Obama is " Where is he"??????????

    May 28, 2010 at 10:33 am |