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Spill is Obama's chance to rally U.S.

By Michael Gordon, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Gordon says pendulum of blame on spill swinging away from BP, toward Obama
  • He says Obama's absence from spill scene is being viewed as absence of care
  • Obama must hold agencies accountable, bring problem-solvers to table, he says
  • Gordon: Obama should use moment to guide nation to comprehensive energy solutions
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Editor's note: Michael Gordon is the CEO of Group Gordon Strategic Communications, a corporate and crisis PR firm in New York, and a former spokesman in the Clinton administration for Attorney General Janet Reno.

New York (CNN) -- As BP attempts to stop the oil bleeding into the Gulf of Mexico, it appears the company's CEO, Tony Hayward, has finally begun to set expectations. But frankly, after more than five weeks of fumbled fixes, low-balled spill estimates and growing environmental disaster, they really couldn't be any lower.

Rules number one through 100 in crisis planning are this: Have a plan. BP didn't, and its plunging share price is telling the story. President Obama's poll numbers are his stock, and they aren't doing much better.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll this week found more than half the country disapproving his efforts in the Gulf. With the tragedy becoming almost as much a story of optics as of breakdowns, the blame game quickly turns zero-sum. And as the narrative has gone from spill to crisis to catastrophe, the pendulum of blame has started to swing away from BP and toward President Obama.

This is no longer an isolated incident; it's our country's call to action. At the bottom of that drill was not only oil but also the decades of failed energy policies that made us want it.

And it's this confluence that has put the president on the defensive this week in his press conference Thursday and his visit to Louisiana, but it also gives him the chance to perfect his tackling.

Until now, his general absence from the scene has looked like an absence of care. He needs to be in the Gulf Coast more regularly than he has. He needs to talk about the problem more regularly than he has. One of the principles of crisis communications is that actions have to accompany words. For the president to use the pulpit to bully BP and stand up for the taxpayer is right -- but the proclamations can't be hollow.

The departure Thursday of the Minerals Management Service director, Elizabeth Birnbaum, was a good start, whether she resigned or was fired. And it helped when the president declared Friday that he was ultimately responsible for solving the spill crisis. "I'm the president and the buck stops with me."

But President Obama needs to continue a thorough, top-down assessment of the Departments of Interior, Energy, the Coast Guard and other key agencies, holding the highest-level officials responsible for their progress on a moment-by-moment basis.

He also should use his one-of-a-kind convening authority to bring the brightest experts, engineers, and environmentalists to the Gulf until the region is whole. BP can't bring everyone to the table; only the president can.

But these moves are still being played on defense -- and none of them will change the arc of the story as it's developing so far. The nation is focused; the most presidential thing the president can do is go on offense. He needs to lead in advancing a new way of thinking about oil and move the country toward comprehensive solutions for our energy woes.

He has the long-term vision for U.S. energy policy already; he now has to meet the short-term mission of selling it. Doing so will change the question from "Is this Obama's Katrina?" to "Is this Obama's magnum opus?" It's not good publicity for the sake of it; it's the right thing for our country.

For better or worse, the most consequential developments in Washington happen at times of crisis. We're living one of those moments today. The president should show more of his hand and less of his cool on the spill, but he also must take the opportunity of his time and his stage to lead us into a true era of energy independence. After that, the PR will speak for itself.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Gordon.

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