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Zakaria: Obama caves in to media frenzy over BP

  • President Obama has stepped up focus on oil spill and used blunt language
  • Fareed Zakaria says Obama is feeding a media frenzy that risks damage to the presidency
  • He says the reality is that government can't plug the leak
  • Zakaria: White House needs to focus on other urgent matters, including Asia and Euro crisis

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET and CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time / 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi / 9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- President Obama's stepped-up focus on the Gulf oil disaster and his hardline rhetoric against BP are accomplishing little and risk distracting the White House from other urgent responsibilities, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

Obama, responding to critics of the government's handling of the spill, has made a point of emphasizing the time he's devoted to the crisis and has used blunt language to express outrage about it. In an interview with NBC, he said he met with experts "because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick."

Zakaria told CNN, "I think that what he's been doing in recent days has been caving in to this media outcry that he show more emotion and anger and energy in dealing with the problem. And I think the result of it is that you're getting government as theater rather than government that is actually doing something effective.

"The reality is that this is a terrible tragedy, a very complex, technical problem. The federal government has limited power and limited expertise. But the media -- and I hold us all responsible here -- has been baying like wolves asking for him to emote. ... It has had an effect."

The author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" spoke to CNN on Wednesday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: What do you think of the way President Obama has been handling the oil disaster?

Fareed Zakaria: In my view the president has been demeaning himself by trash-talking the CEO of BP. He's engaging in, as far as I can tell, pointless committees, make-work briefings, ... all of which is really just designed to appease this hungry media, and as far as I can tell is not going to speed up by one second the point at which the leak is plugged.

And the real effect it will have is to totally distract the government from dealing with the important issues the federal government has competence and jurisdiction over, such as the state of the economy, the dangers of a European debt crisis, the issues involving the way in which the Chinese military has been flexing its muscles, North Korea, Iran -- these are the things the president should be holding lots of meetings on, these are areas which are uniquely within the purview of the federal government. We have descended to government as theater.

CNN: If you look at the Gulf situation, you have a giant corporation that wasn't capable of ensuring the safety of a well that it dug. So who's supposed to hold them responsible and make sure they do the right thing?

Zakaria: Look, on all available evidence it does appear that BP cut a lot of corners on safety. This is not an act of God, this is something that they are absolutely responsible for. And of course the federal government has responsibility to make sure that they clean up the mess, that they plug the leak as quickly as they can -- though they themselves have a pretty powerful incentive to do it, and let's be real, BP could literally go bankrupt because of this. Whatever their past misdeeds, their economic self-interest would make them very, very powerfully motivated to plug this leak.

Video: Can Obama afford to be angry?
Video: Has President Obama 'stepped up'?
Video: Wants to know 'whose ass to kick'
  • Barack Obama
  • Gulf Coast Oil Spill
  • Asia
  • Iran
  • Media

But the federal government has lots of responsibilities here. My point is that we are trying to turn the president and the presidency into some kind of national psychiatrist's couch by constantly urging him to show that he's angry, to do more.

I can't tell you how many reporters and commentators have said the president isn't showing enough emotion. I'm not sure what this means. Is he supposed to stand up there and start crying? Is he supposed to jump up and down?

In what other profession is it supposed to be a good idea that you suspend your rational faculties and let yourself be overtaken by raw emotions? Unless you're a linebacker, this is not supposed to be a good thing. And in this case, we're saying the president is being too rational, too calculating. In this kind of crisis, I'm rather reassured that the president is not losing his head.

iReporter: Why Obama doesn't dare become the "angry black man"

CNN: It's his choice whether to respond to the media commentary. Why do you think he's choosing to do it?

Zakaria: We've gotten to a point where there's an accumulation of media commentary of this kind. It becomes so overwhelming that you have to get the story off the page, you have to respond. In particular what's happened, a lot of this commentary was coming from usually mainstream media that's not instinctively biased against him. This is not Fox News, this was CNN, New York Times and lots of other mainstream organizations, But it has a real cost.

CNN: What is the cost?

Zakaria: Well, look at what's happened with his Asia trip. He's now canceled his Asia trip for the second time. This is an area of the world that is absolutely crucial to America's future prosperity. It is where the future balance of power in the world is going to be set.

To show that the United States is actively engaged is of huge importance. Indonesia in particular is critical here, because there is a complex geopolitical game going on between China and the United States, and Indonesia sits right in the middle of that. And yet he has had to put that aside and to do so in a way that cannot but humiliate the Indonesians.

There is also the reality of how much time he is spending on [the oil spill]. He says there have been more White House meetings on this subject than any other since the Afghan [war] review. This is insane. The Afghan review -- you're talking about committing tens of thousands of American troops in a very complex multinational war effort in a country 8,000 miles away. That was something that is entirely within the federal government's purview. That's what presidents should be sitting there doing.

CNN: What about the argument that the example of Hurricane Katrina is behind what the government is doing?

Zakaria: It may be that people feel that way, but it's a very weird analogy. Katrina was largely a failure of the government. The levees were built largely by the Army Corps of Engineers. What then happened regarding the flooding and the fleeing of the population, that all required primarily a government response. ...

Fundamentally, the oil spill is a problem that only engineers at BP and other oil industry experts can solve. The government has lots of associated tasks that go along with it; as far as I can tell they are doing those.

Think back to the Exxon Valdez. I don't believe George H.W. Bush, who was president at the time, ever even went to the area in the first few months. ... There was no requirement that the president seem to be somehow actively engaged on a minute-to-minute basis in a situation that was clearly a spill by an oil tanker.

What worries me is that we have gotten to the point where we expect the president to somehow magically solve every problem in the world, appear to be doing it, and to reflect our anger and emotion. This is a kind of bizarre trivializing of the presidency into some kind of national psychiatrist-in-chief.

iReporter: Keep up the pressure on BP

CNN: Do you think the mistaken response includes the moratorium on deepwater drilling?

Zakaria: I do, I think that actually offshore drilling has proved to be extremely safe. ... In this case, BP seems to have done a number of things for cost-cutting reasons that should not have been done, or were not industry practice, and it is paying the price for it and we are all paying the price for it.

Can you guard against a single outlier? Maybe there should have been better regulation, there should certainly have been more vigorous inspections. It seems as though as long as you can get offshore drilling properly supervised, and follow standard procedure, it seems it's entirely possible for it to work.

Now there is an issue of whether deepwater drilling should be covered by same regulations as shallow-water drilling, and that's something that can be explored in terms of making it even safer. But it would be a mistake to react to this by banning offshore drilling or by having a moratorium.

In the long run, of course, offshore drilling or any kind of drilling in the United States is not much of a solution for our energy problems. What we really need is an energy policy with dramatic investments in alternative energy technology, that's the kind of broader direction we should be going in. But meanwhile we still do need oil, and this has, by and large, proven a safe way to do it.

This is a very politically incorrect thing to say in the midst of a tragedy like this that captures the danger vividly on camera. But the reality is that there are millions and millions of barrels of oil that have been extracted with relatively small spillage. ... [In the Gulf] you're extracting about 1.6 million barrels a day. And typically, in an average year, you would have oil spills of a few hundred barrels a year. In relative terms this has been a reasonably safe activity with the exception of this terrible, terrible tragedy.

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