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Charge to Obama: 'Go off!'

By Kristi Keck, CNN
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Spike Lee takes on BP
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama has been criticized for seeming disconnected from the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico
  • In a time of crisis, people want "powerful rhetorical leadership," presidential historian says
  • "I've seen rage from him. I have," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says
  • Brinkley: The craving for such crisis leadership from Obama is "because he's so capable of it"

President Obama goes one-on-one with Larry King on Thursday night to talk about the oil spill, economic turmoil and war. Don't miss the president on "Larry King Live," 9 p.m. ET Thursday, only on CNN.

(CNN) -- In the weeks since an oil rig exploded and later sank into the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama has dealt with the tragedy with his signature cool, calm and collected approach.

But with the oil still gushing in what is now the worst spill in U.S. history and the environmental devastation coming ashore, the president is becoming a target of the anger that was originally directed only at BP.

"One time, go off!" director Spike Lee urged on CNN's "AC 360°." "If there's any one time to go off, this is it, because this is a disaster."

Lee's sentiment echoes the frustration of people who want to see Obama get loud, take charge and inspire them like he did during his presidential run.

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Recalling then-candidate Obama's ability to rouse crowds into chants of "Yes, we can," presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said, "There was a feeling he was going to be one of these presidents that moved us with words the way John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did in recent decades."

Instead, Obama has presented himself as the unflappable president, with the engineer-like approach of Jimmy Carter and the legislative astuteness of Lyndon Johnson, Brinkley said.

"But in a time of great crisis, people aren't looking for Johnson or Carter. They are looking for powerful rhetorical leadership -- words that move the country in a positive direction," he said.

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The president has visited the region twice since the oil spill, most recently the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Obama brought the tragedy to a more personal level, telling the public that he grew up in a place where the ocean is sacred, so he understands the emotional connection -- but it was only a brief aside in an otherwise straightforward address.

It was hardly the outpouring that came from Louisiana Democrat Charlie Melancon, who broke into tears last week at a Capitol Hill hearing about the oil spill.

"Our culture is threatened. Our coastal economy is threatened. And everything that I know and love is at risk," Melancon, who represents many of the affected Louisiana shoreline areas, told his Capitol Hill colleagues. Unable to finish reading his prepared statement, Melancon submitted it for the congressional record and then walked out of the hearing room as other lawmakers sought to comfort him.

And it was hardly the advocacy that's come from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, also of Louisiana. In a column on CNN.com, Ruben Navarrette wrote that due to Obama's lackluster response, "Bobby has Barack on the ropes and he is coming across as more passionate and more presidential."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was pushed Tuesday to back up his claim that Obama is enraged by the situation.

"I've seen rage from him. I have," Gibbs said at the daily briefing.

Asked to describe it, Gibbs pointed to the president's "clenched jaw" and his call to "plug the damn hole."

The president has been actively engaged in the crisis -- firing the head of the Minerals Management Service, extending the moratorium on further offshore drilling and increasing the federal presence in the region.

But instead of a galvanizing cry of outrage at the failed efforts to cap the undersea gusher, Obama's made the "let's not panic" appeal, Brinkley said.

"With each BP failure, I think the American people have wanted to feel that the president is not just in the saddle but is leading the charge, and he's fallen short in this regard," he said.

Despite the pummeling he's received from pundits, it's not too late for Obama to take charge of the narrative, Brinkley said, suggesting that the White House set up a command center in the Gulf to provide a clearinghouse for ideas and that Obama take on a more integral part of the catastrophe by spending more time in the area, meeting with fishermen and locals instead of just dropping by.

The White House has started to take a more aggressive approach, with Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement Tuesday that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the oil spill.

The Obama administration also will no longer do joint briefings with BP on the spill, and instead will have former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen handle the daily briefings on his own, senior administration officials told CNN on Tuesday.

The change is an effort to control the message, release accurate information about the oil spill and speak in one voice to deliver the daily message on latest developments, officials said.

Obama needs to build on the momentum with a primetime address and a heartfelt message to the American people, Brinkley said.

"There is a craving for a different kind of crisis leadership from President Obama largely because he's so capable of it as we saw on the campaign trail in 2008," he said. "When he lets go and talks from the heart, he's one of the most effective political figures in modern times."

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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