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June 14, 2010

White House Oil Crisis: The Picture of Passivity

With Obama scheduled to spend Monday and Tuesday in the Gulf, followed by a national address on Tuesday, I wanted to take a look at how the White House, as their own media machine, has been framing the crisis.

One of the key visual outlets for the White House is the feature on their website, organized into months, called the “Photo of the Day.” Four oil disaster-related photos have been featured as “Photos of the Day” on the White House website in June. The photos in the slideshow appeared, in reverse order, on June 10, 7, 4, 3 and 1. Here’s what I see:

1. Of the nine total photos that appear in June, the oil spill is the subject in just over half. Given the dimension of the crisis, the suggestion is that the Administration sees the crisis as representing just another item on the President’s full plate, not something commanding his primary attention.

2. All but one of the photos are set in the WH, minimizing the President’s trips to the Gulf, meeting on Capitol Hill, or any outside venue. Given the criticism of Obama’s management of the crisis, and the fact he remains mostly huddled in the White House, the most recent photo — set along the Colonnade — might be seen as a parallel, perhaps, to the way Jimmy Carter was perceived as trapped in the Rose Garden during the Iran hostage crisis.

3. All but one photo shows Obama in a passive stance, usually with his arms crossed in what reads as a defensive posture. In another, he has his hand to his head, like the crisis is a real “head scratcher.” Uncharacteristic of WH photos, we don’t see Obama speaking in any of these, suggesting a lack of a voice on the issue.

4. The only shot of Obama in the Gulf is more artistic than substantive. Yes, he is making a forceful karate chop in the air (with the emphasis on his watch emphasizing time is “of the essence”) but his head is cut off.

It’s hard not to conclude from their own PR in this visual archive that the Administration and the President are in a reactive mode. The two group shots could potentially be read as the White House having its wagons circled. Even if the situation is not that extreme, though, the clear impression here is an Administration in a passive state.

Captions/credits:

1: President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Phil Schiliro, and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, along the Colonnade of the White House, June 10, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

2: President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dr. John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, June 7, 2010, following a meeting with Cabinet members to discuss the administration’s ongoing response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

3: President Barack Obama gestures during a meeting on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, La., June 4, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

4: President Barack Obama listens to Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change, during a meeting with senior advisors in the Oval Office, June 3, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

5: President Barack Obama is briefed by Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change, on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, during a meeting in the Oval Office, June 1, 2010. Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett is pictured at right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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