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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.


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)

  • bystander

    The 1,000 mile stare. I’ve been trying to think about the kinds of circumstances where I have seen that stare before. Eg; The parent looking past the willful child? One spouse enduring the criticism of the other? The instances I can think of all spell disengaged; the individual is looking at some place beyond the immediate; they are not there. I’ve often referred to it as the blank stare, blink, blink response. Does disengaged = passive? Dunno. Maybe.

    Some of the criticism I’ve read suggests people are distressed that Obama isn’t showing any reaction; he’s not emo enough. Is that because he is passive/disengaged, or because that’s the way the media portrays him? And, why would the White House media group feed that impression if it’s working against Obama politically? Makes one wonder. What do the pictures related to the oil spill they’re not posting look like? Are these are the images that make Obama look “presidential” and “in control”? And, there’s how we read these images vs how the White House media machine reads the images; we might not agree on an interpretation.

    Re: that hand-to-head picture. I kind of read that as, This sucker is giving me a real headache.

  • Stella

    Personally I prefer passivity to aggression in the White House. I like that Obama isn’t that into the showbiz aspect of his position.
    There’s no reason that he should rearrange himself to make things look good. These photos that you interpret as huddling or being under seige illustrate how hard the PR business is – not every moment is filled with excitement.

    Staying put and taking care of business seems wiser to me than jetting off for photo ops.

  • yg

    i’ve quoted gore
    before, his characterization of the previous president. i neglected the more telling graph:

    machiavelli illuminated this phenomenon five centuries ago in florence: ” a prince who would maintain his authority is often compelled to be other than good. for when the class, be it the people, the soldiers, or the nobles, on whom you judge it necessary to rely for your support, is corrupt, you must needs adapt yourself to its humours, and satisfy these, in which case virtuous conduct will only prejudice you.”

  • Molly

    Oh, how the wild dogs would howl if Obama were to flex his Presidential muscle and enforce FEDERAL action in the Gulf!

    He would be impeached within days.

    He’s smart enough to know that.

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