President Obama’s approach to the BP oil spill is so rational it makes me want to scream. Yes, here’s a man who’s learned the basics of geology and the engineering of oil and gas exploration in a few weeks. He’s learned enough to explain how gas pressure builds in the well, where the severed pipe lies at the bottom of the ocean, how hydrates form, and how various dispersants generate different droplet sizes. He can explain the actions of BP and various government agencies, and why they’re doing the right thing. Barack Obama, the beard-stroking professor acting as President, and Tony Hayward, the PhD geologist masquerading as BP’s CEO, are two intellectual peas in a pod. I can see them from here discussing the exquisite ability provided by grid computing to model in 3D the configuration of the Macondo reservoir and the marvelous engineering of the Deep Horizon half-submersible platform.
In the end, this intellectual high-wire act is a gratuitous and self-absorbed display, however. People’s frustrations are emotional. They do not look to their President to display an ability to intellectualize the answer, but to relieve them of their frustration. The answer to emotional frustration is engagement. If you’re a fisherman in the Gulf, you want to go out and do something. You may not be able to dive in a wetsuit and go plug the hole yourself, but you want to be out there with the Coast Guard and set up some kind of barrier against the approaching oil. You want to go scoop some of the orange stuff with a spoon. You want to go clean up a brown pelican or wash a turtle. You want to take ten square feet of marshland, clean it up with your own hands, and show your kids how it’s done. But the last thing you want to see is a President trying to impress you with his command of the facts.
Of course, understanding the facts is a good thing, if it serves as a foundation for engagement of all available resources, particularly those impacted by the disaster. I still do not understand why President Obama had figured this out as a candidate – he pioneered the use of social media in his campaign – but is proving so inept at involving people in his Presidency. This is where the suspicion of arrogance lies. Of course, few of the Gulf people would exhibit the technical competence required for solving the leak problem itself, but they could be heavily involved in the damage control if coached properly. In the face of a spill of such magnitude, would you rather have a few thousand experts from BP and the government doing something by themselves, or have them use their expertise to orchestrate the work of millions of local people in dealing with the crisis?
Great wars are won by volunteers, guided by the expertise of a few. In the end, mobilization trumps expertise every time. Miracles come when both are brought together. Barack Obama needs to climb out of his own head and ask his administration to co-create new solutions with the impacted populations. President Obama keeps saying he’s open to “all good ideas.” This is itself an arrogant statement, because it assumes the solution is an analytically generated solution that he himself is in the best position to evaluate. The solution will not come from a President-centric idea contest. It will come from a massive engagement process.