Musings on Sports, Politics and Life in general

Crisis in Crisis Management


As everyone is well aware by now, the President gave his first Oval Office address the other night. Plenty has been said and written about what was in the speech – Howard Kurtz has a terrific summary in the Washington Post – but what nobody wrote about is, what wasn’t in the speech. And what was missing is more illuminating about why the spill in the Gulf of Mexico has careened out of control than anything the President said.

As most of the readers of this blog are aware, my political tendencies are toward the conservative. However, while I am opposed to most of the administration’s policies, I still do not wish the President ill when dealing with all matter of crises that every President faces. The best hope for our survival as a nation is to have people in the Oval Office and West Wing who are competent. Unfortunately, the USA once again has a President who is neither in charge nor, it seems, knows how to take charge.

The Gulf Oil Spill is only the latest crisis to illustrate this problem. Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and the economy are all crises that have been mangled by an endless set of blunders, bloopers and missteps. But for many Americans, this particular crisis is the final straw. Of course, there is nothing like being witness to millions of gallons of oil pouring out of the ocean floor and making its way to our shores to crystallize the idea that this administration is – incompetent.

The level of incompetence is stupefying. After all, this was supposed to be the cerebral presidency; a defining contrast to the predicate administration. This was supposed to be an administration of highly intelligent, outside-the-beltway , outside-the-box thinkers who could handle all the world’s woes and bring us safely to the future. But the common thread in all of the inaction, indecisiveness and ineffectiveness the world has witnessed over the past 18 months is that nobody in this Ivy educated klatch has a clue about crisis management.

This is not to say the administration is incapable of recognizing a crisis. Every member seems well aware of the critical situations around them. But instead of figuring out how to resolve them, the administration seems hell-bent on following Rahm Emmanuel’s “never let a good crisis go to waste”  policy of using crises to forge political points. What President Obama and the rest of his policy wonks have failed to notice is that the country does not want a new political agenda – they want action that resolves the crisis. In fact, if the President focused more energy on solving those crises swirling around right now, odds are he could make more political hay by pointing to his administration’s competence.

It may be that with a West Wing full of political operatives (and not necessarily administrators and managers – see Elena Kagan) that none of them have any experience solving a crisis. This probably comes as a shock to most Americans, since it seems anyone who has ever had a leadership position in the private sector has had their share of crises to avert and overcome. Heck, I had my first taste of crisis management as a 19 year old Lance Corporal and section leader. But, the thing to remember is that none of President Obama’s top aides have any private industry experience, and neither does the President. In fact, they have come from either the legislative branch or are political apparatchiks, where crisis management primarily involves three steps: duck and run, blame the other guy and propose new rules to prevent future ducking and running. Anyone else see a correlation between that philosophy and the way the current crises are being handled?

So, Mr. President, here are the basic tenets of effective crisis management. You may want to feed them into your teleprompter.

  1. Identify the problem. Gee, seems simple enough. “Houston, we have a problem.” And as I mentioned, the White House seems to have this part down pat.
  2. Identify possible solutions. This means actually looking at the problem in-depth and figuring out ways to fix it. Millions of gallons of crude headed for the beach? Call out every possible resource – ASAP and get it cleaned up. Worry about who/how it will be paid for later.
  3. Limit objectives. In other words, deal with the crisis in hand, not the one that may happen next week.
  4. Quickly implement the best solution, but be ready with the next in case it doesn’t work. This is called “taking charge.” You may notice that the operative word is “quickly.” Dawdling about for 50+ days is not “quickly.”
  5. Maintain communication. Taking trips to the golf course doesn’t fit with this model. Neither does going on vacation. Neither does waiting 58 days before telling the country that you really have no idea what the heck to do, except ask for more taxes (more on that in a bit).
  6. Once the crisis is under control, do a debrief to determine why the crisis existed in the first place and what could have been done better. Note: this is done after the crisis is under control. Since the crisis is not yet over, it’s a little difficult to know what has worked and what hasn’t.
  7. Develop and implement preventative measures. See number 4.

There were two other ways in which the speech illuminated the President’s failure to grasp the principles of crisis management.

First, I am certain that Secretary Chu is a fine person and wonderful human being. However, having a Nobel Prize does not necessarily make him qualified to lead the charge on this particular crisis. 30 years ago I had a different opinion, but the recent Nobel Prizes awarded to such luminaries as Yasser Arafat, Mohamed El Baradei, Al Gore and even Barack Obama have pretty much tarnished a once prestigious award. And Dr. Chu’s work has been in research, not implementation. This does not inspire confidence.

Secondly, back to the new taxes thing. The President ended his speech by devoting better than a third of it to asking Congress to pass the Cap-and-Trade legislation – a bill that would add around $1800 to every American’s tax burden. I really don’t see how new taxes will solve the mess in the gulf, but maybe I’m missing something. But I suspect that this is merely a knee-jerk reaction from an administration that truly believes in not letting a good crisis go to waste in promoting their policies.

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