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The Politics of Disaster

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Saturday, June 19, 2010

When BP CEO Tony Hayward went to Capitol Hill this week, he got beat up on by all sides.

When the president declared "war" from the Oval Office in response to the continuing spill, he, too, got beat up on by all sides.

Welcome to the politics of disaster.

What everyone wants, of course, is the one thing neither man can deliver anytime soon: a stop to the spill.

If they could do it, they would. If they could make it happen, they would. But for all the talk of war and funds and escrow, the reality is very simple: The oil is still spilling out, even more (big surprise) than they said before. The damage will be enormous, even with the secretary of the Navy in charge. The losses will be greater than what anyone forecasts, escrow fund or not.

Whatever they've done so far has been too little and too late.

The politics of disaster are difficult. That's why it's called a disaster. Not a good thing. Not easily addressed.

And yet, politically speaking, some people emerge from disasters looking better than others. George W. Bush came out of 9/11 a stronger and more popular president than he ever was, before or later. Johnson and Johnson came out of its first Tylenol disaster with a better reputation for quality and integrity than it had before someone tampered with its medicine. Public relations types, not to mention lawyers and politicos, get paid millions of dollars to manage disasters. And every once in a while they get it right.

The secret, as in all such things, is easier said than done. Managing disaster is all about taking responsibility and taking charge -- sooner not later. It's about being perceived as facing it, not downplaying it.

In the first days after the spill, BP did not take responsibility. They ran TV ads, which is altogether different. They downplayed the severity of the spill and became instantly unreliable. They sought to protect shareholder profits and were seen as being slow to put money on the table and as nickel and diming people who were suffering. All bad.

Imagine if they had immediately called up Kenneth Feinberg, who has justifiably earned the reputation as disaster's go-to guy when it comes to fairly arranging compensation. Say they had put $10 billion in escrow and had given him the authority to start, right then, handing it out. It would have seemed like an amazing gesture. They could have said (to calm their screaming lawyers) that they were very hopeful that costs wouldn't reach nearly that much, but they wanted people to know they were putting their money where their mouths were.

Instead, they've now put twice that on the table, and nobody gives them an ounce of credit. As in relationships, timing is everything.

Imagine if the president, in the first days after the spill, had established a command center in the Gulf, complete with Rahm Emanuel in charge. Like him or hate him, if he's good enough to run the White House, why not put your top guy in charge of your biggest disaster? Pull out all the big shots. Set up the Gulf White House. Daily briefings by Rahm. The president wouldn't need to talk about "kicking ass" on television if Rahm were doing it every day.

Would the oil have stopped because Rahm told it to? Of course not. But would people feel like the president really did care, like they were the No. 1 priority, like heads would roll? Yes. You wouldn't need to talk about a war if you were seen putting everything you had into the fight.

No one wants to face disaster. In only that way, 9/11 was, if not easier, clearer. There was no denying what we were up against, no downplaying the tragedy.

The biggest obstacle to handling disasters is the desire of those facing them to believe it won't be so bad. When -- as usually happens -- it is even worse, they are blamed for not facing it sooner.

Had the president and BP stepped up and the oil been stopped, they would have been credited for stopping it. And when the disaster turned out to be a disaster (as disasters usually do), they would have been credited for stepping up and facing it, instead of being blamed for things they could never control.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.  

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