Obama As Crisis Manager: High Marks, But a Bit of Luck, Too

It’s crisis management, stupid—not the economy, banks, automakers, foreclosures, stimulus package, pirates, CIA and even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First and foremost, President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office have been about crisis management leadership and communication.


“The only thing that matters is credibility," says Lanny Davis, a former trouble shooter for President Bill Clinton, who supported Hillary Clinton for president but has since become an Obama convert. “Obama has this phenomenal ability to be credible and the rare talent to say what he means and mean what he says.”

Though crisis management and communications gurus on both side of the political aisle give Obama high marks for his performance, some suggest his extraordinary early success owes a bit to luck and happenstance.

“A lot of things we would like to attribute to strategy come down to personality,“ says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management expert, who once worked in the Reagan White House. “I really don’t think it has a lot to due with any particular strategy. I think there are a couple things at work. One is a genuine media affection for this guy; second, is a broader cultural sense you want to give a new guy, especially one you like, a fair shot.”

Nevertheless, critics and supporters alike say Obama's successful leadership is a result of both his own skills as well as those of a very good support team. In particular, they cite his savvy political instincts, winning personality and public speaking skills, while his staff has been good at anticipation, preparation and timing.

“One thing he excels at is setting realistic expectations with his audiences,” says Los Angeles-based crisis management consultant, Jonathan Bernstein. “He’s been careful not to over promise.”

“I think he understands communications better than any president I've seen,” adds legendary public relations executive Howard Rubenstein. "He understands the media, that you can tell your story through the media. Also, Obama is at home in talking to the public.

Observers and analysts say Obama has been in virtual campaign mode since his short vacation after the election, with a daily dose of public appearances and speeches both in and out of Washington. The President has also continued to utilize the extensive web-based community he built during his candidacy to support the man and his mission.

Bernstein, for example, cites the surprising and speedy legislative success of the stimulus package, even though Denocrats and Republicans alike had criticized it.

“That machine he created during the campaign; he's learned to mobilize grassroots support," says Bernstein. “You had Obamites on line urging everyone on their mailing list to write to their congressman. You have to get your allies engaged.”

That’s allowed the President to fight opponents without really appearing to fight them. What’s more, President Obama has yet to personalize issues or his differences with opponents.

“On every issue you can think of—whether it is the stimulus package, the bailout program or his budget—where he has taken a lot of flak from the right, he has just stood on principle,” says Davis.

At the same time, experts say Obama has also been able to neutralize opponents, much like his predecessors Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who became known as the Teflon president.


“It’s the Reagan problems," says former ten-term GOP Congressman Bill Frenzel, now at the Brookings Institution. “Obama ran pretty well in some Republican districts,” making it generally difficult to vote against the President.

“His popularity, his personal traits, are so strong," says Frenzel, who is generally critical of Obama’s performance. “Even people who don’t’ like his programs think he's wonderful.”

That probably has something to do with his team of advisors, from cabinet members to White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman and senior advisor to President Clinton.

“Master of the universe," says Davis, now a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, with evident admiration. "The best politically savvy chief of staff we've ever had. He knows the difference between bad spin and good spin.”

And despite the somewhat slow start of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Obama has surrounded himself with a bevy of seasoned economic and policy advisors.

“Somebody appears to be doing a good job anticipating the issues of a day,” says Larry Smith, a former journalist and press secretary for Sen. Dan Quayle, who now runs the Institute For Crisis Management, a consultancy in Louisville, Ky. “One of the tools of crisis management is anticipating, making sure the decision makers are focusing on the most important ones operationally and ones key audiences are thinking about. He has walked a very narrow line, for the most part saying the right things and the right time.”

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Smith and others cite the administration’s handling of the crackdown on executive compensation and the stimulus package in particular.

Critics, however, point to some of the very same areas, citing no shortage of personal, administrative and policy shortcomings.

Frenzel, for one, says the president needs to be more assertive and involved in a number of ways. He faults Obama for relying too heavily on his advisors, a tardiness in naming nominees and winning their approval and his acquiescence to Congressional leaders on the stimulus package.

“The president has not quite fully got into the swing of things," says Frenzel. “He served one up and the House speaker [Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif)} snatched it away from him. He let the House take that bill away from him. I consider that a real rookie act. I don’t think they had the people on hand to build the bill.”

“He 's talking but he’s not making policy judgments,” adds Neil Livingstone, CEO of ExecutiveAction, who says the president, for all the talk of leadership, is “missing opportunities, ready-made circumstances, to lead.”

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, and Joe Biden
Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, and Joe Biden

Livingstone, for instance, says Obama mishandled the AIG executive pay controversy by appearing slow to respond.

“Obama expressed his outrage over it, but it seemed like everyone else had already done so,” says Livingstone, a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He has generally failed to get out front of the financial crisis."

The latest polls show the President’s approval ratings remain high—69 percent, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post one conducted April 21-24 His specific rating on the economy, however, slipped to 59 percent, having registered 60 percent in the previous two polls.

Livingstone, for one, says he detects an anecdotal fraying on the edges of support among Democrats, based on growing skepticism about the effectiveness of the stimulus package.

Smith, who sounded the most favorably impressed with Obama, warns: “One tiny misstep cold shatter public confidence. We've seen corporate executives and people at various levels of government who say the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

So far, Obama has escaped close calls, such as his joking reference to the Special Olympics on the "Jay Leno Show." Analysts also point to what appears to be an early tendency to apologize for the United States while abroad and waffling on being tough about terrorism.

Yet with the economy likely to remain at center stage, the president appears to be in his sweet spot, and even his detractors give him ample credit for pulling off a PR masterpiece.

“The capacity to stop this feeling of cascading failures is really a very remarkable thing, whether you attribute it to policy, personality or the stars,” says Dezenhall. “You can't take his calming vibe away from him. He's become the symbol of leadership.”