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Obama Finally Leans into the Gulf Oil Spill

President Obama listens to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen with Carol Browner, the president's energy and climate change adviser, aboard Marine One while traveling to Port Fourchon, La., May 28, 2010. White House/Pete Souza

President Obama took time from his much needed vacation in Chicago to visit the Gulf Coast for a few hours on Friday. It was his second visit to the site of an unprecedented disaster in 39 days. Over the last month, he has been criticized for failing to take ownership of the problem and show his face in the disaster zone.

He told the crowd gathered at a barrier island south of New Orleans that they "are not alone," "will not be abandoned," and "will not be left behind." He added, "The media may get tired of the story, but we will not. We will be on your side and we will see this through."

Comforting words from the president, who comprehends the gravity and complexity of the situation environmentally, economically and politically but a little late in their delivery, which makes them less impactful to those directly affected by the spill.

As CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Chip Reid wrote following Mr. Obama's Thursday press conference :

... while his performance was a good start on the road to recovery, what's still missing is Presidential presence. Democrats from James Carville to Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu say he has taken a serious hit due to his lack of visibility. In a disaster, people need to SEE that the president is involved, and it's a mystery to many friends and critics alike why Mr. Obama - a man with razor sharp political sensibilities - would be so out of public view on a disaster that has a huge impact on so many lives.

During the press conference, Mr. Obama asserted that his administration has been on top of the situation. "Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred," he said.

He admitted some mistakes, such as failing to get BP to provide more accurate measurements of the spill, and pointed to a lack of anticipating worst-case scenarios and to an Interior Department agency -- the Minerals Management Service that oversees oil drilling -- with a history of corruption.

But as Chip Reid noted, Mr. Obama appears as more of the commander in chief than the consoler in chief, and he needs to be perceived as both by the American people.

The president has been accused of being Spockian in his problem solving, but that is an asset. You want a president with a high IQ who can unravel complex problems.

As commander in chief he has to juggle dozens of urgent problems -- Afghanistan, Supreme Court nominees, financial reform, health care legislation, deficits, terrorist threats, North Korea, Iran -- and a host of other duties, including fund raising and glad-handing basketball teams and soccer players.

With everything on his plate, Mr. Obama logically commands his team of hand-picked, skilled Cabinet members, with direct responsibility for the oil spill, to handle the ongoing disaster with every resource they can muster and keep him in the loop.

A president has to "manage" like the CEO of General Electric manages multiple divisions of a company but times billions in terms of the stakes and complexity -- shareholders and boards of directors are less contentious than Congress or the threat of world war.

You can't fault Mr. Obama for trying to keep all the balls in the air -- that's the job. But he also needs to sense when his physical and emotional presence is required to solve his growing problem of having credibility and trust with the American people.

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Daniel Farber is editor-in-chief of You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.