Everyone seems to be piling on British Petroleum and in particular, beleaguered CEO, Tony Hayward for its crisis response to the Gulf oil disaster.  Yesterday President Obama had his strongest words yet when he said during a television interview that “if he were BP’s boss (Hayward) wouldn’t be working for me”.  The President went on to say that he has engaged a series of experts to help him “know whose ass to kick” and then repeated his call to BP to stop paying dividends until the mess was cleaned up.

Talk about being helpful!

The President’s comments are just adding fuel to the fire when it comes to BP’s ultimate survivability.  Investors wiped out a further $6.5 billion of shareholder value yesterday after hearing Obama’s comments, potentially diverting Hayward’s attention further from the Gulf crisis, to focus on the new looming crisis of the survivability of his own company.
From the very beginning, Obama has been engaged in a strategy of buck passing.  This reaction is typical of what we have come to expect from ordinary politicians, but sadly, I think the public expected more from Obama.  While the company’s engineers and operators have been busy trying to solve the dilemma of capping the well, the President has only added to the company’s stress by repeatedly saying “BP is responsible”.

BP is responsible but so is government.  Government set the regulatory standards that BP is operating under.  Government legislates the cap that limits BP’s financial liabilities.  And now government communications are helping to create the very market instability that ultimately might ensure that the company is not around to pay for the clean up.

Someone should ask the President if he has picked up the phone to talk to Tony Hayward about what government can do to help solve the problem.  When the well is capped there will be more than enough time to sort out blame.  Ultimately, I suspect that Hayward will pay the price for not living up to the brand promise of BP’s environmental mission statement.  The “beyond petroleum” position of BP was clearly an aspiration that the company could not live up to.  It was another attempt at corporate differentiation that couldn’t be supported by fact.  Hayward obviously bought into this position and will likely pay the price for non-delivery.

But to me the more interesting question is what price will Obama pay?  His offshore drilling policy is in shambles.  It has swung from a moratorium on drilling during his campaign to a major expansion just before the crisis began, back to a moratorium and as of yesterday, permitting drilling again in shallow water.  Clearly, the quest for energy security is not going to go away with this environmental crisis but  the President is more interested in shifting the blame than explaining the necessity for offshore drilling and sharing the responsibility for creating the regulatory environment for this to happen.

Barack Obama won’t have to face a board of directors to review his performance like Tony Hayward soon will but he will have to face the electorate one day.  He needs to turn away from spin and optics of concern and anger and get his act together on offshore drilling.  So far he has failed the test of crisis leadership on this issue.