Getting Out of the Box
Looking for creativity in Obama's response to the oil spill.
There is a political benefit to showing innovative thinking even if it yields modest results. Voters knew Obama wasn't an emotive guy when they elected him. But there was the theory that he and his smart team would follow a process that would yield answers. He would engage smart people, build consensus, avert the perceptual narrowing that comes with crisis and find a new way. The Obama administration wouldn't just flip through the existing playbook faster—it would know when to rewrite the playbook on the fly.
Administration officials repeatedly say the "best minds" are working on the issue, but even if that's really true, the problem is that innovation runs on a different clock than the news cycle. Before the big idea arrives, you can hardly call in the cameras for a shot of the smart guys in a room breaking their pencils. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu seems to be the best place to look so far. He used gamma rays to help focus on the extent of the damage to the blowout preventer. In other quarters there's also brainstorming that might lead to a spark. For example, federal officials are now talking to Titanic director James Cameron.
None of this is to argue that innovation equals success. But in judging the administration and its response, one category worth watching is how innovative its thinking is. Often it's a quality that makes the difference between greatness and mere competence.
Correction, June 2, 2010: The piece originally and incorrectly stated that Carol Browner was the head of the EPA. She held that job under President Clinton. She is Barack Obama's director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Slate V: BP's Blame Game