Goldman's Blankfein Suddenly Looks Good, Thanks to BP's Hayward

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein

Watching BP (BP) CEO Tony Hayward mundanely evade responsibility for the historic ecological disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico may have angered members of Congress and television viewers alike. And split screen images of the underwater well continuing to gush vast quantities of oil as Hayward demonstrated little emotion or sense of urgency only heightened the irritation.

But it's not hard to imagine one potential viewer watching the proceedings with a satisfied smile on his face: Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who was in the hot seat only months ago and was formerly the public face of reckless corporate excess. BP, though, is likely to take the mantle from Goldman Sachs as the new lightning rod for public outrage following Hayward's insincere congressional testimony.

A Relatively Sympathetic Figure

Any satisfaction on Blankfein's part would be well deserved at this point, given Hayward's performance. The Goldman Sachs chief executive came across as a relatively sympathetic figure by contrast. If embattled CEOs were graded on a curve, Blankfein just advanced a few letter grades, thanks to Hayward.

Blankfein seemed out of touch and unconsciously patronizing in his testimony and flurry of media appearances. The Wall Street powerhouse remains convinced that the average person -- or, what BP's Swedish chairman might call "small people" -- let alone members of Congress just don't have the intellectual capacity to grasp Goldman's business. Which it sees as "risk management" and not "gambling," for the record.

Making matters worse, as Goldman sees it, is that the bank doesn't really do retail. Unlike lower-brow competitors like JPMorgan (JPM) that operate banks on street corners for the public to see, Goldman's clients have been faceless, sophisticated institutions and the very wealthy. The bank, then, just has to do a better job of getting out there and letting the public see the real Goldman.

At Least He Tried to Look Interested

The stance explains Blankfein's constantly contorted face and near combative stance as he strained to understand what Congress was rambling about with regard to Americans being upset. But at least he strained.

Hayward, on the other hand, has demonstrated a casual aloofness on so many occasions that it's hard not to get offended. Beyond Thursday's testimony, there was the much remarked-upon grin on his face as he stepped out of a White House meeting this week. The list of thoughtless comments is so long that it's tough to argue they were merely taken out of context.

And then there is the firm's seemingly generous motto in taking responsibility for the crisis: We'll make it right.

How is that even a possibility given the irreversible damage done by the spill?

Good at Corporate Politics, Not Public Relations

Public anger is rising amid an economic recovery that has failed to provide meaningful job gains even as it puts record amounts of cash into company coffers. In this environment, a company's public image will move beyond a soft, fuzzy issue to one that directly affects the regulatory environment and corporate bottom line.

Both Blankfein and Hayward are consumate corporate insiders who rose through the ranks by tying their fortunes to their predecessors. Blankfein was the second-in-command to former Goldman head and then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. Hayward, meanwhile, followed mentor John Browne, who resigned in 2007.

They got their jobs, in other words, because of their ability to play second fiddle and deal with corporate politics rather than dealing charismatically with those outside the firm. But Hayward still makes Blankfein shine by contrast.