Time for Leadership, Mr. President

June 15th, 2010

Along with the rest of America, I have watched the ever present images of the oil leaking from this gusher with a mixture of disbelief, rage, sadness and a sense of hopelessness. Much has been made of President Obama’s responsibility for the spill and his reaction to it.

As far as his “responsibility” for the actual spill, I think that most American’s are wiling to give him a mulligan on this one. For decades, the people that have been tasked with regulating the oil industry have maintained a “cozy” relationship with the people they were supposed to be regulating. The organization tasked with regulating the oil companies, the Mineral Management Services (MMS) had a giant scandal break in 2008. Among the highlights:

Their alleged improprieties include rigging contracts, working part-time as private oil consultants, and having sexual relationships with – and accepting golf and ski trips and dinners from – oil company employees.

One office manager–while he weren’t busy accepting bribes from the oil companies he was supposed to be regulating– was busy shagging his employees, buying blow from them, snorting meth off of a toaster and getting blow jobs from a subordinate as he drove around the neighborhood.

That being said, as much as Bush’s regulators were in bed (literally) with the people that they were supposed to regulate, this was known before Obama came to office and Ken Salazar’s appointment as Interior Secretary was intended to clean up this mess. Obviously, they didn’t work fast enough to deal with those issues, they didn’t look into the shocking lack of technical progress in the methods of dealing with the deep water drilling spills, and they didn’t even review BP’s plan to deal with spills, which seems to be cut and pasted from an old document.

This is just another example of how in hock the government is to the big corporate interests that it is supposed to regulate. In the year and a half that Obama has been in power, it’s clear that it wasn’t a priority to make real change on this front. In fact, Obama’s approval of additional offshore drilling (as a way to gain support for his Climate Change bill) was obviously made without an understanding of how perilous the consequences of a deep water spill would be.

As far as the response, there is no question that Obama owns it and the results so far have been mixed at best. Much of the coverage has focused on whether the president has shown the requisite amount of rage over the spill. Maureen Dowd and James Carville savaged Obama, with Dowd ridiculing him as President Spock and decrying his inability to reflect Americans’ feelings. Carville made a particularly emotional appeal, calling the president’s response lackadaisical, and saying, “These people are crying, they’re begging for something down here, and it just looks like he’s not involved in this.”

Obama and his advisors took the bait, attempting to counteract these claims and showing how enraged the president was about the situation. This culminated with his interview with Matt Lauer where, in a response to a question about whether it was time to “kick some butt” and Obama responded by saying that he  was meeting with experts to find out “whose ass to kick.”

On Sunday, Fareed Zakari criticized the media’s focus on Obama’s emotion, decrying how the media has trivialized the political discussion.

Aside from the media sideshow about President Obama’s emotional response, there is the question of the actual emergency response to the crisis. Without exception, there seems to be agreement that the response has been lacking. Rachel Maddow has done some amazing reporting on the lack of technology to clean up spills as well as the lack of focus on the cleanup while everyone was focused on capping the well. Images of untended boom material that is sagging, untethered and clearly ineffective were difficult to watch and her reporting on the potential damage to the wetlands and it’s impact on the region shows how high the stakes are for the gulf region.

In an investigative piece today, the New York Times described the response as chaotic and fragmented and pointed out the inefficiencies at every level with regards to the cleanup. The Obama Administration’s response team would do well to read that article very carefully. 

The next few weeks will be pivotal. Now that we know that the flow of oil will most likely continue through the summer, it’s time to focus more intently on making sure that PB does a better job on the herculean task of managing the cleanup and efforts to minimize the impact on the gulf coast.  John Heilemann has encouraged Obama to consider turning these efforts into a massive jobs program funded by BP to clean up the Gulf and to create a new national volunteer service organization dedicated to the cause. Others have argued vociferously that we need to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and comandeer oil tankers to siphon up the oil and haul it away. To date, both the government and BP have avoided answering questions about why this is not being done.

In the meantime, President Obama would do well to use this crisis as an opportunity to not only make sure major changes are made to deep water drilling regulation and response efforts, but also to reorient the country towards a new future and begin the process of weaning ourselves from dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels.

You can pick your metaphor, but I like one I heard from a number of commentators last week. This is our Sputnik.

It’s our time to realize that political paralysis, government capture by the corporate interests and a public unwillingness to sacrifice individually for the common good has already put us behind the rest of the world in the development of green technology. We need to act now to correct this. It’s been over 35 years since the oil crisis of the 70’s and every president from Carter to Obama has talked about the need to wean ourselves off oil. In spite of the many crises and turning points that could have been a catalyst for this effort, we have failed to make the investments that most American’s agree we need.

The President needs to pivot tonight from crisis management to a broader vision on energy and then he needs to push for that vision. If Republicans and conservative Democrats block his initiatives, he should make this a central issue in the campaign going forward and continually bash them over the head with this issue to lay the groundwork for its passage in the new Congress.

This is a crucial test for this president. Whether it’s an effective cleanup response or a vision for a clean energy future, we need his leadership now more than ever.

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