Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Obama and the BP oil geyser

President Obama is scheduled to give his first Oval Office address tonight, a setting which our pundits, practiced their beloved theater criticism, seem to take a sign of great gravitas. I'm not sure even a lot of hard-core political junkies had noticed before now that Obama has not used that setting before. But who are we to question the wisdom of our Pod Pundits?

I'm willing to defend a lot of Obama's response to the BP Gulf oil disaster. He has required BP to take the lead responsibility in the clean-up under the direction of the Coast Guard. And, not being familiar with the legal details, it looks to me like that has some real advantages, not least of which is that it keeps BP's responsibility for the spill front-and-center of the public's attention. "The government lacks the necessary engineers, undersea robots, and scientific expertise" to take on the cleanup without BP's direct involvement, according to Paul Barrett's report in Obama and BP at Risk Over Oil Spill Bloomberg Business Week 06/03/2010. "This remains BP's show."

Economist Robert Reich has been arguing that for the government to take direct, formal charge of BP response would be more effective. He may be right, but I'm not entirely convinced. He has a good argument, that BP's business and legal priorities of maximizing shareholder value create an incentive to give the oil geyser emergency a lower priority for resources than the situation requires. (Three more reasons for the President to take over BP’s Gulf operation Berkeley Blog 06/08/2010)

But I'm not clear from the discussion on that idea that I've seen whether that might have the undesirable effect of compromising BP legal responsibilities in the disaster. Reich argues that taking more formal responsibility would have both practical and political benefits:

"The present spectacle of the Coast Guard asking BP to speed up this clean-up is absurd. I mean, the federal government needs to be in charge," Reich, a former Labor Secretary under President Bill Clinton, said. "The president needs to be in charge of this. Use BP's expertise. Use BP's resources. But the president must be in charge of all of this. Otherwise, he looks like he's just standing on the sidelines." (Oil Pollution Act trips up Brazile on ABC's 'This Week' PolitiFact; accessed 06/15/2010.)
Donna Brazile argued on TV this past weekend that Obama is restrained in doing so by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. But the PolitiFact analysis explains why explanation stands on shaky legs. PolitiFact is a feature of the St. Petersburg Times, which still considers it part of the role of journalism to explain things like this that most voters and news-consumers are not likely to have the factual information fresh in their minds to adequately do so ourselves the moment we hear a claim on TV.

As I understand it from their analysis, the current situation is that the federal government is technically making suggestions to BP, who as the actual polluter is responsible for the clean-up and technically makes the final decisions on what to do. But, in practice, I can't see how changing the formal response to direct federal command would make much actual difference in how the cleanup proceeds. In this case, I'm inclined to think there is a real advantage both politically and possibly legally in keeping BP as formally and as prominently as possible on the hook to fix the problem they created.

I am more critical of Obama's pre-disaster approach. His appointment of oil industry shill Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior and thus in charge of the key regulator for offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Services (MMS), was always one of his appointments least popular among progressive Democrats. And while Salazar may have been cleaning up ethics issues at MMS, as one of Steven Thomma's sources claims in Obama overlooked key points in giving OK to offshore drilling McClatchy Newspapers 06/11/2010, it's really damning with faint praise to say that, well, as least Salazar and the Obama administration weren't as irresponsible as the Cheney-Bush administration. To use an overworked metaphor, appointing the fox to guard the henhouse (the Obama approach in this case) isn't as bad as just giving the hens to the foxes and telling them to do with they want with them (the Cheney-Bush Predator State approach). But it's still not a good idea.

Thomma's is a mixed bag of information. It's seems to be a generally good attempt to look at Obama's own decision-making on his proposal earlier this year to significantly expand offshore oil drilling. But it also suffers from the common but very sloppy habit of allowing sources to speak anonymously for no good reason, e.g., "one senior administration official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy." That's also the official who defended Salazar's supposed efforts to clean up the MMS' excessive deference to the oil companies. We also hear from, "an environmental activist who's close to the White House, who asked not to be identified because he was criticizing the administration." But actually, this bold activist who didn't want to be named in the article was actually defending the administration by making it sound as though the administration wasn't really all that committed to offshore drilling, that it was just a bargaining chip. So the "close to the White House" part, I believe.

Because in many ways, Obama's decision to expand offshore oil drilling was probably the single most damaging thing to his ability to respond as a Democratic President should be responding to this crisis, i.e., to rally the public behind the development of alternatives to oil. Having public declared not long before the Deepwater Horizon explosion that offshore oil rigs weren't much of a risk for oil spills because of all the whiz-bang, neato-keeno technology they have now, it compromised his initial ability to utilize the crisis in a constructive way.

A couple of long articles that have attracted a lot of attention also focused on Obama's particular response to the BP oil geyser are Matt Bai, Democrat in Chief? New York Times Magazine 06/07/2010, and Tim Dickinson, The Spill, The Scandal and the President Rolling Stone 06/08/2010.

Joan Walsh has a good analysis, making use of those two articles, in Protecting the Obama brand Salon 06/13/2010. She discusses the 2010 edition of a perennial problem in the American system, in which the President's political position is not nearly so closely tied to his party's fortunes as in parliamentary systems. The President may see his own political interest in distancing himself from his Congressional Party, and vice versa. But the pressures in this direction today are not nearly so great as they were in the days of the Democratic Solid South, when both parties were split nationally between liberal and conservative wings (more-or-less). The Republicans have a Solid South today, with some notable exceptions. But they are more dependent on Southern white voters as a national party than the Democrats ever were in the heyday of their Solid South. And the Republicans have become a largely authoritarian Party with a fairly rigid ideology, so there aren't any liberals left among their elected officials and hardly even any moderates that anyone but hardcore Republican conservatives would consider "moderate".

Joan expresses her worst-case concern that Obama's vague definition of his own brand may actually wind up being damaging to the Democratic Party overall:

In my worst moments, I wonder if what seemed like an unexpected gift to the Democratic Party – this charismatic, unifying, "transcendent" president – could wind up setting the party back, because the pragmatic, content-free, bipartisan Obama appeal has nothing to do with getting done what Democrats need to do. To an extent the folks around Obama are right: Many of us on the left believed Obama's victory was a mandate for the liberal policies he (sometimes quietly) backed on the campaign trail: serious healthcare reform legislation, a climate change bill, tough new financial regulation. But a subsection of Obama voters (no one knows how large) backed the president not because of specific programs, but because he promised a new kind of politics that could break through the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington. The Obama team doesn't know exactly what he has to do to keep those voters in 2010 and 2012, but they seem to believe it doesn't involve pushing tough Democratic legislation or bashing Republicans for their intransigence. [my emphasis]
There are many reasons to hope that the worst-case scenario is not the most likely. But Obama's golden opportunities for resetting the national agenda in a way that is favorable in the long term to the Democratic Party and its nominally progressive agenda won't keep coming forever. He needs to use the BP oil catastrophe to reframe the environmental-protection agenda with new urgency and with heavy emphasis on crash development of alternative energy sources.

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