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Obama’s Missed Oil-portunity

(Sorry, I can’t resist those cheesy puns). I haven’t written much about the oil spill because I haven’t had anything to say that hasn’t already been said a million times. I considered going after claims by right-wingers like Limbaugh that it’s all the environmentalists’ fault, but you don’t need me to explain why that position is ludicrous. I also thought about possibly defending the president against charges that this is “his Katrina” but after the passing of this financial non-reform package I have no appetite for defending Obama. But yesterday I read that James Carville had criticized Obama’s response to the spill and I found myself agreeing so forcefully that I figured I could squeeze a little blog entry out about it.

Carville’s criticism was essentially that the administration’s strategy is just to let BP handle everything as though that company has good motivations. This is obviously wrong. BP doesn’t have America’s best interests in mind—it only has BP’s best interests in mind. Not because it’s evil but because it’s a corporation and that’s the very nature of corporations. They’re going to do whatever they can possibly do to mitigate their own financial damage and the best Gulf Coast residents can hope for is that at least some of BP’s interests (namely containing the leak) coincide with theirs. But rest assured, if it were somehow profitable for BP to let the oil keep leaking, they wouldn’t bat an eyelash as the entire Gulf Coast was swallowed up in black sludge.

Obviously, the Obama administration has just wanted this story to go away from the very beginning because of his monumentally wrong-headed decision to include more subsidies for offshore oil-drilling in the climate-change bill. This spill made him look like a fool, and as Carville said he’s been treating it like an ‘inconvenience’. It seems that his strategy is to just let BP handle everything and hope the story stays out of the headlines.

But imagine if you will that we had a Hollywood president—by which I mean the kind of president you see in action movies. Imagine if on the day of the leak, President Denzel Washington stepped up to the podium for a prime-time address to the American people to say, “My fellow Americans, I will not sit idly by while the Gulf Coast is threatened by this oil spill. Containing the damage caused by this leak is now the Number One priority of my administration, and we will not rest until the well is capped. I am assembling a team of this country’s greatest engineering minds and experts on oil-drilling technology to come up with the best solutions to this problem. Containing the leak is ultimately BP’s responsibility, but protecting the Gulf Coast and the Americans who depend on it for their livelihoods is my responsibility and I intend to live up to it. We will work with BP to cap the well but once the immediate crisis is over we will not hesitate to hold accountable those who were responsible for causing this catastrophe.”

He could continue: “Several weeks ago I announced my support for offshore oil-drilling. I was assured that it was safe, and that the risk of a large-scale spill was negligible. Clearly, this is not the case. I was mistaken, and I humbly ask the American people to forgive me for listening to bad advice. Now that the risks are clear, I promise not to allow any new offshore oil-drilling to begin unless it can be demonstrated that procedures exist to handle this kind of incident should it happen again, and that the drilling poses absolutely no risk to the environment that Americans depend on to earn a living. I accept my responsibility for dealing with this crisis, and I intend to make sure it never happens again.”

I think his approval numbers would have gone through the roof. Sure, the wingnuts who hate him no matter what he does would have pounced all over him for being weak because he admitted a mistake, and for being a socialist by getting the government involved in the containment when he should just let BP take care of it. But most people would see a bold leader willing to rise to the occasion and not afraid to admit when he’s wrong.

It’s ridiculous to call this “Obama’s Katrina” but unfortunately some parallels can be drawn. If Obama really wanted to distinguish himself from Bush he could have stood up and said that he refused to turn a blind eye to the people of the Gulf, to do everything he possibly could to make sure the areas devastated by Katrina would not have to face further devastation as a result of the spill.

Instead, he’s just been hoping that BP would fix everything and that the story would quietly disappear. Meanwhile, he refused to support legislation raising the cap on damages BP would have to pay those financially hurt by the spill from $75 million to $10 billion. The administration’s position is that the amount of the cap should remain unspecified, which almost certainly means it should be less than $10 billion and not more. Because the damage is probably going to be more than $10 billion, who is going to pick up the tab? The American people, obviously. British Petroleum drills our oil and rakes in the profit, and when they fuck it up we have to pay for it? It’s disgusting, and it makes me wonder how on earth there are still progressives who are defending this guy.

He had a great opportunity to be the kind of president from the movies—the kind of president that Americans all secretly wish we had. But he squandered the opportunity out of his own political over-cautiousness and what seems to be a naturally-ingrained proclivity to defer to corporations in each and every instance, even when those corporations are almost quite literally shitting all over us.

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