Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Not the Crime but the Cover-up: How Obama fell into the Gulf

In Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on June 15, 2010 at 6:15 am

As you prepare to watch the President’s speech from the Oval Office tonight (unless other matters demand your time and attention), you might ask yourself why it is that this President is being blamed for this disaster. After all he did win the election against his opponent John “drill baby drill” McCain. Sure, the president did announce support for more offshore drilling just weeks before the disaster, and he did not clean house in the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is a poster child for fox in the henhouse regulatory capture. But what caught Obama up in this imbroglio was not the crime of allowing BP to play Russian roulette with the Gulf of Mexico, but rather the cover-up afterward in which BP tried to assure the American people that the extent of the damage was going to be far less than it actually turned out to be.

When the President took office, he did have a lot going on: two wars, a run on the banks, the fall of the auto industry, depression era stagnation, health care, student loans, etc. When it came to energy policy he must have thought that  splitting the middle with the Republican Party made sense. Obama was pushing for Cap and Trade, a climate approach that relied on market forces that could be used to cut a deal across party lines on energy reform. How bad could it be to rely on some mix of deep sea drilling given that the world’s nearly 7 million people need energy and must get it somehow. The gulf rigs did make it through Katrina after all.  Here was a chance to be a uniter and not a divider.

This thinking actually made political sense to me at the time. I did not come out and say this then, but I thought that Obama was being quite savvy in his move to allow the Governors with a taste for more risk to take on more drilling off their own state’s shores. Remember how vicious the attacks on his lack of bi-partisanship were at the time as the health care vote loomed. Obama will face similar problems with nuclear power as we simultaneously confront increasing needs and global competition.

But this reasonable move to cross party cooperation was not what sunk Obama, instead the day that will live in infamy was May 14th 2010, when NPR commissioned an analysis of the flow rate from a scientist at Purdue university with expertise in estimating flow rates from video. If you recall this story, it was a shocker and could have been a pivotal moment for the President, but Obama did not take the bait. Because BP was engaged in an active spin campaign to play down the panic that would attend the validation of such estimates, Obama’s lack of attention to these findings, (which were confirmed by other experts at the time as well), placed him symbolically on the side of the cover-up. Up to that point most people seemed to have the reasonable sense that Obama was far less associated with careless drilling operations than the next best alternative: Sarah palin. After that, the slow transfer of ownership was underway. Today, the spill is widely blamed on Obama’s lack of oversight at MMS.

What else could he have done? I think that Obama’s decision not to take sides on the flow issue was reasonable enough in substantive terms. The administration knew that they could establish the extent of the damage after the fact if things turned out to be as bad as was anticipated, and getting the public riled up would only make it possible for small government Republicans to demand big government non-solution solutions like dumping scarce sand resources into untested barriers as has now been done in Louisiana. Even so, the President could have, and in my opinion should have, demanded that we begin an independent investigation into the extent of the damage to get science on our side.

By doing nothing in response to the NPR story Obama took the path which was the moral equivalent of waiting for science to prove that smoking causes cancer. His reticence made the scientists look like quacks and validated his being in cahoots with (B)ig (P)etroleum. We worry that he is not type A enough for us, that he should show more emotion and “go off”. The problem was that he was too type I for us (geek alert: check out the hypertext). He was so worried about getting behind a false positive test that improperly predicted an imminent disaster that he failed to warn us of the imminent disaster. This says nothing about Obama’s work behind the scenes, and given the Bush era legacies of regulatory strategies, I doubt that there is all that much that he could have done to make this better at that late date.

What he failed to do is to attend to the stagecraft. Obama does not like to vilify legitimate businesses, even those who gamble with the well being of the public at large, because that is the price of capitalism. The problem is that there are times when drama (confrontational in addition to inspirational) is justified and even essential to bending the arc of history toward justice. What Obama did not properly anticipate was that the confrontation of “the people” with BP was inevitable; now he is on the wrong side of it. Obama’s grown-up sensibilities may make him a great administrator, but they have left him with a populist tin ear.

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