Blogger face-off: Obama and the oil

The Hill invites two established bloggers from either side of the political spectrum to sound off on a designated topic in original commentary each Saturday. This week, two bloggers take on President Barack Obama's response to the BP Gulf oil spill:



The Obama Gulf response: Disaster squared

by Ed Morrissey

In 2005, the perceived lack of organization and preparedness of the federal government response to Hurricane Katrina, coupled with an initial arm's-length public posture of the president, combined into a toxic stew that irreparably damaged the public assessment of George W. Bush’s competence as a chief executive. Not only has Barack Obama managed to duplicate the perceived fecklessness of the Katrina response, he’s also managed to outstrip it in substantive terms as well. While oil spewed into the Gulf in the first few weeks, Obama hardly mentioned the spill at all – but managed to get lots of face time on television scolding Arizona for having the temerity of wanting their border secured, as if SB1070 represented the greater crisis.

Even after finally focusing on the spill, Obama has managed to be seen as detached and unengaged – which substantively represents his efforts as well. He continues to search for the solution to “plug[ging] the damn hole” on golf courses in the Washington, D.C., area, having spent seven days on the links since the crisis began. Presidents should get their down time, even in the midst of a crisis, but publicly equating the Gulf spill to 9/11 and then hitting the links for several hours the very next day sends a contradictory and confused message, to say the least.

Almost two weeks ago, Obama gave his very first Oval Office speech in an attempt to cast himself as in command of the crisis. Yet even on Day 57 of the spill, Obama gave no details on how the federal government would end the crisis; instead, Obama said that a commission would study it and a (part-time) czar would be put in charge of it, after nearly two months of supposedly being on top of the issue, as he claimed in his speech.

Looking disengaged and disinterested would be less of a problem if that was just a misperception. Sadly, as Gulf Coast states have discovered, it’s also reality. Senator George LeMieux (R-FL) told me in an exclusive interview that the state of Florida had to hire its own skimmers because the federal government keeps dragging its feet on getting them to the Gulf. The White House team refused to respond to an offer from the Dutch for the use of one of the world’s largest skimmers, with 20 times the capacity of the American ship that wound up doing the job.

LeMieux says that the US has thousands of skimmers available, but that the federal government hasn’t moved more than a small fraction to the Gulf in case a disaster hits elsewhere. We’re experiencing an Exxon Valdez every two and a half days. A leader would command assets to the actual crisis at hand.

Nor is this the first instance of overlooked assets. Over the last several weeks, as the administration acknowledged a lack of boom to capture the oil slick, a company in Maine went into overdrive producing extra boom, certain that their product would be needed. Instead, no one in the administration even seemed aware that hundreds of thousands of feet of boom were available from this domestic producer, boom that an analyst pronounced as “superior” in its product class. Not until Jake Tapper at ABC made it a national news story and embarrassed Admiral Thad Allen did anyone take a serious look at Packgen’s product, and even then the administration attempted to nitpick it rather than use it in the crisis.

The pushback on these criticisms has been, “Well, what do you expect President Obama to do – plug the hole with his own bare hands?” Of course not. But we do expect Obama to take part in the crisis and do his job well, or at all. One incident this past week is instructive. Obama called a panel of experts to look at the safety of offshore drilling and to make recommendations for improvements. The White House then declared a blanket moratorium imposed by Obama on offshore drilling, saying it was based on the recommendations of his panel. Unfortunately, the panel erupted in outrage, claiming that they had never seen the moratorium Obama imposed and almost unanimously opposed it, leading a judge to overturn it this week as having no rational basis.

Did Obama even read the report that the panel actually produced before imposing the moratorium? If so, then he participated in a deception quarterbacked by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. If not, then Obama is remarkably incurious about the opinions of the panel he commissioned to address the most emergent crisis facing the nation at home. The perception – and the reality – is that Obama didn’t really care what the panel found; he had his own policies in mind all along, and a federal judge called him out on it.

When Barack Obama ran for the presidency, his critics warned that electing a president with no executive experience at all ran the risk of incompetency under pressure. In the last two months, that prediction has come true, at a time when America can least afford it.

Ed Morrissey blogs at Hot Air.


Obama regains footing on spill, doing what needs to be done

by David Roberts

In hindsight, Obama's administration made some fateful errors leading up to the BP Gulf oil disaster, most of them having to do with insufficient speed in cleaning up the abysmal mess left behind by George W. Bush. At Obama's Interior Dept. there was Minerals Management Service reform brewing, but it hadn't been fast-tracked (the immediate mandate was getting renewables approved on public land) and hadn't yet reached fruition when disaster struck. Obama and Salazar will have to answer for not cleaning up more quickly, though in fairness there's no way of knowing if reform would have prevented this particular tragedy.

As for Obama's response to the oil gusher, it's been creditable on balance. It took a while, and there were some boneheaded missteps -- not getting down there fast enough, and letting BP run the oil containment effort early on, going along with BP's transparent bid to lowball the amount of oil involved (official estimates have drifted perpetually up in a way that doesn't exactly inspire confidence).

Since those early stumbles, though, Obama has regained his footing and done what has to be done. The world's most advanced experts and technologies were deployed to stop the gusher. (It's just that nobody knows how.) $20 billion was secured from BP as compensation for victims. A massive Gulf restoration program is being ramped up. And further offshore permits have been put on hold until their safety can be insured, though an oil-connected judge is putting that decision at risk.

It's true that the public doesn't approve of Obama's response, but that's because there's oil spewing and a disaster unfolding. No amount of emoting can substitute for stopping the damn oil, and there's just not a lot Obama can do on that score. The relief wells won't be done until August and there's no secret government laser drill that can make it go any faster. Part of being president is you take the hit for national crises whether or not they're under your control.

Pundits have every incentive to overstate the impact of speeches and gaffes and short-term swings in polling. But the simple fact is that the economy's in the crapper and these are the first midterms after a transformational presidential election. Those structural circumstances all but dictate that the majority party will lose lots of seats. Most of the "what it all means" commentaries that follow, including those that draw grand lessons from the oil spill, will be so much ephemera.

Obama will get reelected in 2012 as long as the oil stops gushing and unemployment falls a few percent. Most of the news-cycle drama between now and then will have little effect one way or the other. Looking beyond reelection to legacy, the standard against which Obama will be judged is whether he learned the lessons about fossil fuel dependence, climate change, and risk that the oil gusher is trying to teach. If he can make a break with the status quo and put America on the path to a clean energy future, history will judge his response a success and today's polls will be forgotten.

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist.