In a now well known rant, James Carville recently chastised President Obama for the lack of federal action in connection with the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast. Carville’s cry for action from the President was the quintessential example of an American citizen desperately clinging to an absurd notion: That the government of the United States can do anything.
For a few weeks now the media has been talking non-stop about the alleged lack of leadership that the President has shown. Many have defended him on the ground that he’s a cool-headed leader when the pressure is on, and that’s one of the things that people like about him. He’s not the kind of guy that “emotes” and gets excited in these types of situations. The White House, for its part, has maintained that he’s been on top of the situation from “day one”, and has seen to it that President Obama’s profile is much higher with respect to the oil spill. It’s all nonsense, of course; a public relations attempt that clearly isn’t working.
As of June 8th, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 69 percent of the people polled said they had a negative view and 28 percent had a positive view with regard to the federal response to the oil spill. These are higher numbers than the Katrina disaster of 2005.
Seeing these types of numbers a week before, the Obama administration sent Attorney General Eric Holder out to announce a criminal probe into the rig explosion and subsequent spill. The public supports this, but its timing is poor for the well capping and clean up effort. The government still has to work closely with BP to get this done. A criminal probe all but insures that BP’s lawyers will limit how cooperative BP will be in some respects. The timing makes great politics, however. It deflects some of the negative attention off the federal government in general and President Obama in particular.
The facts are these:
First, the United States government is not equipped to do anything in relation to capping an oil well under 5000 feet of water. Other governments are, but not the US Government. And while there clearly are times when the leader of a nation must inspire confidence and give hope to the people in times of crisis (think Winston Churchill in World War II, or Rudy Giuliani on 9-11), as far as this matter is concerned, the President “emoting” is no more than a photo op and a sound bite. It changes nothing.
Second, industrial accidents happen. This one happened to be catastrophic both in terms of loss of life and environmental impact. The fact that it did and that it’s taking a seeming eternity to deal with is not Obama’s fault. There are certainly some things that the federal government is culpable for (chiefly for turning down the help of the Dutch government, and for failing to give permission for containment initiatives in a timely fashion), but the bottom line is that Obama shouldn’t be receiving quite as much criticism as he is. He didn’t blow up the rig, and he can’t cap the well. The United States government can’t either.
It’s at the very least likely that BP won’t survive this disaster. The costs involved with respect to the well capping, cleanup, and the growing environmental/economic damage liability will be staggering, even to a huge company like BP. Their stock price has been tanking, and, in addition to the criminal probe, some are demanding that they don’t pay dividends to their shareholders. This has not only upset many in the United Kingdom whose pensions are already being hurt, but will probably adversely affect the stock price even more. Additionally, some have suggested that BP not profit from the oil it is collecting from the well. In short, in our rush to punish the ones who are responsible for this mess we may destroy them.
And they are the ones that must cap this well.