Obama: the Gulf between words and deeds
Instead of all the dithering, lofty rhetoric and tough talk, the US president should be honest about the need to keep on drilling.
America is counting: today is ‘Day 58’ - as in 58 days since the oil leak from the BP-owned operation in the Gulf of Mexico started. Not since Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis of the late 1970s, when TV news began each day with ‘America held hostage: Day X’, has a political crisis been counted on a daily basis.
News of the oil spill only seem to get worse. Estimates of the amount of oil leaking grow almost every day. The latest is that 45,000 barrels per day are escaping into the Gulf, versus an estimate of 5,000 barrels at first. Focused on Louisiana, the oil is spreading to other states. It is severely damaging the region’s economy, and the spill seems particularly cruel as it affects many of the same people who were only just recovering from Hurricane Katrina’s destruction.
As the spill has dragged on, President Obama has become more and more identified with the failure to stop the leak. This is the man who refused John McCain’s call to suspend the 2008 election campaign due to the financial crash, saying ‘It’s going to be part of the president’s job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once’. But now Obama reportedly has nearly stopped all other work to focus on the Gulf spill. It is hard to believe that his presidency could be defined by an oil spill, but that is what is happening. The spill has become symbolic of Obama’s powerlessness, and it seems that he will be at its mercy every day until it stops.
On Tuesday night, in an attempt to take charge, Obama addressed a national television audience from the Oval Office, a setting usually reserved for the most serious national crises, such as war. And indeed, his speech was full of military allusions, like ‘the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens’. He called for a ‘national mission’ to develop alternative energy sources, announced a plan to restore Gulf states, and named a new administrator to restructure the Minerals Management Service - the agency that regulates offshore drilling.
What Obama didn’t address was the immediate issue at hand: how and when the oil leak will stop. Instead we heard Obama-style platitudes wrapped in his usual phrasings (‘make no mistake’ etc), which have become predictable and wearying. In the past, Obama has used speeches to go on the counter-offensive, but this time it didn’t work. In his Atlantic blog, Clive Crook summed up the consensus view: ‘Obama’s address was surprisingly bad. He and his people made such a big deal of it – Oval Office and all – that when it arrived there was no there there.’
Obama has certainly been catching a lot of flak for the oil spill, and polls show high negative ratings about how his government is handling it. Much of this criticism is unfair. Obama isn’t to blame for causing the spill and the White House can’t stop the leak on its own - only a private company like BP has the technical expertise and capacity to address the leak. And some attacks are silly, like those who charge Obama with not being emotive enough. Democratic Party adviser James Carville said Obama needs to tell BP ‘I’m your daddy’, while New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd criticised Obama for not being ‘Feeler in Chief’.
Expectations of the government’s, and the president’s, role have changed. In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, President George H W Bush was not pressured to take the lead; indeed, he never travelled to the site. You could say Obama’s current woes are a case of Karma is a bitch: it was Democrats, including Obama, who argued that President George W Bush should be held responsible for the desultory Katrina relief; now Obama is suffering from that same expectation.
Even if some of the criticism Obama has received is unmerited, the more relevant point is that Obama has made matters worse for himself and his administration. It seems that when his critics demand he jump, his response is ‘How high?’ Instead of rejecting the calls for a more emotionally correct response, Obama, almost on cue, adopted flashes of anger. In an interview on NBC’s Today programme, he said he wanted to know ‘whose ass to kick’ over the spill. This ploy failed miserably, as it just seemed contrived and out of character.
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Obama’s initiatives in response to the spill have also exacerbated problems. For example, he instituted a moratorium on offshore drilling for six months, which has resulted in approximately 26,000 people being put out of work. A temporary stoppage to ensure safe conditions after an accident is not unreasonable, but it’s not clear why a review should take as long as six months, especially considering the economic cost it entails. Given the offshore drilling industry’s good safety record over the past four decades, the stoppage seems overly cautious.
In an attempt to show he ‘gets it’, Obama has joined in the melodramatic hyping of the extent of devastation. But this has backfired. Tourism in Florida and elsewhere in the Gulf states has been hit hard, as governors make plaintive appeals for people to visit their beaches. Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, calls the news coverage ‘very sensational’, and says that the people along the coast ‘have been clobbered because of the misperception that our whole coast is knee-deep in oil’.
Much of Obama’s time devoted to the oil spill has been spent vilifying BP. He said he would fire the company’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, if it were up to him. Obama has repeatedly referred to the company as ‘British Petroleum’, with an emphasis on ‘British’, which conjures up the image of malign foreign influences. (Although this dig at the British was a way for Obama to deflect blame, British commentators who took offence – like Boris Johnson and Norman Tebbit – showed themselves to be particularly thin-skinned about a minor infraction.)
Furthermore, Obama demanded that BP set up a $20billion escrow fund which it would not have control over, and pay wages to oil field workers who have been left idle by Obama’s own moratorium. The administration had no legal authority to demand such a grab, but BP acquiesced. Obviously influenced by negative reactions to the financial bailouts, and mindful of the government’s deficit, Obama clearly wants to put the entire burden on BP. But in placing almost limitless liabilities on the company, Obama risks driving BP into bankruptcy and if that happened there wouldn’t be the money for clean-up and other expenses.
And while Obama keeps busy with his displays of faux anger, shutting down the Gulf oil drilling and keeping his ‘boot on the neck’ of BP, he and his administration have neglected to ensure the federal government is taking care of its responsibilities. BP may have the expertise and direct responsibility for stopping the leak, but the government has a role in coordinating recovery efforts. But the administration appears to be falling down on this support function. As the New York Times recently wrote: ‘Fifty-six days into the spill and it is not clear who is responsible – BP, federal, state or local authorities – for the most basic decisions, like when to deploy booms to protect sensitive wetlands.’ There are also reports of offers from other oil companies and national governments going unanswered, because no one seems to be in charge. Obama does not have to do this job himself, but his administration should ensure that the task is in hand.
Instead of deploying cheap populist gestures for the supposed benefit of the masses, Obama would have been better served by holding an honest, frank discussion of the nature of the problem. He could have set more realistic expectations: certainly BP had warned early on that plugging the hole could take months, but that message didn’t get through. Obama could also have been clearer about the limits of the government’s influence. Presumably he did not want to appear helpless, but in taking on the responsibility to stop the leak and then not being able to deliver, he appears impotent.
The gap between Obama’s lofty rhetoric and the disappointing reality was on display in Tuesday’s Oval Office speech. In grandiose style, he said: ‘Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our destiny.’ In the abstract this all sounds great, but not when you consider the setting. Thousands of barrels of oil are spewing out daily, with no end in sight, and an increasing number of people in the Gulf are adversely affected – and Obama wants to talk about the future of energy. As Andrew Malcolm put it in the Los Angeles Times: ‘Obama was like a Harvard-trained nurse talking vacation to a new patient bleeding all over the ER floor. Hello, could we please stop the blood flow here before we discuss the long-term recovery?’ A government that can’t ensure a single leak gets plugged is not going to inspire confidence in taking on new, big challenges.
Echoing George W Bush, Obama called for an end to America’s ‘addiction’ to fossil fuels, and for developing alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar. But rather than attacking oil use (and effectively blaming the American people for their ‘addictive’ behavior), Obama should have explained why we will need to extract oil for years to come. Alternative energy sources like wind and solar won’t be available on a widespread and cost-effective basis for some time yet. Considering the country’s growing energy demands, we need to increase the supply of oil and that requires offshore drilling, including deepwater. If Obama was serious about increasing the use of alternatives in the near term, he would be promoting those sources that could be tapped in the short term - such as opening oilfields in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, speeding natural gas distribution networks, and enhancing the use of nuclear power.
The Gulf spill has bolstered those who have all along wanted to stop offshore drilling altogether. Obama has not indicated that the moratorium will definitely be lifted after six months, and so many in the Gulf region are stuck in limbo, worrying about their livelihoods. Rather than reassure them about the future of oil (and thus their jobs), Obama delivered an academic-style lecture about wind and solar. As Victor Davis Hanson writes, Obama’s message to those affected is: ‘Your misery has some didactic value for the rest of us, since after your Gulf is destroyed, we will shut down your rigs to ensure permanent poverty follows your misery.’
Critics of offshore drilling argue that the Gulf spill shows that the risks to the environment are too great, and Obama’s moratorium appears to support that view. It’s true that drilling will always entail risks and it is not possible to eliminate spills, but that is not a reason for discontinuing drilling. It is an unfortunate fact that technological progress occurs by means of accidents, as we learn much from our mistakes. Indeed, the fact that the safety record of the oil industry in the decades before the recent Gulf spill had improved was an indication of how industry and regulators had learned from the Exxon Valdez spill. Similarly, the Gulf spill shows that the offshore drilling industry needs to enhance its safety procedures, and that government needs to provide better oversight.
Once the rig exploded and the oil started to spew in the Gulf, Obama could have pursued an approach that emphasised effective project management and a defence of oil exploration and risk-taking. Instead, he and his administration dithered at first, and since have adopted a series of populist gestures directed against BP. The American people haven’t bought it, and Obama only has himself to blame for his predicament.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.