Paul Nitze: Obama drops the ball
June 16, 2010
If the Obama presidency were being played out on a baseball diamond, I’d be the guy behind the White House dugout with the giant “BO” foam finger. I badly want him to succeed, and the personal goodwill I feel toward the man is enormous. So it pains me to say I winced through his speech Tuesday night, a speech that failed on both message and tone.
That the president is playing from behind is obvious. So much of the country’s political anguish and resentment is driven by the economy. No presidency can flourish with unemployment at 10 percent, and those who think that a different president would’ve cut that rate way down by now are fantasists.
More to the point, the oil spill is not a crisis of the president’s making. Could the Coloradoans at the helm of the Interior Department (Secretary Salazar and his deputy Tom Strickland) have scrubbed and disinfected the Minerals Management Service at a faster clip? Sure, no doubt. And even if they had turned the place upside down it wouldn’t have saved one less barrel of oil from spilling into the Gulf.
The regulatory hibernation that caused the men in charge of Deepwater Horizon to pile risk on top of risk could have been fixed in 2004. It could have been fixed in 2007. But it could not have been fixed in the 15 months that the president was on the job. What needed to change was an entire culture of regulatory capture.
So I’ve scratched my head to read that the president could have done more to plug the leak. What exactly? Do you think BP is not sufficiently motivated by the prospect of bankruptcy to put every last inch of pressure to bear on the problem? The simple truth is that nearly every person with the know-how to plug that well has been brought into the loop, but we’re facing an entirely new problem. If we learned anything from the dog and pony show at Tuesday’s congressional hearings, it was that none of the major oil companies actually know how to deal with a major leak on a deepwater rig.
What I longed to hear from the president wasn’t an apology, but a frank admission of the limits of presidential power. President Obama may wield the greatest influence, but some things are out of his control, and the massive environmental cost of the spill is one of them. No one wants to hear him talk tough about making sure BP is responsible. We expect him to hold BP responsible and he doesn’t need to tell us he’s kicking anyone’s ass to get that message across.
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The president’s timing is particularly strange and unconvincing. His public outrage has built incrementally the longer the crisis has gone on, which makes him look like he’s summoning anger for the cameras. He took the presidency because he’s cool, collected, and rational, not because he can pull off the Walker Texas Ranger act. “Visceral” is not a style choice. We had a guy in the White House who ruled by gut instinct, and that didn’t turn out so hot.
But I can handle the posturing if the message were more sobering. The president told us that we’re in for a world of hurt on the spill, that it will take years to clean up the mess and millions of lives will be disrupted along the way. He told us he’ll use his office to hold BP accountable and make them pay. What he didn’t tell us was how, exactly, we will be called to sacrifice in our own lives to make sure that the greatest environmental disaster in American history isn’t topped in a decade or two.
After health care, the president summoned Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and other top congressional Democrats, and they hammered out the 2010 agenda. The big choice, the one that has enraged many Latinos, was to push back immigration in favor of an energy bill. While the president supported cap and trade during the campaign, he has largely stayed out of the fight on what the energy bill includes.
The result has been a policy mish mash that won’t change the status quo. It’s simply not good enough to speak to the American public about meaningful change on energy, as the president did Tuesday night, and then tell them that he’s “open” to all of the major bills being debated in Congress. There is no consonance in those two ideas – you can’t be “open” to supporting the Lugar/Graham energy bill, which contains neither a carbon tax nor cap and trade, and at the same time say you won’t “settle for … inaction.”
Lugar/Graham is worse than inaction. While many of its provisions are worthwhile, it’s no substitute for a policy that breaks our dependence on fossil fuels. Unless we make oil, gas, and coal more expensive, we won’t stop using them. We have to tax them, whether directly or indirectly. Lugar/Graham is a platitudinous vehicle for political cover, nothing more.
When a president speaks from the Oval Office, he takes that speech outside the daily political fray. It’s meant to convey a seriousness of purpose that corresponds to unusual danger to our way of life. There’s nothing wrong with using the spill as a vehicle to push a meaningful energy bill – it’s political opportunism of the best sort.
By not spelling out the politically unpopular moves he would take to turn our energy future around, the president let us down on Tuesday.
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