Iraq and Afghanistan are not yet wholly “Obama’s wars,” but the White House’s piece-meal, deferential retreat from out-of-control Gulf deluge has become his and his alone. The Big Spill dramatizes, furthermore, how a once savvy politician squanders his first, best opportunity to redeem a steadily faltering presidency.
If heroes emerge by resolving daunting dilemmas, especially man-made, this paragon of caution remains pedestrian and reactive, as he plays it safe by risking the safety of the Gulf. Yet when a risk-adverse president relegates the safety, and survival, of our most valuable coastal region to the reckless polluter who imperils it, he ironically becomes a high-stake gambler by default. Failure to act under challenge qualifies as enabling an addict, and BP certainly qualifies, repeatedly enjoining all the world in its high-risk, costly oil misadventures.
In fact, the Gulf faces a multiple of crises, beyond 3850 oil rigs, fragmentary Katrina restoration and massive overfishing, one competing with the Big Spill. There’s an oxygen-depleted, agriculture-induced “dead zone” the size of New Jersey just west of the oil slick, in part resulting from upstream corn-ethanol obsessions. As to which is worse, spill or dead zone, “it’s a really tough call,” says Nathaniel Ostrom, Michigan State zoologist, “There’s no real answer to that question.”
No Claim of Ignorance
On July 5, the Wall Street Journal reported a federal circuit court a year ago shocked the Obama administration by calling “irrational” its environment oil spill restoration plans, judging this government “unprepared for a major spill at sea.” Bingo. Echoing Bush-Cheney machinations, Obama’s DOJ pressured the Court to reverse itself, thus permitting – guess what? – the BP-Deepwater Horizon time-bomb shellacking the Gulf like a tsunami. Double bingo.
If there’s White House guilt from such judicial chicanery, it’s invisible, along with the high risk of tying your political tail to the BP tiger. Today, AP reported BP already has a “backup for its [relief well] back-up” gambit. “The relief well itself is not a slam dunk,” said Gene Beck, Texas A&M petroleum professor, and no guarantee even two relief wells stop the flow. Considering BP estimates two billion pressured gallons of oil in this reservoir, AP concludes, “History is on BP’s side, but the depth of the seafloor isn’t.”
Imagine what “life zones” endure if 20X today’s sludge pollutes the Gulf? Perhaps the $10 billion in annual federal gas taxes clamped down administration judgment. Think even $20 billion of unsecured BP promisory notes will handle that? Though the party colors differ, we’re in W. territory, so politically blinkered this White House obscures the magnitude of disaster, presidential options, or courage to follow its own chief of staff, “You never want a serious crisis go to waste.” This one is wasting away, in every sense of the word.
Obama Blowing Redemption
Paralysis and omission, especially against emergencies, kills more presidencies than blunders allowing defensive, political spin. Military fiascos didn’t kill W. but abandoning his own besieged Gulf citizens did. Redemptive presidential moments are few and far between, and Obama is blowing his best shot. Recall LBJ on Vietnam, Nixon on Watergate, Carter with Iran, or every president since Reagan – it’s willful blindness more than initial errors that tarnish legacies.
Though reckless Bush-Cheney deregulation invited big oil spills, Obama facilitated the time bomb, favoring offshore drilling and bad permits. Congress is no great help, nor is the public, especially since the media has been shackled by nasty censorship, prohibiting upfront reporting or photography. A fuming Anderson Cooper assailed press restrictions, channeled from Obama’s point man, Thad Allen, to by every local tin badge or hired BP gun.
The Triple Whammy
The Big Spill called for a wider S.O.S. as dire as for Katrina (with larger range and duration of impacts). The result – a triple whammy fueling the mother of all spills that feeds on itself:
1) First Crisis: oil inundation caused by gross negligence by the riskiest hustler in the oil patch, thus not just the worst Gulf disaster, nor this country’s, but history’s worst man-made “accident.”
2) Second Crisis: Collusion and incompetence allows the polluter to handle clean-up, the dumbest idea since Iraq. No alarms or red flags meant inept monitoring and dubious non-fixes. The AWOL EPA didn’t control toxic dispersants, nor apply Endangered Species Act to restrain outrages (burning live sea turtles, maybe halted by private suit);
3) Third Crisis: Irreparable Damage, the Gulf Oil Kill, the Big Spill. Under-reported magnitude, paucity of response, warmer, worse water conditions all amplify uninterrupted assaults: hurricanes, oil rig spills, overfishing, coastal erosion, and unspeakable volumes of pollution from industrial, agriculture, sewage, now oil.
Unsurprisingly, as the ruination widens, the political pressure instills more denial, more tunnel vision, more press clampdowns. It’s Bush all over: pray, what you ignore and deny will go away. Handcuffing the press parallels the Bush refusal to display Iraqi body bags, though we always knew more about Iraq than we now know about Gulf decimation, like actual size.
Politics for a pragmatist
So, what could President Obama have done and still do differently? Show leadership, take command, use this challenge to exemplify politics can change. Raise, not bury, consciousness: prove here is no mere “political problem.”
First, establish and admit the magnitude, concede slavish responses, misplaced confidence in BP, and end virtual media censorship. Trust the public can take bad news but not indirection. Order EPA to inspect BP’s coverup; guarantee no marine life gets burned alive; fund protection for threatened wildlife, especially species facing extinction. Initiate investigations to withhold BP’s valuable licenses as well as criminal behavior, at BP and MMS. Rework not just rules but the system of regulation.
Second, order all federal agencies and Thad Allen – Coast Guard, Army Corps, EPA and Defense Dept. – to act on behalf of the Gulf, and residents, not BP’s insurance mentality. Listen to outside, independent ocean scientists, petroleum and environmentalist veterans, and involve the U.N. and make this international in scope.
Third: Act like this is the Battle of the Gulf, which it is, worse than 9/11. Assail “drill, baby, drill” advocacy, lower nation speed limits, mandate national conservations, real and symbolic. Punish drillers for acting like masters of the universe. Give a far bolder Oval Office speech that commits to truly integrated, national energy planning (beyond ethanol, oil drilling, and nuclear). Demand a region-wide, New Deal-like Plan that integrates Gulf commerce and employment with sustainability and wildlife protection.
Make Fat Cats Hate You
Why doesn’t this president realize commanding this emergency offers his best political redemption? Start the re-election campaign in the Gulf by obliterating GOP-BP bootlickers. Like FDR, make some entrenched powers hate you. Regain popularity as the Sustainable Jobs-Alternative Energy President and limit, don’t enable earth-killing energy usage and mining. Become a mensch.
Will Obama do any of this? Doubtful, for mediocrity is safe, though more of the same jeopardizes Democratic leadership of Congress. To all those Obama defenders, this president is not doing his best under bad conditions: he is doing badly under bad conditions, replicating failed presidencies since Reagan.
This oil inundation is a once-a-century disaster, and effective relief wells could deflect my worst-case scenarios. Never before, however, have we jeopardized an entire region while endorsing more drilling. “Better late than never” fails when ecosystems pass beyond tipping points, where no birds sing and marine mammals become fossils for fossil fuels.
For ten weeks, we’ve been “up the creek without a paddle,” but time and amplitude are pushing us into deeper waters, misinformed, pilot-less, and awash with oil sludge. Not just for political, but moral and environmental reasons, Obama risks all by not salvaging the wreckage.