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Obama and BP's Oil Spill: No Help From the Pundits

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If there is anything on the top of a pundit's to-do list it is to offer unsolicited advice to smart politicians who have usually done just fine without the advice of said pundit. We pundits tell politicians what they must do to get elected. We then tell elected officials what they must do to govern better -- so that they can win their next election. Given that they usually don't take the advice, the pundit is rarely proved wrong. It's a good gig. Until there's no advice to offer.

That's the situation regarding the horrific BP oil spill. The far-from-beyond-petroleum oil firm has cracked open the ocean floor and created an eco-disaster for which apparently there is no quick or not-so-quick fix. Top kill was a dud. And the next Plan B -- call it slice-and-cap -- is also iffy. In the meantime, BP is drilling two relief wells in an attempt to cut the leak off at the pass in August -- a plan that may work, and then again, may not. So in the midst of all this drama -- as the SpillCam shows us the gushing oil in live 24/7 time -- the question for the punditocracy is this: What should President Barack Obama do?

David BroderThis problem does not lend itself to the usual powers a president wields and defies the customary ideological divides. Right-wingers can't say, let the market sort it out. And liberals can't call for a new government program. Neither approach would stop the oil that is now gushing through BP's cracked pipes. (Libs, though, are right to urge a complete reappraisal of offshore drilling and to demand an effective regulatory system to prevent another catastrophe.) And firing a government official -- such as Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Services (who resigned on Friday) -- won't slow the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The White House has repeatedly pointed out that the federal government -- including the mighty U.S. military -- does not have the technical means to repair a hole at the bottom of the sea. At his first press conference since last summer, held this past Thursday, Obama highlighted this:
When it comes to stopping the leak down below, the federal government does not possess superior technology to BP. This is something, by the way -- going back to my involvement -- two or three days after this happened, we had a meeting down in the Situation Room in which I specifically asked Bob Gates and Mike Mullen what assets do we have that could potentially help that BP or other oil companies around the world do not have. We do not have superior technology when it comes to dealing with this particular crisis.
Earlier, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the same thing: "There's not, somewhere on a dock in Annapolis, a secret submarine that will fix this leak."

It seems there's not a lot of alternatives that outside commentators can commend to the president. (If the issue at hand were as simple as a war, pundits could suggest more troops, less troops, different strategies, and the like.) It is easy now to slam the White House for not positioning itself well in the first weeks. Despite Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's headline-grabbing vow to "keep the boot on the neck" of BP, the Obama crew did not challenge or push BP sufficiently to release information indicating how awful this leak was. At the press conference, Obama conceded that "our efforts fell short" on this front:
At that point, BP already had a camera down there, but wasn't fully forthcoming in terms of what did those pictures look like. And when you set it up in time-lapse photography, experts could then make a more accurate determination. The administration pushed them to release it, but they should have pushed them sooner. I mean, I think that it took too long for us to stand up our flow-tracking group that has now made these more accurate ranges of calculation.
If Obama had truly kicked BP in the throat with a sharp-toed boot in those first days, the oil giant might not have done any better in stopping the leak. From a political perspective, however, had Obama whacked BP at the get-go, he probably would be in a marginally better spot at the moment. He would still be somewhat impotent to bring the spill to a halt, but at least he would have defined himself as a president willing to battle the despoiler of the Gulf.

But Obama didn't go that route. Instead, he, no doubt, worked hard to figure out what could be done by the feds -- and was damn frustrated by what he learned. Nevertheless, as the weeks went by, the question, fair or not, has emerged: Could he have done more? And, more important, could he do more now?

Alas, he's not getting much decent advice from the politerati. Days after that press conference, David Broder, the grand wise man of The Washington Post op-ed page, had little to say other than that Obama needs to empathize more with the mounting frustration and anger over the spill. In the same newspaper, Ed Rollins, an aide to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, noted:
Obama's political managers are all being told that the president needs to "do something." But when he does he becomes more closely associated with the ugly problem and more responsible for the nearly impossible task of stopping the flow and managing a cleanup that will leave most people unsatisfied.
That certainly doesn't provide the White House with much of an action plan. Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen opined that Obama "has to make it clear that we are all in this together -- not as corporations or populists, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans working to solve the problem collectively." Will clichés stop the oil flow? Democratic strategist Donna Brazile commented that Obama must "emphasize" that he "fixed what BP's greed and big oil's conceit broke." Well, yes -- but first he has to fix it. (This reminds me of the old Steve Martin bit, when he told the audience that he knew how "you can become a millionaire and never pay taxes." He paused and then said, "First, get a million dollars.")

If Obama had the time to read any of the above, I imagine his response would be, "People, this is not too helpful." He's in a bind. People want him to remedy what may be beyond his power to remedy. (The long-term response of drilling those relief wells is no sure shot.) Obama can crack the whip at BP -- and he should. But that won't necessarily lead to results. These fools messed with Mother Nature and didn't bother devising any effective plan for dealing with a potential screw-up (which is also the fault of the federal agencies and administrations that allowed for such drilling without sufficient safeguards). One sad lesson of all this may be that some problems defy solutions. And some even defy punditry.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.
Filed Under: Barack Obama, Environment

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244 Comments

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waynetalbury

ok, I'm confused. it's deep, but not that deep. what's to stop BP putting down a big hoover-like pipe to suck up the oil that's coming out? Ok it won't get it all but it'll get at least half unless they're totally incompetent... (oh, damn I forgot).
Ok cheap shots aside - I'm not getting it, what's so hard about that??

June 07 2010 at 12:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
punnster

It would have helped if Obama had insured that he had the right people overseeing oil drilling and making sure they were doing their job. Yeah, the person responsible was fired. Kinda like closing the barn door after the horses are out. Democrats are consistently reactive rather than proactive. THE SPILL COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED. Democrats had a year to FIX things.

June 04 2010 at 12:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Michael

Here is a bit of advice that has evidently not occurred to the punditocracy, Mr. Corn included:
Let the lawyers do their research to fix the blame later while throwing all support behind the engineers fixing the problem now. Once the failure is under control, we will have plenty of time for the blamestorms so beloved of this White House.
All urgency should now be focused on correction and mitigation, best delivered by engineers and talented technicians who rely little on pundits and politicians for guidance. The facts of physics are remarkably resistant to political opinion.

June 03 2010 at 7:30 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
pepingatieza2

The federal gov monitors and inspects these rigs. The purpose is to prevent things like this from happening. They basically also tell people were they can drill. Is the safeguard equipment efficient at 5000 feet? I heard that it was only proven to half that depth. If so, why did BP go that deep and why did the gov inspectors allow it?

June 03 2010 at 6:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
punnster

Obama had people responsible for oversight of oil drilling, over paid under qualified bureaucrats. Obama should have made sure they were doing their jobs instead of running around politicking, fund raising, apologizing for America, trying to use his office to affect elections and Olympics, and photo ops. THE OIL SPILL COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED. Obama should have done his job, be a president.

June 03 2010 at 4:51 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
AL

The best thing the government could do is get out of the way stop the finger pointing and leave the solution to the experts. I notice the AG is on scene trying to find the most lucrative pocket to pick. Lawyers solve nothing by suing everyone on the planet. If you have a flat tire call a lawyer and he will sue the tire maker. Call AAA and they will change the tire.

June 03 2010 at 12:06 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
danzillo4

I guess now Al Gore's company that makes ELECTRIC CARS overseas will make a killing when the administration cuts drilling...Along with his other Green earth companies....

June 02 2010 at 3:18 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
jack

fixing the leak is one big problem but why is not anyone scooping up oil floating and putting iy in empty ships ????

June 02 2010 at 9:28 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jack's comment
namingway2

If this spill were closer to the surface that would be an option. However, this spill is 5000 feet down and instead of coming to the surface to form a skin, it's traveling ten, twenty, thirty miles or more in slowly rising plumes. By the time it's hit the surface the oil's thickness is only a few nanometers thick. By the time the skin builds up to a thickness great enough to collect it's all ready too late. It's washing into barrier islands and on to beaches. The area is also something to consider. If the well was shallower the oil would reach the surface sooner and collect in a smaller area. Right now the spill is the size of Delaware. It's simply too spread out to collect; even if there were a hundred oil tankers available to skim and separate the oil. There isn't.

June 02 2010 at 12:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
lolattoadies

Accidents happen. Before doing anything else, a leader assess the situation and puts all of his energy and resources into mitigating the damage. Only when that is done do you determine whether mistakes were made and whether someone need be held accountable for those mistakes. The oil is reaching the shore and the marshes while the EPA is studing whether berms can be built to prevent the oil from reaching the shore and the marshes. When they are done making up their mind, there will be no more marshes. Meanwhile, Obama seems to have done little other than finding someone to blame, anyone, as long as it wasn't him. In the end, I think the consensus will be that not enough was done to mitigate the damage - and that will be Obama's fault.

June 02 2010 at 8:30 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to lolattoadies's comment
namingway2

Oh Washington has more than enough bureaucrats to do both. The problem with your 'mitigation' scenario is that for the first two weeks or so only one person knew how much oil was coming out: BP. Given that BP is liable, and didn't want their stock to crash, they grossly under reported the amount. Then video footage reached the dept of the Interior and the magnitude of the oil coming out became realized.

Another problem with mitigation is "Where". The mouth of the Mississippi delta is rife with dozens of currents pushing every which way. Deploy booms east of the Mississippi or west? Keep the oil away from towns or wetlands? Would dredging create an even bigger mess (it would) while keeping the oil off the shores (it would). Would dredged barrier islands even last long enough to keep the oil off till the months after the oil stops flowing (doubtful). Oh... and the fun question: who pays for all this mitigation?

June 02 2010 at 12:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
cutierockstar11

my name is maria montoya i am 11 and i have an idea on how to clean the oil on the suface of the gulf of mexico.all we need to do is get a big net of nylon and keep doubling up the sheets and get a fishing boat to clean up the surface.

June 02 2010 at 12:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cutierockstar11's comment
namingway2

That's a nice idea hun. Part of the problem is that the oil layer is very thin. It's thinner than a human hair. Thin enough to see through, but thick enough to kill animals who breathe it or eat it. If you put out a net, the oil would just seep right through it, no matter how many layers you had. We have special sponges that suck up oil, but they also suck up lots of water too. Eventually they have to be pulled out and squeezed before they sink.

But keep on thinking. Genius comes from unexpected sources

June 02 2010 at 12:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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