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?
This 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.
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