For weeks, Republicans have been gleefully predicting that the massive BP oil spill and the uneven response of the federal government would be President Obama's Hurricane Katrina.
Generally, I've scoffed at the claim Obama's response will define his presidency – and that the definition would include the word “incompetence.”
But now I'm not so sure, but not necessarily for the reasons the Republicans say.
The Republicans' argument, stripped to its basics, is that a government they've been working for decades to strip to the bone and demoralized, inadequately funded federal agencies that have been fighting a losing battle against their “government is evil” ethos haven't done enough to stop the oil flow, protect Gulf of Mexico habitats and help fix a devastated regional economy.
Connect the dots, folks; of COURSE an eviscerated federal government isn't going to respond instantly and efficiently to the biggest environmental disaster in recent history; there's only so much cutting you can do before you cripple the government agencies that are supposed to help.
But that hardly absolves President Obama, who is beginning to give the impression that for all his supposed anger at BP, one of his key goals is to insulate the oil giant from public opprobrium.
Either that or he simply doesn't have a handle on what officials in his own administration are doing to protect BP.
Government estimates of the underwater gusher have consistently been too low. Scientists who have argued from the beginning that this is a much bigger disaster have been silenced or dismissed. The Coast Guard hasn't made it easy for media to cover the extent of the spill, and it's easy to come away with the view that it is more interested in working with BP's active PR shop than keeping the public informed.
President Obama inadvertently increased his vulnerability before the oil spill when he called for a dramatic increase in offshore exploration and drilling, promising that the environment would be protected by all kinds of nifty scientific safeguards.
Like the safeguards that utterly failed in the BP oil spill?
So where does the administration stand now on offshore drilling? What you get mostly is fudging.
And what about crash programs to develop alternative energy sources? Much tighter regulation of an oil industry that has had a wink-and-nod relationship with federal regulators for years? If there's any real administration movement on these issues, I don't see it.
Maybe the administration is protecting BP because it fears it could go out of business – sticking the U.S. treasury with the tab for a cleanup that will run well into the billions.
But this president, the new Great Communicator, hasn't communicated very well on this issue, and his administration has given the impression that it's more intersected in running interference for BP than in serving the public interest.
Obama's Katrina? Maybe. Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration's lame response convinced many Americans that President bush was indifferent, incompetent or both; with the BP oil spill, President Obama appears headed down the same path.
Contrast that with the aggressive stance of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a member of the informal congressional Jewish caucus. According to Politico, Waxman will use hearings on the issue today to put “Big Oil on trial.”
Sure, there's a lot of posturing by lawmakers who ultimately don't have to deal with the complex issues raised by the oil spill in the same way the President does.
But this president has given the impression he's lost on the issue, and that he doesn't want to ruffle too many feathers in oil company boardrooms. That's not a prescription for solving the longterm problem of our voracious appetite for oil, or the short term political problem the BP disaster poses for him and his party.
Tonight's presidential address on the issue is a chance to change that. Will he succeed? Stay tuned.
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