Monday, May 24, 2010

Danger Zone

The anger and dismay over the visible damage caused by the Gulf oil gusher is increasing, and at this moment the Obama administration is in danger of being swamped politically unless the President gets personally and visibly involved, and there is some direct response and visible action.

Here's why I say this now. First, sharp criticism is coming from Democrats as well as Republicans, particularly those with ties to Louisiana and the Gulf region. Also among them now is Keith Olbermann, who has gone to the extent of dumping his count of the days since Bush declared Mission Accomplished in Iraq, and is now counting the days since that oil rig exploded.

Second, administration responses to criticism and news over the past 24 hours has been awful. The Coast Guard Commandant in charge on the scene may be technically correct, but his message about federal helplessness, and contradiction of the Secretary of Interior, isn't helpful.

There has been no effective answer to the New York Times story about new permits and waivers being granted for even deeper ocean drilling. Energy Secretary Chu made a disastrous joke to Rachel about only knowing what he reads in the papers, about actions presumably within his own department. [Correction: this may have been the Interior Dept.'s area, not Energy.]

Plus, BP has out and out said it is defying an EPA order to use less toxic contaminants, and the EPA seems to be backing down. This may be realistic--it may be that BP hasn't been able to find a substitute in time--but it looks pretty bad.

The bottom line is that the mantra of this becoming Obama's Katrina is gaining traction. When a reporter like Howard Fineman says that his Gulf sources claim the Obama administration "doesn't get it," this is a huge red flag.

President Obama has maybe 48 hours, maybe just 24, to prevent this story from taking control, with disastrous long-term effects on his presidency. And this does mean something beyond politics. A lot of people are seeing very scary imagery--oil on shore next to inserts of oil continuing to gush from the well--and they need visible leadership. All that we load onto our presidents in terms of expectations may not be realistic or fair, but we do it. And people are crying out for visible leadership.

There are two main elements to this crisis: the ongoing gusher that needs to be plugged, and the oil coming onto beaches and marshes and up waterways that needs to be held off, and cleaned up when it does arrive. I don't credit a lot of the barroom proposals for stopping the gusher, but I do listen to experienced people in the Gulf who say they know how to stop the oil from coming in, if they just had the permits. I say give them the damn permits, help them out, it can't be worse than doing nothing, or leaving that aspect of the crisis to BP.

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