links, commentary, toons, pics, fun!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Obama and the spill, redux

I know I posted tons of stuff on this a couple weeks ago, but a friend of mine asked me about the idea going around that the spill is Obama's fault, so I thought I'd go ahead and post my response:

Permits for offshore drilling are given by an agency called the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an agency formed during the Reagan Admin that always had a reputation for being a rubber stamp for the oil industry. But they got really bad during the Bush administration, who staffed it with oil industry people. They were so tight with the industry they were literally having sex and snorting coke together. Needless to say there was no oversight in regards to risk taking, safety precautions, etc.

When Obama became President he appointed Ken Salazar Interior Secretary, which oversees the MMS. Salazar told the MMS "there's a new sheriff in town" and that things were going to change. But then, he didn't really follow up on that. (He also has a history with the oil industry, so some people question how serious he was) They did appoint a bonafide environmentalist to take charge of the MMS, but for whatever reason she was ineffectual (maybe she was afraid to just start firing people en masse, which is probably what should've happened.) She has since resigned.

Part of the problem is that the MMS not only is in charge of approving operations, but also then collecting the "rent," which means it's in their interest to approve things, because then they get more money for their department. Obama has since split up the operation into two separate units. That's good, although they should have spotted that problem a year ago.

I suppose Obama should take some portion of the blame, but it's for failing to clean up a problem that was created by Republicans. This disaster is consequence of the unholy alliance of corporate greed and the Republican ideology of deregulation. You don't get to criticize Obama unless you've spent most of your time talking about that. Otherwise, you've been watching too much Fox News.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

reading rec

This piece on the Obama Admin's reaction to the now infamous Rolling Stone article is definitely worth the read.

Friday, June 18, 2010

more enviro-politics

I recommend reading this post from David Roberts it's a entirety, but I'll just include an excerpt here. In it he addresses the argument that Obama should have explicitly dealt with the threat of climate change in his address the other night. Rather than lay out the real reason we need to transform our energy economy, Obama is, some say, using a "trojan horse" strategy of selling other popular ideas such as freeing ourselves from foreign oil and creating jobs. These are certainly valuable in themselves, but aren't the primary issue by a long shot. A number of liberal commentators say it's time Obama lay the issue out in stark terms. Roberts doesn't necessarily disagree, but says there is at least an argument to be made that Obama's got the right idea, explaining the rationale this way:

Obama doesn't have to convince the American people to do what needs to be done. "What needs to be done," if you step back and take in the full vista, is overwhelming in its size and urgency. It's radicalizing. It takes a certain kind of intellect and fortitude to face it squarely; very few people have. (For a glimpse of the big picture, watch Saul Griffith's mind-blowing presentation.)

No president can talk the American people into that far of a leap all at once. All Obama can hope to do is convince the American people, in particular 60 senators, to accept a series of moderate reforms that accelerate the energy transition. He just needs to change the trajectory. If green jobs happy talk can do that, and climate talk makes it more difficult, then happy talk it is.

Remember, the argument here is not about setting climate aside completely and forever. It's about setting it aside for the moment. The argument for the Trojan Horse message is based on a few premises:

  • Climate skepticism (or mere indifference) is less about reasoned assessment than a) cultural associations of the issue with liberalism and, more deeply, b) the cognitive phenomenon whereby human beings are loathe to accept problems for which they see no solution. People generally acknowledge that climate change is real and we're at the end of the fossil fuel era, but that propositional assent will have no depth or motivational force as long as people fear (or simply don't know) what comes next.
  • The argument on behalf of transforming society in the face of climate change can't be won with scientific papers, op-ed columns, or even words from Barack Obama. It will be won slowly, as that transformation touches more lives on a personal level. Only experience will make the case for more speed and ambition. (See Sara Robinson's fantastic essay on this.)
  • Two things will happen in coming years. First, more communities will reap the benefits of clean energy and efficiency. Those industries will interact with more people, as employers, vendors, or just local businesses. People will begin to see that shifting to a clean economy is less costly and more desirable than predicted. And second, climate change itself will start to bite in extreme and inescapable ways. Sooner or later, people will start to panic. Both trends mean that the climate argument will get easier over time.

Or to put that all more succinctly: the case on climate will make itself eventually, but we don't have time to wait. The overwhelming priority in the short term is to get started, via whatever means of persuasion are most effective.

So if we make some modest progress in between now and when climate change really starts to kick in will we then be able to ramp up the massive changes needed in time to reverse it? From what I've read my impression is 'no,' but I obviously have no independent expertise in this area, and even experts concede the science is too complex to make predictions with any great certainty. If that's our best case scenario then I suppose we just have to do our best and hope for the best.

Rachel Maddow thinks the politics of the spill has revealed a Republican "glass jaw:"

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I believe Ezra Klein will be on tonight arguing Obama should be addressing climate more forcefully.

Meanwhile, Theda Skocpol reminds disgruntled liberals to keep their eye on the ball:

If liberals do not support Obama and the Democrats for the next two election cycles, a rabid Right will be back in control, and America will devolve further into ineffective gridlock and rising inequality. Even the gains that have been made so far, a pretty good health reform, student loan reforms, improved financial regulations, and so forth, will quickly be weakened and reversed if the Republicans regain Congress and the presidency. Liberals right now should not be joining in Obama bashing on the oil spill. They should be focused on Republican blame and hypocrisy -- and should pressure the Senate to vote for good energy legislation.

There is nothing in this oil crisis in an already oil-soaked region that should prompt liberals to turn against Obama. This crisis was caused by the decades-old oil regime and the evisceration of government by "conservatives" and conservaDems. Bashing a moderate liberal President who is trying to turn things around, but needs time and patient support, is just plain self-defeating for liberals. People seem to imagine that Obama could somehow "order" a new environmental/energy policy or wave a wand and clean up the already-dirty Gulf. They are dreaming -- and their childish thrashing based on these dreams is undermining a valuable opening in U.S. politics.

feeding the troll

I'd just like to offer a quick response to Charles Krauthammer, who is pictured above winning the award for world's biggest asshole (I assume):

Obama is dreamer in chief: He wants to take us to this green future "even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet precisely know how we're going to get there." Here's the offer: Tax carbon, spend trillions and put government in control of the energy economy -- and he will take you he knows not where, by way of a road he knows not which.

That's why Tuesday's speech was received with such consternation. It was so untethered from reality. The gulf is gushing, and the president is talking mystery roads to unknown destinations. That passes for vision, and vision is Obama's thing. It sure beats cleaning up beaches.

First of all, Krauthammer is trying to suggest that by looking at the bigger picture Obama is not doing everything possible to stop the leak and clean up the mess. He knows that's not true, but he's a political hack who sees a good opportunity to score cheap points. So perhaps we should just ignore him. But I just have to respond to his larger point because it's so wrongheaded...

The reason Obama says we don't know exactly what our energy future will look like is because neither he nor the Federal Gov't will be the one creating it. The solutions will come from the private sector, once it's in their interest to do so. By taxing carbon and putting some of the money into subsidies for a variety of clean energies, and offsetting the rest with tax cuts elsewhere (Al Gore proposed a revenue neutral replacement of the payroll tax with a carbon tax) we can make it in everyone's interest to find better energy sources because it will be cheaper to do so. It's the opposite of putting "government in control of the energy economy."

Ironically in order to gain support of Republicans the Energy bill currently being worked on in the Senate is moving away from these market based solutions toward top down government regulation, as David Leonhardt explains:

Unfortunately, the great economic strength of market systems like cap and trade also happens to be their political weakness. They set prices and allow people to react. In the process, market systems acknowledge that reducing pollution may actually cost a little bit of money.

Politicians don’t like to admit this, because voters don’t like it. Accepting higher costs is especially hard when the economy is weak. So Congressional Democrats have been repackaging their energy bills to make them look less and less market-oriented. SenatorJohn McCain, who supported a permit system for carbon as the Republican presidential nominee, no longer does. Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, has reversed his position as well.

What does Mr. Graham now favor? A series of command-and-control regulations. He has introduced a bill with Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, that would mandate specific standards for cars, trucks, homes and offices. It would also give the energy secretary the power to award loans to companies he thought could do a good job of setting up programs to retrofit buildings. State officials would do the same for factories. The bill, in short, puts more faith in government than the market.

This approach can certainly reduce the carbon emissions causing climate change. Fuel economy rules have cut per-mile gasoline use by 40 percent since 1975. As a result, vehicles have made more progress on energy efficiency than office buildings, houses and apartments. That’s one reason a cap-and-trade system for power plants — which provide energy to offices and homes — has such potential to reduce carbon emissions.

The Lugar-Graham bill focuses on offices and homes, too, and would make a difference. But it wouldn’t make as much of a difference, and it also has other drawbacks.

In a market system, businesses and consumers have a clear incentive to reduce their carbon use, and they can choose the cheapest way to do so. Some would decide to retrofit current buildings and homes to make them more energy-efficient. Some would buy new, more efficient machinery or appliances. Some would switch to alternative energy and, in the process, create a much bigger market for it.

“Instead of leaving it up to the government to identify the solution and tell people what to do, you are leaving that decision to the people who know best,” says Nathaniel Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund. “A bureaucrat would never have enough information to do as good a job.”

Under a command-and-control system, businesses and consumers have to focus not just on carbon use but also on the details of the government’s rules: the intricacies of vehicle and building standards, the types of appliances that qualify for subsidies, the fine print of the Energy Department’s loan applications. Each bit of compliance brings costs.

It’s just that those costs are hidden in a thicket of bureaucracy. The fuel economy rules, for example, have raised the price of minivans, pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s by limiting how many can be sold. But the price increase has not been obvious, as it would be with a gas tax. We can pretend prices are no higher than they otherwise would have been.

In some ways, it is not fair to pick on Mr. Lugar, Mr. Graham and the other senators, both Democratic and Republican, who support the command-and-control approach. It is far better than nothing. The ideal energy policy, in fact, would include some ironclad rules and regulations, because people do not always respond rationally to prices. Consultants at McKinsey & Company argue that many families and businesses could already save money by taking simple energy-saving steps, yet they don’t do so. Building standards could overcome their inertia.

But relying only on rules, regulations, standards, loan programs and research financing seems inadequate to the task we’re facing. The last 12 months have been the warmest 12-month period on record, NASA says. Nine of the 10 warmest calendar years occurred in the last decade.

The market is the most powerful tool available for dealing with the costs and risks of a hotter planet. Given how loudly politicians like to proclaim their belief in the market, it sure would be nice if they could figure out a way to make it part of the solution.

But Krauthammer helpfully tells us that all these efforts towards a green energy future are "untethered from reality." When our great grandchildren wonder why the hell we didn't do anything to avoid environmental catastrophe they can go back and read Krauthammer's columns.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

buck up

this evening I'll offer some (tempered) optimism:

We are frustrated, too, and it’s possible that Obama may never be able to give the speech that will make us feel better. He may never really lace into the oil companies or issue the kind of call to arms on energy that the environmentalists are yearning for.

That’s because it won’t get him anywhere. Unlike Bush, he has no national consensus to build upon. He’d barely finished his muted remarks on Tuesday before the House minority leader, John Boehner, accused him of exploiting the crisis “to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small business.” Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman, claimed that the president was “manipulating this tragic national crisis for selfish political gain.” And the ever-popular Representative Michele Bachmann denounced the BP restitution fund as “redistribution of wealth” and “one more gateway for government control.”

As a political leader, Barack Obama seems to know what he’s doing. His unsatisfying call for a new energy policy sounded very much like the rhetoric on health care reform that used to drive Democrats nuts: open to all ideas, can’t afford inaction, if we can put a man on the moon. ... But at the end of that health care slog, he wound up with the groundbreaking law that had eluded his predecessors for decades. The process of wringing it out of Congress was so slow and oblique that even when it was over it was hard to appreciate what he’d won. But win he did.

Ironic. The man we elected because we hoped his feel-good campaign speeches might translate into achievement is actually a guy who is going to achieve, even if his presidential speeches leave us feeling blah.

In the bank bailouts (much more successful than we first thought), the stimulus (still working), the health insurance reform (a real start on a deep and vexing problem across the developed world), and even the swarm of issues around Gitmo (torture has ended, while necessary, lawful military detentions and renditions continue), you see the same pattern of emotionally unsatisfying but structurally deep changes in the orientation of the ship of state. This is very gradual change we can believe in.

Obama's incrementalism, his refusal to pose as a presidential magician, and his resistance to taking the bait of the fetid right (he's president - not a cable news host) seems to me to show not weakness, but a lethal and patient strength. And a resilient ambition.

It’s one thing to be disappointed in policy outcomes, or even angry about them. But more and more it seems that we are in an age of liberal despair–as reflex and first instinct, as motif and explanation, even, it sometimes seems to me, as fashion. Criticism of legislation and proposals is always proper and necessary, as is the application of whatever pressure people can apply to try to produce more progressive outcomes. But I’ve read and heard many critiques that then race right past that into outright desolation.
The five-alarm political culture in which we live now forces upon us a certain kind of response to current events: Every little flare-up is elevated to roiling controversy, and every minor setback a potential death blow to the progressive cause, every departure from the sacred codex of Keynes not a mere delay or strategic feint or hindrance but an act of treachery. This much we know; who didn’t, during the last presidential campaign, think that some breathlessly reported development that turned out to be unimportant–the late revelation about Obama’s aunt in Boston who was an undocumented immigrant springs to mind–would be the back-breaking event that would sober up a besotted electorate and lift John McCain to the presidency? After 30 years of mostly defeats, liberals are quick to catastrophize.

But our political culture affects the way we think about the past as well. Too often, when progressives think of American history, we think only of the snapshots: those glorious moments when a historic bill is signed into law, or when the great progressive leader thunderingly confronts the forces of reaction. It’s good to remember those; they are our lodestars. But they are moments. Actual history is slower, more tedious, and certainly less uplifting. It’s not for Obama’s sake, but for liberalism’s over the long haul, that we need to consider this reality and proceed in full awareness of it. It’s only by seeing this fuller picture that we can know how history actually unfolds in real time and place our present experience within that context. We don’t do nearly enough of that. Cable news and op-ed pages and websites are a kind of modern-day camera obscura, giving us an image to be sure, accurate in a way, but upside-down.

The changes we want to see won’t happen in 18 months, or in two years, or four, or probably even eight. Indeed, the entire Obama era, if it lasts eight years, is best thought of not as a culmination, or a self-contained time frame that should be judged a failure if X, Y, and Z don’t happen. It’s the start of a process that may take 16 years, or 24; that may be along the way interrupted or undone; that will be fought tooth and nail, as we’ve plainly seen these recent months, by others whose idea of America is incomprehensible to us but who are citizens too, with the same rights we have.
The image of Barack Hussein Obama speaking to America from his stage in Grant Park that night in November 2008 as president-elect was, for liberals, one of the most staggering images we’ve ever seen. One felt–many millions of us felt–almost invincible in a way; finally justified in our beleaguered beliefs, after so many years of despondency and rage; aware in fresh and unprecedented ways of our collective power, like mortals transformed into superheroes in the movies, realizing for the first time that they could fly or crush stone. It seems likely that American liberals will never again for the foreseeable future feel quite like we did that night. All things seemed possible.

And yet, it almost goes without saying, all things weren’t possible, because all things never are. American liberalism has, for the last year and a half, been living through a painful period of coming to terms with this reality. It’s a traumatic process:
If we insist on thinking of Obama–and in our personality-driven political culture, it’s so hard not to do this–as liberalism’s redeemer, he will always disappoint, as redeemers usually do. But if we think of him as one piece on a vexing historical chess board in a match that will take years to play out, we can exhale, and see the true shape of the tasks ahead of us. I don’t mean to say here that people should just be quiet. Quite the opposite: Progressive pressure is a better guarantor of progressive governance than hoping that governors will follow their most compassionate instincts. And liberals shouldn’t declare themselves entirely satisfied with an outcome unless they actually are (something that probably won’t happen too often). But I do very much mean to say that liberals should avoid the seductive temptation of wallowing in disappointment, and letting that turn into fury and then resignation–branding decisions one disagrees with as "betrayals" and "sell-outs," retiring inward, pushing away from civic life.
this is about something more important and lasting than any single president. We are in a pitched ideological battle that seems virtually certain to continue for many years. In that battle, despair will produce only defeat.

Democrats should feel a lot better than they do. They enacted a health-care bill that had been their dream for more than 60 years. They pulled the country out of a terrifying economic spiral. They are on the verge of passing the biggest reform of Wall Street since the New Deal. The public has identified enemies that are typically seen as Republican allies: oil companies and big bankers. And given the Republicans' past policies, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is at least as much their problem as Obama's.

On top of this, the GOP seems to be doing all it can to make itself unelectable, veering far to the right and embracing a Tea Party movement that, at its extremes, preaches the need for revolution. That sounds more like the old New Left than a reinvigorated conservatism. Oh, yes, and can you think of one thing Republicans stand for right now other than cutting spending? Never mind that they are conspicuously vague about what they'd cut.

Yet it is Democrats who are petrified, uncertain and hesitant -- and this was true before the oil spill made matters worse. Obama's bold rhetoric about "the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels" was not matched by specifics because he knows that nearly a dozen Senate Democrats are skittish about acting. Why does it so often seem that Republicans are full of passionate intensity while Democrats lack all conviction?
There is something preposterous about how the administration and congressional Democrats have lost every major public argument that they should be winning.

They lost it on a stimulus bill that clearly lifted the economy, as Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, argued persuasively in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. They are losing it on the health-care bill, a big improvement on the current system enacted through a process that made it look like a tar ball on an Alabama beach. They are losing it on the deficit even though it was Republicans who cut taxes twice while the Bush administration was starting two wars.

Obama is often criticized for being too professorial. The irony is that Republicans who have little to say about how to solve the nation's major problems are dominating the country's underlying philosophical narrative.

From Plaquemines Parish to Wall Street, we are seeing what happens when government takes too hands-off an approach to private economic actors. Yet the GOP is managing to sell the idea that the big issue in this election should be . . . government spending.

Professor Obama and his allies ought to be ashamed of this. The cure for malaise is to have a self-confident sense of purpose, and to act boldly in its pursuit.

bigger picture

So Obama used an Oval Office speech to address what they're doing about the oil spill, but also to 'pivot' to broader issues of energy independence. He didn't mention climate change, he didn't mention taxing carbon. Perhaps it's just as well because we don't have the votes anyway. Maybe the address was just about stemming the political fallout of this ongoing disaster, and if so I hope it had some effect toward that. (I'm certainly heartened by the news since that they were able to convince BP to put $20B in an escrow fund for victims/damages)

Above is Rachel Maddow giving a fake oval office address as a way of showing what she wished Obama had said. It's good, although I really don't know if taking such a bold stance would have been the smart political move for Obama. (He needs to use whatever capital he has left on getting stuff done, not making bold proclamations)

But I just wanted to use this little platform (it's what blog are for, right?) to point out how insane this all is from a big picture point of view. The planet is hurtling towards disaster and we as a people are not engaged in the least. If we had the same sense of urgency about addressing climate change as we do now about the oil spill we might actually get somewhere. But if anything the oil spill illustrates that people don't care about risks until they are literally screwing up their own lives. But by the time the icecaps melt there will be no way of cleaning up that mess. The pooch will officially be screwed.

I personally think of this issue as even more pressing than our economy, more pressing than health care or really ANY other issue. I supported tackling the economy and health care first because I thought it was necessary to successfully deal with those issues to gain the momentum that would be necessary to make the big changes to get us on an environmentally stable track. But instead an oil spill, which one would think would spur the public to demand more environmental sensitivity from their representatives, seems to be sapping all political will to do anything. It looks like we won't even be thinking about a course of action until after the midterms, after which, even if they go well, we'll have fewer seats... so I really can't imagine what we'll be getting done then, given the Republicans' complete intransigence on this and all other issues.

I saw one study (sorry, too lazy to find links right now) in which scientists predicted that if the Kerry/Lieberman/Graham energy bill were passed and we reached some sort of global accord on carbon emissions this year there would be a 75% chance we would make the necessary changes before reaching a point of no return (not that that these steps would do it alone, but if we could make them it would show us capable of facing hard realities, thereby suggesting we could follow up as necessary) but that if we do nothing we ('we' being humanity) would have a 1% chance of avoiding calamity. Obviously with an issue as complicated as this these numbers are somewhat pulled out of the air, and perhaps intended for political effect, but the basic point strikes me as valid. If not now, when?

Sometimes I think that the human species is just evil. That we are the locusts, the Cylons, or whatever analogy you want to use. But then I think that if any other species had as much power as we did they would surely behave the same. So I try to remind myself of that whenever I see an oiled pelican. Better you than me.

But when I read Charles Krauthammer ridicule Obama for even suggesting we should/could wean ourselves from fossil fuels I know no pelican is that kind of evil.

When I read Thomas Friedman say that Republicans need to see the harm deregulation can cause (no shit) but that Democrats need to see that the government can't solve this problem through regulation, and that what we need is for citizens to start riding their bikes more often and plant gardens, I can help but wonder if he's just being willfully naive about this. I suppose a newspaper columnist who wrote about how the human species is evil wouldn't help sell many papers, but surely Thomas Friedman realizes that this problem isn't going to be solved by individuals making personal lifestyle decisions. For one thing, corporations, whose environmental impact is many orders or magnitude greater than any individual literally are NOT ALLOWED to make decisions based on a sense of environmental responsibility/stewardship, unless that can somehow be parlayed into increased profit. They have but one obligation and that is to their bottom line and their shareholders. That isn't even a bad thing, so long as our eyes are open to this reality and we are prepared to make sure that corporations' interests are aligned with society's at large. But until we put a price on carbon to account for all its "externalities" we will never make serious progress towards re-orienting itself away from fossil fuels.

I just got back from Illinois where I visited the Lincoln museum in Springfield. Obviously in many ways the challenges of his day were much greater than our own. But one way in which our challenges are greater is that if we screw this up we literally screw it up for everyone that comes after us. I am still a huge admirer of our current President, but I have to say my hope that he will be able to steer this country into making the kinds of hard decisions it needs to is dwindling. We may simply be too far along the path toward self-destruction. We may have to shift the conversation to what kind of role we want our country to play on the world stage as our planet descends into environmental chaos.

Can someone please convince me I'm being too pessimistic? I would appreciate it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

more on "Obama's Katrina"
Larry Downing/Reuters

First, some words of wisdom from Douglas Adams:
"The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair."
So true.

Now back to the topic at hand...

Politico outlines criticisms of Obama's response:

People who have worked closely with Obama say he doesn't think like a bureaucrat, is far more interested in changing the way Washington works than in understanding its machinations and isn't excited by the kind of gears-of-government reforms that interested a previous generation of Democrats, particularly Al Gore.

The Gulf crisis has shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of Obama's unique management style, which relies on a combination of his own intellect, a small circle of trusted advisers and a larger group of outside experts. But it's also driven home a more generic lesson all presidents learn sooner or later: Administrations are defined, fairly or not, by their capacity to control stagnant backwater agencies, in Obama's case the Minerals Management Service, which failed to detect problems with the Deepwater Horizon well.

Even Obama's harshest critics acknowledge that the Deepwater Horizon spill, gushing a mile below the surface, is beyond the technical capacity of the federal government to fix. But Obama himself has identified a series of early missteps and oversights made by his administration that contributed to the crisis: Federal agencies accepted BP's outrageously low initial estimates of the spill rate, although the White House says the flow rate has nothing to do with the government's response; the administration didn't move quickly enough to reform MMS, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed; and the Coast Guard was slow in deploying booms and other oil-blocking materials requested by Gulf area governments.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other local officials have been far more critical, saying Obama's team failed to aggressively push on-scene federal agencies. The administration, they say, dragged its feet in green-lighting a plan to block some oil with sand barriers and took too long to deploy containment booms, in some cases waiting until the first wave of crude lapped into coastal wetlands.

"It's really difficult for presidents to find the right altitude to fly at," said former Clinton adviser Paul Begala, an Obama supporter. "You don't want to be Jimmy Carter, scheduling the White House tennis court -- and you don't want to be Ronald Reagan, not even knowing the name of your HUD secretary. I think all in all, President Obama has found the right altitude."

Still, Begala cautioned: "On this BP issue, he's flown far too high. ... I think we need more of a hands-on, take-charge kind of attitude. … I worry that he has too much faith in experts. I hear this a lot, 'we'll put the best people in the room.' They will mislead you."

White House officials are clearly tired of the Monday morning quarterbacking -- especially by Begala's former partner, Louisiana native and political analyst James Carville -- and say they have been planning for worst-case scenarios from Day One, regardless of BP's estimates of the spill's severity.

Obama -- a lightning quick study -- prefers to dip in and out on issues, micro-focusing on things he cares deeply about or on crises. Offshore drilling fit neither of those categories until the Deepwater Horizon rig sunk on April 20.

Just 18 days earlier -- on April 2 -- Obama insisted drilling is safe and a massive spill unlikely, despite the industry's mixed safety record and what he now decries as an overly "cozy" relationship between MMS and Big Oil. The president made the announcement in hopes of wooing conservative backing for his energy bill -- but he proceeded without challenging norms and questioning any basic assumptions.

Every modern president has had to wrestle the bureaucracy and juggle the micro with the macro. But despite his oft-repeated attacks on the "culture of Washington," Obama doesn't seem to possess the bone-deep distrust of federal bureaucrats that many of his predecessors with executive experience possessed.

In 1980, for example, during Bill Clinton's first term as Arkansas governor, Cuban detainees being housed at federal facility at Fort Chaffee rioted -- and Clinton was furious with Carter for reacting too slowly to the crisis, which cost Clinton reelection. Clinton seldom trusted what Cabinet officials told him -- and was suspicious even of his own appointees, often with good reason.

Gibbs, though, dismisses the notion that Obama was too trusting of the agencies handling the oil spill, saying Salazar had planned to reform oversight of offshore drilling but was preempted by the disaster.

E.J. Dionne:

White House aides admit that they mishandled the public side of the event even as they insist that from the moment the oil rig exploded, President Obama was deploying resources on a large scale and preparing for the worst. They say they got the statecraft right but the stagecraft wrong.

"Nobody can look at the response and say we were slow in doing what we were doing," senior adviser David Axelrod said in an interview. He pointed to a "whole range of steps" Obama "took right from the beginning." But he added: "We didn't communicate it well." Axelrod offers a long list of facts and figures to back up his portrait of an administration on top of things. What's not in doubt is that the Obama team's failure to explain what it was doing, to have someone speaking authoritatively about its plans, and to engage the president more visibly early on, all helped feed a media narrative no leader wants to face -- a public argument over whether his predicament more closely resembles Hurricane Katrina or the Iran hostage crisis.

Yet the simple truth is that the most important political issue facing the nation is not the oil spill, however horrific its effects will be, but the economy. And Friday's job numbers, while positive in theory, were nonetheless disappointing.

The trouble is that all of the president's talk about red ink undercuts support for the short-term spending measures that even his most deficit-conscious advisers know the economy needs. It's devilishly difficult to explain why deficits are good now and bad later. When a Democratic Congress has to pare back a job creation bill to get enough votes to pass it -- and can't find $23 billion to save the jobs of up to 300,000 teachers facing layoffs -- advocates of further stimulus have to know they are losing the political argument.

Thus Obama's test: He needs to establish that he is doing all he can to repair the damage in the gulf even as he maintains his focus on the economy and convinces reluctant conservative Democrats that the job of ending the downturn is not done. However unfair the first impressions of Obama's response to the oil spill may be, he can't afford to let them stand. He also can't afford to let oily waters engulf his priorities.

It's worth remembering that while the daily countdown on the Iran hostage crisis helped create a famous television show, it was an unruly economy that ultimately upended Jimmy Carter's presidency.

Jonathan Alter:

Obama's reaction to all the easy Katrina-Carter comparisons has been characteristically philosophical. I'm told by a senior White House official that he figures it's "our time in the barrel," and the accusations that he's an incompetent cold fish are "something to be aware of but not panic about." The easiest way to become Jimmy Carter, Obama rightly figures, is to drop everything else and focus solely on the crisis at hand, as Carter did in 1979–80 when Americans were held hostage in Iran for 444 days. So Obama postponed his trip to Asia and not much else. Among other issues he would have to ignore if he let the spill hijack his administration is, ironically, sanctions against Iran. Financial regulation, immigration, and Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court would also get swallowed by the gulf region. Focus groups run by Democrats show the public doesn't want Obama to stop multitasking.

Even so, some optical adjustment is essential. The White House political team is furious with James Carville for calling out the president in public as insufficiently forceful. But Carville was right to do so—it helped dent the imperviousness. Obama is planning an address to the nation, his first prime-time speech in a place (still undetermined) other than Congress. According to reports, he'll draw a bright line between the spill, which BP owns, and the restoration and recovery, which he owns. And he'll use the speech and several scheduled visits to the gulf to point out the need for comprehensive energy reform. The White House's new legislative strategy is to apparently attach a landmark change in energy policy—namely, a price on carbon—to the bill bringing aid to the region. Just as the 1969 oil spill that soiled the coast near Santa Barbara, Calif., helped lead to Earth Day and the establishment of the Clean Air Act, perhaps this spill will generate the nation's first true clean-energy program.

But for that to happen, Obama must be seen as an emotive and creative leader. He has to not just "feel our pain," but mobilize an army of the unemployed to clean up the tar balls that, after hurricane season hits, could spread across a swath of the South. No one expects Barack Obama to be Aquaman, diving a mile beneath the surface of the ocean to cap an oil well with his bare hands. But we do demand that he show us he's leading, not just tell us that he has.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Obama's Katrina?

The most important aspect of the oil spill in the Gulf is... all that oil being spilled into the Gulf, and the enormous environmental and economic impact it will have. So I don't want to diminish that by looking at it from a purely political angle, but of course it is also a political issue now, so it's worth addressing.

The notion of this being "Obama's Katrina" seems to have taken hold, at least in the punditocracy. I'm guessing Obama wasn't thrilled by Laura Bush's "defense" of their response to the spill:

"I think they're doing everything they can do. Absolutely. Just like we did with Katrina. You know, it's not one person's responsibility. The president can't do every single thing there is to do."

Thanks, Laura.

Beyond the surface similarities (an ongoing disaster being broadcast live on television, with the gov't unable to fix the problem) this USA Today from about 10 days ago that makes the case the Federal Gov't hasn't responded well the crisis. Click the link if you want to read the whole thing, but I'll just quickly summarize the basic points:
  • Chain of command... who's in charge? BP? Gov't? Some argue response should be Federalized. Some say the Coast Guard should be put in charge. (more recently R.Reich argued BP should be put in 'receivership,' in which the Fed Gov't would essentially temporarily take charge of the company)
  • Slow getting enough boom out there (LA has asked for 5 million feet worth)
  • Allowed oil to reach delicate marshland
  • Slow to approve sand berm plan (has since been approved)
This quote seems to sum up the overall sentiment:

Arthur Bradberry, owner of Artie's Sports Bar, says his business has dropped more than half since the spill began.

"They're all running around here and no one seems to know what's going on," he says of the federal and BP officials. "They should've done more from the start. They waited too late. Now, of course, they all want to blame each other."

The WaPo reports on what the WH has actually been doing:

The new normal at the Obama White House has required that a whole new schedule be laid on top of the old one. There is a daily oil-spill conference call for Cabinet officers, one for their deputies, yet another with the governors of affected states, and sometimes as many as three briefings a day that include the president himself.

"It's not as herky-jerky as it may come across," said Carol Browner, Obama's energy and climate adviser. "It's much more systematic."

But bureaucracies being what they are, it is also far from seamless. Though every day is jammed with interagency conference calls and a river of e-mails in between, some officials complain that at times they still feel like they are talking past each other.

In his radio address Saturday, Obama enumerated the scope of his endeavor to contain the damage, including 17,500 National Guard troops; 20,000 personnel protecting the waters and coasts; 1,900 vessels; 4.3 million feet of boom.

Obama has also called in some of the many scientists on the federal payroll, led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Chu at one point pushed the unusual idea of using gamma rays to peer into the blowout preventer to determine if its valves were closed, a technique he experimented with in graduate school while studying radioactive decay.

The suggestion at first elicited snickering and "Incredible Hulk" jokes. Then they tried it, and it worked. "They weren't hot on his ideas," a senior White House official said of BP's initial reaction to Chu's suggestions. "Now they are."

The president has pressured other oil companies to step up. At a May 3 dinner at the White House with business executives, says one official who was there, Obama bluntly told Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson that he expected the entire petroleum industry to dedicate its engineering talent to fixing the spill and preventing others. It is a question of duty, Obama told him -- and also of the industry's own financial interest.

But Obama and his team are still feeling their way, and it is not at all clear what this vast marshaling of resources will accomplish. Despite all its efforts, the government is still depending on BP to plug the leak. That is not likely to happen until August at the earliest.

The administration is focusing many of its resources on the cleanup operation, which will continue for years, and on mitigating the effects on the environment, which could be felt for decades. The Coast Guard has taken over the enormous effort to restore oil-blackened beaches.

"There's the acute, and there's the chronic," Browner said. "We have moved very much into 'How do you manage this, a difficult situation, over an extended period of time?' "

Obama has at times expressed frustration that the government continues to rely on BP for basic information about the spill. He has insisted that Washington develop its own, more accurate estimates of how much oil is flowing out of the hole.

BP spokeswoman Anne Kolton said the company has tried to "give our best estimate" and to be "open and honest and transparent." Yet whatever trust there was between the administration and BP has seemingly all but disappeared.

The White House has worked to keep the focus of public anger on the company -- and with it, give reassurance that there will be consequences and restitution. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has launched criminal and civil investigations, and the government has presented BP with a first bill for $69 million in cleanup costs. On his visit to the region Friday, Obama warned the firm against "nickel-and-diming" people and businesses harmed by the spill.

Kolton said the company's relationship with the federal government remains one of "coordination and cooperation." Yet she acknowledged: "The frustration is growing on their part. It's growing on our part. It's growing on the part of the people in the gulf."

White House officials complain, with some justification, that they are caught between contradictory narratives about their handling of the crisis: that the president is not engaged enough in the details of the response, or that he is getting bogged down in them; that he should spend more time in the gulf making common cause with its residents, or that his repeated trips down there are merely publicity stunts.

And there remains the question of whether, for all its efforts, the administration can really gain control, or even the illusion of it. BP did indeed shear the riser and put the cap on it as planned. But days later, everyone at the White House was still waiting to see if it had succeeded. And how would they know? When they got the word from BP.

Michael Tomasky on the politics of the spill:

The independent, middle-of-the-road voters who chose Obama over John McCain weren't crying: "Give us liberalism." They were pleading: "Give us competence."

The verdict so far? As Obama's poll numbers suggest, not terrible, but not so hot. The administration's biggest accomplishment, the passage of the health bill, was seen by all but liberals as the Democrats choosing ideology over competence, and thus wasn't and isn't very popular. On the plus side, the economy is picking up, the employment figures are improving, and there are signs that consumers are aware. There has been progress, however unspectacular, in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while the administration has not yet produced any diplomatic breakthroughs of note, neither has it precipitated any major crisis. The record has been good enough – barely – so that continued economic improvement and a diplomatic accomplishment or two will show voters that the guy is doing what they elected him to do.

But this oil spill, especially if it lingers until August, could change everything. This is not the moral equivalent of the Katrina catastrophe – in which, let us recall, some 1,500 Americans died. Most Americans seem to grasp this. However, people are desperate for action as more and more of the Gulf coastline comes under threat. And since surely no more than 2% of them even know who Tony Hayward – BP's chief executive – is, they quite understandably turn to the guy they do know: the president. Do … something.

Much discussed in recent days here in Washington is Obama's inability to "connect" with the frustrations and concerns of Joe Sixpack. It's a valid criticism. Obama appears to see himself as a mediator and conciliator, who vacuums up all (non-crazy) viewpoints and tries to express a consensus. This is a valuable skill, and at his best moments, he's put it to use either publicly or behind the scenes to nudge public opinion or get legislation passed. It's a style of leadership that has its place.

The spill requires a different style of leadership. It requires a leader who can give voice to what regular people are feeling in their bones. Obama has little instinct for that. His instinct is. "let's keep our heads here". There are times, though, when outrage is needed.

But even more than executive outrage, what we really need here is a solution of some kind. If BP's new attempt to cap the leak doesn't work, and if oil starts washing up on beaches and properties in a dramatic way – that is, if this disaster takes on a more urgent, more human dimension – then it really could become Obama's Katrina. Especially, let's face it, if the ooze and the calamity spread to the electorally pivotal state of Florida, which is just on the precipice of happening.

People are also looking for BP to be punished. Late this week, demonstrations began emerging outside BP petrol station-convenience stores across the country. But Washington has to do more. Congress is considering a bill raising BP's liability cap from the current $75m (£51m) to $10bn, but it's debating and dithering as usual. Earlier this week the US attorney general, Eric Holder, surveyed the damage, met with state law-enforcement types in the region and launched a criminal investigation aimed at BP. This marks a much tougher posture from the government, which, for public relations purposes, is much needed. And yet, at the same time, the government still needs to work closely with BP on fixing the problem. Ratcheting up the rhetoric and launching a federal investigation in that context are delicate matters, though not impossible ones.

Anyone who doesn't hate him has to feel a little badly for Obama. First, he got smacked with the financial crisis, leaving him to spend his first two years in office (if not more) cleaning up somebody else's mess. Then this, a uniquely perverse situation so lacking in precedent that there doesn't even exist a federal agency designed to deal with it.

But hey – he ran for the job, and he asked for it. He can still be the kind of transformative president he wants to be. But first things first. Show competence. Gain voters' trust. There's an old American saying in urban politics that there's not a Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. Nor to clean up an oil spill. Just get it done.

But there is a Democratic and Republican way to regulate industries (to do it, or not to do it, respectively). Tim Fernholz argues this was ultimately a regulatory failure (and that Obama's team dropped the ball):

The real failure here was in prevention. It was clear when Obama took office in 2009 that the Mineral Management Service, which regulates offshore oil drilling, was in desperate need of reform. At the time, I wrote a column about how the new administration could succeed at governing; one chief example was reforming the MMS, which had recently been exposed for a "culture of ethical failure." An influential transition briefing book prepared by the Center for American Progress discussed the need for reform of offshore drilling regulation. And though the president appointed Liz Birnbaum, a former congressional staffer, to head the agency, it's clear that she lacked the mandate, resources, and ability to change it. Birnbaum resigned last Thursday.

We know that BP told the government in 2008 that it could handle a spill 10 times larger than the current spill, a claim that was most certainly wrong and was alarmingly lacking in details about responding to a deep-water spill. We know that the MMS cut regulatory corners to meet a 30-day response deadline on a BP request that it could have delayed. Perhaps most damning, we know that in the weeks before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, the MMS approved a number of changes to the well, including a redesign that might have made the well more vulnerable. One of the requests was approved five minutes after it was submitted.

To liberals who hoped that, whatever the success of Obama's legislative agenda, his appointees would at least provide good governance, Deepwater Horizon is a devastating blow. Obama has already promised redoubled attention to offshore drilling: a moratorium on drilling while inspections continue, new rules separating the officials who permit drilling and those who supervise it, and legislation to ensure that BP covers the full cost of the cleanup. But despite regulatory successes in other areas -- notably, at the Department of Labor -- the liberal project of crafting an effective state has another hurdle to jump.

Looking at the issue from this angle, this particular bit of information (from Frank Rich's most recent column) is particularly damning:

The Times reported last week that at the administration meetings leading to this new drilling policy the subject of the vast dysfunction at the Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with regulating the drilling, never even came up.

It would seem absolutely plausible to me to say "hey, we were working on the economy, Afghanistan and heath care... doing an internal review of the MMS just didn't come up." But they did devise a new drilling policy. This was on their agenda. But the MMS didn't come up?
That was a major f--k up.

But then again the disfunctionality of the MMS, while it should have been Obama's radar, was not his doing. It was his predecessor's. Andrew Potter brings us back to the "Katrina" notion:

What made Katrina such a perfect symbol of Bush’s legacy was not that he was slow off the mark in taking charge. Rather, it was his cheerful indulgence of cronyism and you’re-doing-a-heckuva-job incompetence, which revealed the entire ideological thrust of his administration, namely that the federal government could never serve as a positive force in American life.

That essential point was made last week by Fox News commentator and former Mike Huckabee adviser Jim Pinkerton, who wrote on his blog that Obama has “finally confronted the reality that the federal government doesn’t work very well. Uncle Sam doesn’t have core competencies, he has core incompetencies.” This is, of course, just the latest version of the long-standing Republican gambit of denouncing the inadequacy of the very government they’ve been in charge of for most of the past 40 years. The strategy is always the same: once in power, start stuffing the most important agencies with partisan hacks who are either complete boneheads or actively hostile to the institution they serve. This ensures either regulatory failure or regulatory capture, which is subsequently used as proof that government is useless.

This is pretty much what happened with the Minerals Management Service, the agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for regulation of offshore oil drilling. As is now well known, the agency became thoroughly corrupted during the Bush years, to the point where dozens of MMS staff were caught doing drugs and sleeping with their counterparts from the energy industry—and that’s when they weren’t accepting free gifts and holidays from the companies they were supposed to be overseeing. Meanwhile, MMS scientists who raised concerns over the safety and environmental impact of proposed drilling projects were repeatedly muzzled by their bosses, even as energy companies were routinely permitted to more or less write their own inspection reports.
Occasionally, the Republican inclination to tweak the nose of their most loathed institutions results in pure comedy, as when Bush sent John Bolton to Turtle Bay to piss on all the rugs at the United Nations. But more often the result is nothing short of tragic.

While it has largely fallen out of the public’s interest, the methane explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 is in many ways even more scandalous than what is happening in the Gulf. The company responsible, Massey, had been repeatedly cited over the past few years for methane-related safety violations. Yet even though it was widely known to be running multiple unsafe operations, had one of the worst safety records in the country, had paid over US$4 million in criminal and civil fines for safety violations after a fire at another mine that killed two people in 2006, and had millions more in outstanding unpaid citations, the company was allowed to keep operating, and keep killing its workers.

Like the BP spill, the mine explosion happened under what was nominally Obama’s watch. But in both cases, the disasters were the inevitable failures of a regulatory apparatus that had been deliberately and systematically sabotaged under Bush’s two terms. That is why the BP spill is not even close to being “Obama’s Katrina.” If anything, it is George W. Bush’s Second Katrina—or, if you count the mine explosion, his Third Katrina. Or, if you count the regulatory capture of the SEC by Wall Street and the way permitting investment banks to self-regulate contributed to the mortgage crisis, his Fourth Katrina.

The question that should really be worrying Americans is just how many ticking time bombs the Republicans have left strewn throughout the federal regulatory infrastructure. Where will the next disaster strike? Which agency will be held responsible? The only certainty is that the longer the Democrats are in power, the easier it will be for Republicans to blame the President, or, ideally, blame the very idea of government.

This isn’t mere partisanship, it is nihilism. And it is pure poison in a democracy.

Matt Bai: doesn't see the issue in terms of 'competency' or regulation... instead he describes what he calls "political chaos theory:"

As much as we talk about ideology and competence, our judgment of presidents doesn’t hinge on either of these things in isolation. What matters is the perception — or perhaps the illusion — that one is shaping events, rather than being shaped by them. The modern presidency, like the old “Get Smart” series, is about chaos versus control.

Political chaos theory, if you want to call it that, has always been integral to the American presidency. It’s what Abraham Lincoln understood when, days after taking office, he sought to take charge of events at Fort Sumter, rather than heed the advice of those who thought he should simply let them play out. Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated the same essential insight in confronting the Great Depression — that people needed to know you would impose order, even if not every attempt at doing so worked. (Roosevelt and his intrepid New Dealers would probably be thinking about ways to drain the Gulf of Mexico right about now.)

Mr. Obama seems to find it particularly hard to adjust to this role, perhaps because he has always defined himself as an outsider to Washington and its governing apparatus — someone who would reform government, but not necessarily master its inner workings. This, after all, was the subtext of his entire debate with Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primaries in 2008; she was the insider who could competently work all the pulleys and levers of government, and he was the outsider looking to cast aside what he later called the “childish things” that dominated debate in Washington.

The problem here for Mr. Obama is that, almost 18 months after assuming office, he still seems to regard himself as something of an intellectual critic of government, when, in fact, what Americans expect from him now is markedly different. The transition is long behind us, which means the president embodies the government he once assailed and is held accountable, fairly or not, for its failures.

John Heilemann on some of the ways Obama could use this an opportunity to make big changes:

The primary demands on it [the White House] since the start of the spill have been two: that the administration do something, anything, to get the freaking hole plugged, and that Obama display some semblance of outrage, empathy, or both. But these twin demands have proved to be equally resistant to remedy. Both, it turns out, involve forces of nature—a volcanic undersea geyser, on the one hand, and Obama’s decidedly unvolcanic personality, on the other—apparently impervious to the world’s most advanced technology (in the case of the former) and the cacophonous braying of the punditocracy (in the case of the latter).

In his interview with Larry King last week, Obama tried to put to rest the emotion-free POTUS meme. “I am furious at this entire situation,” he said. “I would love to spend a lot of my time venting and yelling at people. But that’s not the job I was hired to do. My job is to solve this problem.”

A fair point, no doubt, and I suspect that most voters wouldn’t mind Obama’s lack of histrionics if they saw from his administration a response to the crisis commensurate with its scale. But they do not. Confronted with this criticism, defenders of the president have asked repeatedly, What precisely should Obama be doing that he isn’t doing? And the point underlying that question, too, is fair—but only insofar as it relates to jamming or capping the gash in the ocean floor, where BP’s prowess (such as it is) dwarfs the government’s. In the weeks ahead, however, there are at least three broad areas where the Obamans could and should fashion responses as great as the cataclysm at hand.

Legislative. In his speech last week at Carnegie Mellon University, Obama vowed to put his shoulder into passing the comprehensive energy/climate bill awaiting action in the Senate, noting that “the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them … we will get it done.” Obama’s words echoed what White House aides have been telling clean-energy advocates privately for weeks. Yet even as they made those assurances, Obama’s political and legislative strategists have been deliberating over how much capital to invest in what could well be a losing cause—for as Obama correctly noted, enacting the legislation will be an uphill push, and one made all the more daunting by the fact that the loosening of offshore-drilling restrictions that was a key to the bill’s passage is effectively off the table.

But now Obama has decided, I am told, to go all-in on bringing the measure home. The question is what the White House believes that going all-in entails. The temptation will be to try and pass it by cutting deals and scratching for votes one by one. But this is not (or not only) a moment for playing the inside game. This is a moment that screams for Obama to turn the bill into a crusade, to hammer home the connection between the BP spill and the need to end our addiction to oil, to shout from the rooftops his vision of a cleaner, greener energy future.

Corporate. The criminal and civil investigations—and, one hopes, prosecutions and ginormous fines—of BP and others are well and good. But they seem too small, pedestrian, and, you know, legalistic (especially since none of the company’s executives is likely to serve hard time) to provide rough-enough justice given the circumstances. The former Labor secretary Robert Reich got a ton of ink when he suggested that Obama place BP’s U.S. subsidiary into temporary receivership. Whatever the idea’s other merits, it would go a long way toward establishing that Obama is, in James Carville’s phrase, the oil titan’s “daddy.”

Even better would be penalties that force BP simultaneously to pay for its sins and contribute to a future where its profitability would be severely undermined. As readers of Daniel Gross’s column in Slate suggested, why not compel BP either to put a nontrivial percentage of its profits or an amount matching dollar for dollar the damages it has caused in the gulf into developing and making publicly available alternative-energy technologies?

Conservationist. The mitigation of the spill’s effects and the cleanup of the gulf—from the ocean itself to the wetlands and beaches of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, at a minimum—seem destined to be a Herculean task, requiring the work of many thousands of laborers. At a time when the unemployment rate is still hovering near double digits, and when the local economies hit most directly are likely to be decimated, Obama could transform the effort into a massive jobs program, funded not by the government but by BP. At the same time, he could create a new volunteer national-service organization dedicated to the cause. A Democratic operative of my acquaintance has already coined a name for this putative operation: the Gulf Recovery Corps.

Each of these suggestions has much to commend it on purely substantive grounds. America needs energy reform; BP needs to have its teeth kicked in; the gulf needs saving. But these proposals would also help Obama attend to the political imperatives the crisis has thrust upon him. They would pull him out of his defensive crouch and put him firmly on offense. Executed well, they’d quash the questions being raised by his opponents about his competence. And they would help restore the perception of Obama as a man of big talents and big ambitions ideally suited to a time in history full of big, even epochal challenges.

More from Frank Rich, who thinks Obama is too trusting of other 'elites' as being essentially good people, but nevertheless shares Heilemann's hope that Obama could use this moment outline an overarching narrative to convince Americans for the need for reform on many fronts:

Americans are still seething at the bonus-grabbing titans of the bubble and at the public and private institutions that failed to police them. But rather than embrace a unifying vision that could ignite his presidency, Obama shies away from connecting the dots as forcefully and relentlessly as the facts and Americans’ anger demand.

BP’s recklessness is just the latest variation on a story we know by heart. The company’s heedless disregard of risk and lack of safeguards at Deepwater Horizon are all too reminiscent of the failures at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and A.I.G., where the richly rewarded top executives often didn’t even understand the toxic financial products that would pollute and nearly topple the nation’s economy. BP’s reliance on bought-off politicians and lax, industry-captured regulators at the M.M.S. mirrors Wall Street’s cozy relationship with its indulgent overseers at the S.E.C., Federal Reserve and New York Fed — not to mention Massey Energy’s dependence on somnolent supervision from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Given Toyota’s recent game of Russian roulette with Americans’ safety and Anthem Blue Cross’s unconscionable insurance-rate increases in California, Obama shouldn’t have any problem riveting the country’s attention to this sorry saga. He has the field to himself, thanks to a political opposition whose hottest new star, Rand Paul, and most beloved gulf-state governor, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, both leapt to BP’s defense right after the rig exploded. The Wall Street Journal editorial page perfectly set forth the conservative establishment’s party line on May 26: “There is zero evidence so far that this blowout resulted from lax regulation or shoddy practices.” Or as BP’s Hayward asked indignantly, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?”

If Obama is to have a truly transformative presidency, there could be no better catalyst than oil. Standard Oil jump-started Progressive Era trust-busting. Sinclair Oil’s kickback-induced leases of Wyoming’s Teapot Dome oilfields in the 1920s led to the first conviction and imprisonment of a presidential cabinet member (Harding’s interior secretary) for a crime committed while in the cabinet. The Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s and the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 sped the conservation movement and search for alternative fuels. The Enron scandal prompted accounting reforms and (short-lived) scrutiny of corporate Ponzi schemes.

This all adds up to a Teddy Roosevelt pivot-point for Obama, who shares many of that president’s moral and intellectual convictions. But Obama can’t embrace his inner T.R. as long as he’s too in thrall to the supposed wisdom of the nation’s meritocracy, too willing to settle for incremental pragmatism as a goal, and too inhibited by the fine points of Washington policy debates to embrace bold words and bold action. If he is to wield the big stick of reform against BP and the other powerful interests that have ripped us off, he will have to tell the big story with no holds barred.

That doesn’t require a temper tantrum. Nor does it require him to plug the damn hole, which he can’t do anyway. What he does have the power to fix is his presidency. Should he do so, and soon, he’ll still have a real chance to mend a broken country as well.

So is it "Obama's Katrina?" To some extent we're talking about public perception here, rather than any objective reality. In that sense it may be his Katrina, although typically these things gain traction because they play into pre-established narratives (Dems being elite snobs, Republicans being corrupt, Dems having affairs, Republicans having gay affairs, etc.) I've seen Republicans say "can you imagine if this was happening under Bush?" And indeed the outrage would probably be greater, but that's also because Bush helped gut the MMS and was cozy with the oil industry, so would actually makes more sense to blame him. With Obama the narrative doesn't make as much sense (he believes in the role of government to help people, believes in regulation, isn't cozy with the oil industry). But if the spill leaves a lasting impression of incompetence, or that Obama is 'out of his depth' (pun intended) it could have a lasting impact on the rest of his presidency. On the other hand perhaps he will be able to use it as an "educational moment" for the nation and get us on the path to making some long overdue changes. One can HOPE(tm).

What do you guys think?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

an email conversation

between me and someone else...


Someone else:
Both articles are good. The NYT article was very well thought-out and the Post article was very emotive.
We are all so angry and distraught over this situation. It is like waiting for a devastating hurricane that may last decades. Our way of life is totally threatened.
We walked on the beaches this weekend, sugar sands and pristine water. The sea birds and turtles are nesting in the Ft. Pickens area. All seems so serene and yet 7 miles off shore with the winds blowing our way is the massive monster getting ready to attack us and Washington is sending down lawyers. We need booms, man-power, permission to build sand bars to block the monster. But nothing is getting done. People down here are distraught . We had Ivan, Dennis, the fall-out from Katrina , the Great Recession, and now this. We are truly cursed.


Robert Reich provides a word/legal process for what I've been thinking from the beginning: Receivership. This is what Obama/the Federal Gov't taking charge would actually look like.

Here are two posts outlining the strategy and what we could be doing:

they need to get on it

also, this is worth watching. deja vu indeed.

It's fair to hold Obama accountable for not doing enough... but let's not forget who the real villain is here.

Someone else:

LIked the engineer's ideas. Hated Reich's ideas. BP would love to just walk away from this and turn it over to the govt. BO can increase taxes on their USA production and they will just sell to China and India. This is truly BO's Katrina.
We are truly sick at heart about all of this.

Someone else (again):

Since I am reading your points of view, I hope you will read some of mine.


Oh boy, where to begin... I'll just start from the beginning and work my way down.

Noonan calls healthcare reform "unnecessary." I'm not even going to argue this point because after a full year of debate on this issue anyone who still thinks that is clearly beyond reach. But I will say that Obama tackled the issue not out of some abstract, intellectual interest in the theory of gov't but because real people were suffering and dying and going bankrupt because of our broken medical system (not to mention it was stifling our economy). Meanwhile Republicans saw the battle in purely political terms, believing that to defeat Obama on the issue would be his Waterloo, with absolutely no concern for the welfare of the American people. That was what the "war" against Romneycare, excuse me, Obamacare, was really about. So who is it that's disconnected from the needs of ordinary Americans again?

Next: "Indifference" to immigration? Was it not the Republican party who killed immigration reform just a couple years ago? It had the votes (and the support of the Bush WH), but it didn't have "the majority of the majority" of Republican Senators, so they killed it. And let's be brutally frank, the reason the Republican base reacted so violently against reform is because they don't like brown people. At all. And so Republican leadership went along with their crazies and kicked the can down the road. But now our broken borders are Obama's fault?

"Dodging and dithering" in response to the spill? As you saw in that Maddow video on the Ixtoc spill, we've seen this movie before and we know how it ends: eventually, months from now, they'll finish the relief well and be able to plug the hole. In the mean time an incredible amount of oil will spill into the gulf and cause untold damage. We've known for decades that that was the risk. It took them 10 months to plug a hole 150 feet underwater in 1979, and now we're drilling a mile under water, without any advances in dealing with the eventual spill (yes, eventual, accidents always happen sooner or later). And, yet, where has the Republican party been on the issue over all these years? Deregulation! Drill baby drill! Dick Cheney went to great effort to get government off the backs of the oil companies. And yet... this is supposed to be Obama's Katrina.

Let's continue: The American people are worried about high gov't spending? First of all, it's that high gov't spending that kept this country from plummeting into a great depression. Obama inherited an economy in free fall because of a financial crisis which was a direct consequence of... you guessed it!... Republican deregulation! And now, just as Republicans blame Obama for a spill that resulted from theirpolicies of deregulation, they now try to blame the economy that they broke on Obama's efforts to fix it. They know that if Obama cuts back on spending it will further depress the economy... which they can then turn around and blame on him. Chutzpah.

I notice Noonan is very interested in how Obama "seems," as if he's a character in a movie that needs better writers. She was unimpressed by Obama's command of the facts because it lacks emotional force, it lacks drama. It is very true that Obama is far more interested in actually solving problems than putting on a show designed to project the impression that he's solving problems. From a public relations point of view this indeed causes him some problems. But what this actually tells us is that Obama is a grown up. And yet here Noonan is criticizing him for that? Why is it that Republicans put so much stock in stagecraft? Flying onto an aircraft carrier off the coast of California in a flight suit and speaking in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner did not win the war in Iraq. Whatever theatrics Noonan demands of Obama in this case would be equally ineffective.

But the overarching baloney to all this is that Obama is dealing with problems "of his own making," when in fact every single one of these things was handed to him by the Republicans who made such a royal mess of everything during Bush's Presidency that we'll be cleaning up after them for decades. The power of government does not lie in its ability to fix catastrophes of others' making. It's in preventing them in the first place. But here we come to those nasty words again: "Regulation," "Oversight." But now Noonan thinks the oil spill discredits the idea that government should have a role in our lives... and it doesn't take a psychic to see where this is headed: since the gov't is so inept we might as well get it out of big business's hair and keep deregulating! Sounds familiar: Bush gutted FEMA, and when it failed to respond to Katrina Republicans said it showed that government doesn't work and so shouldn't be trusted. Lewis Carroll would appreciate the logic.

And where are we going from here? You would think a catastrophe like this would spur us to finally develop and sign into law a sane energy policy that moves us away from fossil fuels. And yet because of this oil spill we are LESS likely to pass any kind of energy policy. Why? Because Republicans have already made it clear they will fight any plan that does not include massive expansion of offshore drilling tooth and nail? That is insane. (Unless you're a politician primarily concerned about staying on Big Oil's payroll, in which case it actually makes a lot of sense)

I truly wish the GOP would stop playing politics with every issue and actually engage in trying to solve our country's problems. Obama would be more than happy to meet them half way if they were actually willing to make serious compromises of their own. (Lord knows he's infuriated his base with his constant overtures to Republicans) But it seems like its all just a political game for the GOP. All about scoring points. About trying to keep Obama from having any success out of fear he would get the credit. So instead they do everything in their power to hamstring his efforts to fixtheir messes and root for him to fail (and the rest of the country with him) so that they can take back power. This, from a group that wraps itself in the flag and regularly accuses Dems of lacking patriotism. The cynicism is breathtaking.

We've got crises going on all over the place. In addition to the oil spill there's the economy/jobs, there's Afghanistan, Iraq (remember that place?), Israel/Palestine, Iran, N.Korea, immigration, global warming, energy, education... the list goes on. This is no time for cheap political posturing. In Obama we have a leader who is competent, never gets rattled, never holds grudges, and who understands these issues better than any other politician bar none. Yes, he is human, he makes mistakes, and I do think he has not been aggressive enough with BP. But our problems don't stem from Obama. They stem from corporations run amok, aided and abetted by Republicans.

Regarding the "receivership" idea, it's the opposite of what you seem to think it is. The idea is to take over BP to spend their money and use their resources to fix their mess (that's effecting all the rest of us and destroying the environment). Right now BP is still making huge profits, even taking into account the $$ they're spending on cleanup. Resources that could be used to help the cleanup effort are being used to elsewhere. It's time ALL their resources are devoted to fixing this problem. Right now BP and other oil companies are the only people who have the equipment and personnel who can perform many of the things that we could be doing to ameliorate the problem (such as the ideas proposed by that engineer in the second link I sent you). A receivership takes the wheel from them and makes them do what's right. Trust me, they won't love it. If it bankrupts their entire company I won't be shedding any tears. But Obama isn't Superman, he can't fix a problem without the tools needed, the tools that BP and these other companies have, which is why he should just take what's needed and make them do it. But unfortunately neither Obama, and CERTAINLY no Republicans want to play hardball with those guys. Obama because he thinks we can all get along, and Republicans because they're in the pocket of Big Oil (yes, some Dems too... but Republicans as a group)

Sorry for the rant, but when you send me something like that know that I will read it and you will get a response, haha. I feel strongly about this stuff... but I also don't take it personally. When it comes to politics we both think each other are crazy, and that's ok!