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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.


gilbs said...

Thanks for posting this. I was a little shocked to see that US opinion of Obama's handling of the oil spill is much, much worse than US opinion of Bush's handling of Katrina.

Lee said...

that's disappointing

Lee said...

Kevin Drum addressed this: