On day 46 of the BP oil spill, Barack Obama made his third visit to the Gulf of Mexico since the start of the disaster. And although he didn’t don a wetsuit (as Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell suggested recently that Bill Clinton would have done were he still in office) or come right out and say, “Message: I care” (as George H.W. Bush once did), the TV pictures of Obama commiserating with the beleaguered residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana, conveyed a message no less blunt or blatant.
For Obama, the trip marked the end of a week spent frantically attempting to corral a narrative spinning out of control. From Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a criminal and civil investigation of BP and others to the president’s speech previewing a renewed push for an energy/climate bill and his decision to cancel (for the second time) his scheduled trip to Indonesia and Australia, every action by Team Obama seemed designed to counter the perception of an administration overwhelmed and impotent—and of a president too cerebral, too stoic, and too supine. As this column went to press, there were signs that BP’s “cut-and-cap” effort to contain the spill just might work. And those hopeful glimmers in turn raised the possibility that the political fallout just might be contained, too.
To which I say: fat chance. With somewhere between 25 million and 50 million gallons of crude already having leaked into the gulf—and that’s the conservative estimate, people—the scope of the calamity facing the country’s southern coast (at least) is already beyond reckoning. As the surface slicks and sprawling underwater plumes approach the shoreline, the economic and environmental costs are bound to be staggering, and the images nearly as irresistible to cable producers as the deep-sea video of the endless gusher. In other words, even after nearly two months, this crisis is just beginning.
The political hurdles confronting Obama, then, remain enormous, possibly even greater than the ones that the accident has presented thus far. But on the flip side of every danger lies an opportunity—and the BP spill is no exception. As much as pulling the country back from the economic brink or passing health-care reform, the catastrophe in the gulf offers Obama a chance to rise to the occasion, and in the process not only validate his conception of progressive, activist, and competent governance but reclaim the visionary mantle that inspired so many during his campaign.
In a way, perversely, this new phase of the crisis should be a cause for relief in the White House. The primary demands on it 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.