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.
That sense of bigness was, of course, a signature of Obama’s campaign persona—sometimes to a fault. (One cringes at the memory of him, on the night he wrapped up the Democratic nomination, declaring that future generations would recall that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”) But at times in his presidency, the grandness of Obama’s rhetoric and self-conception has been matched with a more quotidian reality, and the vastness of the problems he’s identified with solutions that seem, if not small bore, inadequate to the task at hand and to their billing.
The BP spill offers Obama a chance to chart a different course—and if he happens to need a road map, history provides one. The launch of Sputnik prodded America to enter the race for space and JFK to pledge to put a man on the moon. The horrors of Selma led LBJ to press for the Voting Rights Act. In each case, a president confronted by a crisis turned it into an opening for progress. If Obama fails to do the same, his political standing may or may not wind up as coated in tar as the Gulf Coast’s wetlands. But he will have missed the kind of historic opportunity that his presidency was built to seize.