Thursday, June 10, 2010

No magic wand

According to the pundits, Gulf Coast residents are supposedly mad at President Obama for not keeping the oil from threatening their beaches and marshes. We hear this from political opposition on the right and liberal pundits on the left bored by the president's cerebral approach to problem-solving. But when you actually talk to the people down there, many believe that Obama gave the problem his attention from the beginning and is doing all he can to help. The majority of the coastal people blame BP for the problem. (I know this because I know some people who live there.)

Obama's campaign for president cultivated a myth of godlike powers for the immature – and some still want to buy into the magic narrative, showing disdain toward Obama for not showing some emotion and fixing the problem right now – pundits Savannah Guthrie on MSNBC and James Carville on CNN come to mind. Another, columnist Maureen Dowd, wrote that "Barack Obama is a guy who is accustomed to having stuff go right for him." (Huh? Ms. Dowd is obviously bored and cannot find anything else to write about.) Sunday talk show panelists parroted her idea, followed by "and now look what's happening to him": A vast oil spill brings disaster in the Gulf; Israel complicates Mideast diplomacy by killing would-be blockade breakers; and the new job numbers are lousy.

Also on the left, Atlantic writer Joshua Green criticizes Obama for "his abiding faith in the judgment of experts." Columnist Frank Rich agrees: Whether the subject is the oil spill or the troubled campaign in Afghanistan or even predicting future unemployment rates, Obama has erred by relying on experts. Solving these problems "may be beyond the reach of marathon brainstorming by brainiacs," Rich writes, "even if the energy secretary is a Nobel laureate."

If not brainiac experts, just who should Obama be listening to? Should he check his horoscope like the Reagans did or just 'follow his gut' like Bush did or 'feel our pain' like Clinton did? The worst Obama decisions – going passive during the health care ruckus and pushing for new offshore drilling – were because he did not listen to science, economic and military experts, but from listening to his political advisers. For the oil spill, he is listening to the best science and military advisors available – just as he should.

Obama's "magic" was in campaign politics – now he has to work to solve problems with which any president would have a tough time. There has never been a time in history when a president did not have to deal with bad, scary problems. For example, the economy is a long-term and structural challenge, made tougher by the recent recession. No one is going to cheer a 9.7 percent jobless rate, even if it was a tad below April's. But it would probably have gone a lot higher without the stimulus. The stimulus did not end the scourge of high unemployment – it just kept us from going into a depression. It kept us from going over the cliff.

I do agree with Obama's critics who complain that plans to expand offshore drilling before cleaning up Minerals Management Service – which is supposed to regulate the industry – was hasty. The administration is now reversing plans on deepwater offshore drilling pending an investigation of what went wrong. But those on the right are complaining Obama has not stopped the crisis a mile underwater. Apparently, these detractors would only accept his actions if he were to put on a cape, dive to the bottom of the Gulf, and suck up every last bit of oil in one huge breath, expelling it directly into an oil refinery which BP would refine and deliver to the American population for free as penance. Then they want him is to use god-like strength to plug the hole.

Some on the left are asking why the administration put faith in BP's early reports about the blowout. Who else is supposed to stop the flow? The military does not have the technology to stop oil flows a mile or more beneath the surface of the water. BP was supposed to have the technology to do that.

What is the proper government response? Do what it can to keep as much oil as possible from shore, and to clean up the oil on the shore and in the water, as BP tries to fix the well. The administration is doing that with all resources presently available. For those who say that we need ships from the military out there – navy tankers are already out there. For those who say other nations should send vessels – not many other nations have the capability to drill or capture oil from the ocean.

What went wrong? I think we will find that BP cut corners to hurry up the drilling and start the profit-making oil flowing. I think we will find that BP pushed the envelope beyond its own expertise in drilling the world’s first deepwater oil well. I think we will find that BP lied to MMS about its capability to clean up a spill. And we will find that MMS was negligent in its oversight of the oil industry. BP’s arrogance would be similar to NASA sending a man to the moon before the technology to bring him back had been developed.

To those who want Obama to “lose it” just once: I prefer a calm leader who works with the most respectable expert opinions he can find. If you stop to think about it, this is what America really wants. In dealing with a crisis, Obama may not make the grade as a god, but as an intelligent man playing a tough hand, he is really doing as well as any human could do – better than Reagan or Bush did with their crises. Listen up, you immature whiners (yes, I am speaking to you, James Carville): stopping the waves from bringing the oil to shore is a job for Neptune, or BP, not the president. Obama cannot raise a magic wand and force the oil back into the hole. There are things he can do, but they are not exciting enough for the punditry.

The pundits are stirring the pot, as they always do, because they are bored. They are bored with the war in Afghanistan. They are bored with Iran. They are bored with the recession. They are bored with the Middle East. They must have something, anything, to hyperventilate over 24-7 to get their ratings up. So they are now hyperventilating over President Obama not cleaning the oil up ‘fast enough.’ They are hyperventilating over Obama not emoting enough – not showing enough anger to suit them.

It is easy to sit back and criticize without having to give real solutions. I would like to see these critics do a better job than Obama in cleaning up the oil and stopping the spill – which they cannot do because no one has a magic wand to make it all go away.