The White House has apparently realized that they have something of a perception problem when it comes to President Obama and the federal government's response to the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. So this week will be devoted to attempting to redeem Obama's image as being "in charge" of what is going on down there. Today, the president flew down to the Gulf, where he will be visiting all the states that have so far been affected. He'll spend the night in the region, then fly back to Washington to give his first-ever Oval Office address to the nation on primetime television. Wednesday, the bigwigs of BP will come to the White House for a meeting.
All this activity is welcome, because up until now the White House has seemed a bit adrift in their response to the tragedy. They may have been on top of the entire situation from Day One, as they claim, but it wasn't readily apparent to the public, meaning they either were actually adrift, or they have been having a communication and press relations problem. This must be frustrating to the White House, since the press has been somewhat lacking in their own response and coverage. Case in point, after obsessing for a solid week that the president needed to "show some rage" over the situation, the press immediately pounced when Obama did show a bit of annoyance, immediately proclaiming that he was "too angry," or the press just giggled in true Beavis and Butthead fashion: "heh heh heh... the president said ass... heh heh."
But the biggest factor in this disaster, and in the response, is that it is happening very slowly. It's not like a tornado or earthquake or flash flood, in other words. What this means is that, while the president has been criticized for the apparent slowness of his response, there is plenty of time to turn that perception around.
The size and scale of this disaster is going to be immense. It already is immense, out in the Gulf. But it is not -- yet -- an immense disaster on the land. Before anyone misinterprets that, please allow me to clarify. The places where oil has come ashore are a disaster -- I am in no way trying to minimize this at all. But from watching the nightly maps of the Gulf and the coastal areas actually inundated with oil, what is remarkable is how lucky the region has been so far, in that water and wind have not spread the oil even further than the areas already affected. Compare the size of the oil spill out in the water to the actual sections of coastline hit so far, and you can easily see that this could be far, far worse by now than it already is.
This could happen at any time. There's a lot of oil out there, and all it would take would be a change in the weather to plaster the entire coastline (instead of just a few barrier islands here and there) with a sheen of oil, from the entire coast of Florida all the way to Texas. And, a fact not many have noted, hurricane season just began. One hurricane stirring things up in the Gulf could multiply this disaster's size a hundredfold from anything we've seen yet.
This is a valid worry, because there will be a lot of oil out there for a long time to come. The well likely won't be plugged until one of the relief wells is completed, which won't happen until (at the earliest) the end of July. Meaning the disaster is replenishing itself at the source. Even after the well is capped, the oil will still be in an enormous stretch of water, and depending on tide and currents, could start washing up on beaches hundreds and hundreds of miles away from anything we've seen yet.
What I am trying to say is: the worst is most likely yet to come. Especially for the shoreline, and the people who live there and make their livings there. A huge amount of the region's economic activity comes from tourism. And the tourists are staying away. If the area affected on the coast gets bigger, the tourist trade will cease entirely. After all, who wants to go to a beach covered in oil?
This is why it is not too late for President Obama to take the reins of this whole operation, which he has obviously planned to do this week. Last Friday, I urged him to do so:
Last week, of course, the media was obsessing over how Obama spoke about the Gulf. Obama obliged them a bit with his "whose ass to kick" statement midweek. But the real problem is not Obama's level of emotion, it's the actual content of what he's saying. And that content needs to get a whole lot stronger very quickly, or else he's going to be seen as standing on the sidelines of the entire problem.
So this week, rather than discrete talking points, I present a speech I'd like to see Obama give. Pre-empt some silly summer television season for a 20-minute speech from the Oval Office, and speak directly to the nation. If Obama said even a tiny portion of the following, it would do him some real good at this point.
But whatever he says, he simply has got to break out of his reactive passivity, and in some way or another grasp the reins of the situation. No, he can't personally swim down and plug the leak, but he sure could be doing a lot of other things at this point, to float ideas on what to do next.
I went on to suggest a few ideas for what to do, including getting FEMA down there to start issuing checks to people whose claims BP wasn't paying fast enough. The White House announced yesterday that they're going to force BP into setting up an escrow account (which better be at least ten billion dollars) and turn over the claims processing to a third-party entity. This may be an even more elegant solution to the problem, I have to admit.
But the key sticking point is that BP is not legally obligated to set up such an escrow fund. Passing a law in Congress forcing them to do so would be blatantly unconstitutional, and would take too long in any case.
This is where Obama can shine. Because he has no legal leverage, he must use the leverage of public opinion instead. He needs to announce tomorrow night that he will be bringing to the meeting with BP executives a piece of paper for them to sign. This will be a legally-binding promise to set up such an escrow account (again, no mention of the size of this account has been made by the White House, but it better be at least ten billion dollars, to show everyone that BP is serious), and a legally-binding promise for them to make good on paying the damages to people's lives caused by their oil well blowing up. Whether it's an individual who has been laid off or a business that is going to lose the three-month "season" that they rely on to pay their bills all year long, BP needs to make sure everyone is compensated fully.
Obama, by forcing them to do so on a very public stage, is going to show leadership on the issue that will be remembered. By handing the claims processing off to a third party, Obama will be seen as providing fairness for everyone affected. BP really doesn't have a choice, here. If they refuse to sign, then we're going to see some real outrage out there -- and not just in the area directly affected.
Exxon successfully fought in the arena of the courts, and wound up paying far less than it could have (or should have) in the Valdez spill. This was mostly because they had the money for lawyers to stretch the proceedings out for decades (a final judgment in the case just happened, for instance). By that time, the American public wasn't paying any attention to Alaskan fisherman anymore, and there was no public outcry or boycott of Exxon stations.
Obama has to make sure BP doesn't have this route open to them. And the way to do it is to get them to sign legally-binding promises now -- while America's attention is focused on BP, the spill, and the cleanup. If BP refused to do so, not a lot of people are going to be filling up at their gas stations -- that's my guess, anyway.
If Obama can manage to force this agreement on BP now, and if the escrow fund is quickly set up and the third party quickly begins dispersing checks to affected people, then there will be a lot of people on the Gulf Coast whose lives can be made better by direct presidential intervention. Which is another way of saying leadership.
Obama was slow to react to the disaster. Luckily for him, the disaster itself is happening in slow motion as well. And we have not yet seen the true size and scope of how the oil is going to affect the Gulf Coast. The worst is yet to come. But, to be cynical for a moment, by that time the American media may have deemed the story to be "old news" and may be covering other things. The media has been devoting a lot of time and attention to the spill so far (in a haphazard sort of way), so much so that it has all but dominated the news for about the past three weeks, if not longer. But the American attention span is notoriously short, and pretty soon the public is going to get tired of hearing about oil in the Gulf. "Another bird covered in brown goop, ho hum, let's see what's on Comedy Central," they'll say, and the news media will move on to fresher disasters to occupy their time.
That is when it would be too late for the White House to show leadership on the issue. While many have criticized Obama and his team for not being more proactive for the past two months, that period may be forgiven (if not entirely forgotten) by the people in the Gulf region -- if, by the time the coastline really gets hit hard (in hundred-mile long stretches), there is a visible army of cleanup workers and a visible navy of boats offshore battling it, and Obama is credited with kicking BP's ass to make it happen. If people are regularly and reliably getting paid by the escrow fund, it will mitigate the helplessness and frustration so many in the region are feeling now.
So, while it may be a little bit late, it is definitely not too late for Obama to lead. He can still redeem himself and his image. What he does and says this week may prove to be the difference in how he is thought of in the future when the subject of the oil spill is remembered. Because most Americans don't play the media game of "Obama needs to be angry / Obama's too angry" -- what most Americans care about (especially those directly affected) is actual results. And while this week is obviously chock full of photo ops for the president, what is going to matter most in later weeks is not how Obama looks or seems this week, but what he manages to get done.
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