On a Sewanee alumni list a participant (name removed) self-described as independent right-leaning, asked how those who had supported Obama felt about his handling of the spill. One of the responses caught my eye and he gave me permission to use it:
It looks like you’re mostly getting responses from the left here, but I’m guessing that’s okay with you since you addressed your initial post to Obama supporters.
I realize this is not what you’re suggesting, but a lot of commentators seem to think that the President would get more accomplished by “getting tough.” This might be good for PR but I doubt it will make any difference in a crisis that is largely related to engineering. The notion that the president’s job is to get angry, kick BP’s ass and serve as a conduit for our rage is just plain silly. Ever since Clinton, presidents have been expected to be emoters-in-chief and feel our pain, and it amounts to little more than posturing. IMO, what the president ought to do is get all the heads of ALL the oil companies working on the problem, along with the relevant military and government agencies. Just like FDR got government and private enterprise working together to beat the Axis. The problem is that if he proposes doing this, all the usual suspects on the right will go batshit claiming that this is the long-awaited gummint takeover, if not the Biblically prophesied emergence of the Beast From the Sea.
Another thing that the President can and should be doing is to ensure that, from now on, we will not simply focus on opportunities but risk management where energy policy is concerned. Capitalism is a highly opportunity-driven system. It’s meant to encourage risk-taking, and 90 per cent of the time that works just fine. It’s what happens during the other 10 per cent of the time that proves it to be a flawed system. These disasters keep happening because there are no rewards for being prudent, and immense rewards for being reckless. Again, I doubt he will make this speech because it would play right into the hands of his critics on the right, because government regulation is of the devil.
“I’ve been asking my libertarian friends to take a good hard look at this crisis because this is what Libertarianism looks like in practice. This is what happens when government ceases to do its job of regulating private enterprise and lets the marketplace drive the path of innovation. You get an oil platform that’s really good at sucking oil out of the ground and almost impossible to shut down in a crisis. Unfortunately, few on that end of the spectrum seem to be heeding the wake-up call. Sarah Palin has actually gone so far as to claim that environmentalists are responsible for the spill because they won’t let nice, safe drilling happen in ANWAR. This is when political philosophy takes on the characteristics of religion: inconvenient facts just get folded into the reigning orthodoxy, which in this case is blind faith in the wisdom of the Invisible Hand.
Back to Obama. There’s an episode of The West Wing called “The Two Bartlets” in which the senior members of the Bartlet administration confront the problem of a president who is smart enough to lead but is so afraid of being thought an egghead that he censors himself. I think that’s Obama’s big flaw. He is remarkably disciplined and cool-headed, an excellent listener and supremely rational. These gifts are actually more vital to his leadership ability than his oratory. Part of the price he pays for this is that it often doesn’t look like he’s doing anything, when — as we’ve seen in many cases — he is usually working overtime behind the scenes. This is much closer to the way Bush the First used to handle problems, and while he also came off looking slow and wimpy at times, the guy did manage to win a war without getting us stuck in a quagmire.
Let’s not forget that we elected Obama partly as a rejection of a president who never seemed to think anything through before he drew his six-gun, and in preference to John McCain, the Senate’s most celebrated hothead. And yet every time Obama faces a crisis the same chorus starts demanding that he take immediate action. Like Jed Bartlet, the worst mistake he could make is to act like his intelligence and prudence are something to be ashamed of. BTW, a lot of the schadenfreude I’ve seen recently has been from the right. Calling this “Obama’s Katrina” or “Obama’s Iranian Hostage Crisis” really smacks of payback. I suspect that the real truth is something we don’t want to face. We’d rather believe that the president is a weak, out-of-touch dunderhead than confront the horrifying possibility that some problems are beyond even the president’s power to fix. The last president to point this out was Jimmy Carter. We all know what happened after that.
My thanks to Thomas Lakeman for permission and even more for this fine argument.