How Obama Should Respond to the Gulf Crisis

I wish the White House would get more creative than just naming another white guys’ commission to examine what went wrong in the Gulf of Mexico, and to recommend new regulations for offshore drilling. The bipartisan commission, headed by former Florida senator Bob Graham and former EPA director William Reilly, is a worthy and surely needed effort, but it doesn’t report back for six months and it doesn’t address the immediate need of showing President Obama is in charge and that government can be effective.

Obama is doing a reasonably good job of summoning federal resources to combat the environmental damage in the fragile gulf region and over five states. But the crisis grows and, like the oil that’s drenching the birds and the fish, threatens to overwhelm his presidency if he doesn’t figure out some way to make good on Rahm Emanuel’s early dictum: never let a crisis go to waste.

Obama loves process, and he’s uncomfortable with the theater of politics. When there’s a problem, his first instinct is to establish an orderly process. A commission buys time to think, and he expects that the members he appoints will apply due diligence and defuse the politics as best they can. Then he can make a decision based on all the good information that’s provided.

Two presidential commissions are now at work to help Obama understand what happened in the gulf and how to navigate the future. But the here and now is what people care about, and Obama’s actions will shape attitudes about Democratic governance when voters go to the polls in November. One recent caller to C-Span was so frustrated with Washington’s seemingly lax efforts that he suggested lowering the Capitol dome to the floor of the ocean and using it to plug the hole. The moderator thanked the caller for sharing his engineering insights.

The challenge for the White House is to figure out how to satisfy the demand that Obama do something more visibly demonstrative to ease the economic and environmental crises brought on by the gulf spill. His Memorial Day weekend visit looked like he was making the minimum concession, relinquishing a few hours from a planned family vacation in Chicago. It’s that tonal dissonance that makes Democrats crazy. Why not take Michelle and the girls for a visit to the gulf?

Capitalizing on the crisis the way the administration did with the economic meltdown, advancing health-care reform even as the economy was tanking, requires bold ideas. With thousands of fishermen out of work and offering, even begging, to help with the cleanup, why not have the government do direct hiring with a modern-day Work Projects Administration modeled after the FDR-era agency that put millions of people to work during the Great Depression. Everybody is into branding these days, and it would be a great way to brand the government as a positive force in the cleanup.

The administration missed an opportunity with the stimulus money to have projects and workers that benefited from government intervention clearly identified. When the FBI storms onto the scene, agents wear shirts with “FBI” lettered across the back. Why not use the EPA as a brand, or find some other logo that would identify government workers saving the environment—and send BP the bill? The administration has been caught between the desire to express anger and channel outrage at BP and the need to cooperate with BP to gain the company’s expertise. Early in the crisis, the administration viewed BP more as a partner than the perpetrator. Now they’re clearly shifting away from that, with Attorney General Eric Holder launching both criminal and civil probes of the energy giant. It’s like suing a doctor for malpractice while the patient is ailing, but still on the operating table.

The White House was slow to recognize the enormity of the spreading disaster, and to grasp the opportunity that it presents. Democrats who want climate-change legislation have been pressing the White House for weeks to use the spill to build awareness about the need to end America’s addiction to oil, and to rally support for legislation stalled in the Senate.

In a speech Wednesday that the administration touted as a major policy declaration, Obama pledged to spend the coming months finding the votes for the bill, and making the case for a clean-energy future. “The next generation will not be held hostage to energy sources from the last century,” he said. Of all the responses to the BP oil spill, the legislative route is the least promising in terms of its immediacy and its theatrical attributes. It’s also where the long-term structural changes must be made, and where Obama, if he sets his mind to it, could salvage something positive and equally history-making from the environmental crisis threatening his presidency.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment