Thursday, May 27, 2010

BP, Obama and the new Gulf war

For a frequent blogger on national affairs, the last 38 days have been a sad disaster of riches. Admittedly, it’s been the worst, most mindboggling of tragedies, one whose dimensions and contours grow — literally — every hour of every day, every moment of the 38 days the BP/Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil spill and environmental catastrophe have played out in front of the world, live, under the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s one frame of reference: National Public Radio reported on May 14 that Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, had examined videotape of the leak using an advanced method of fluid-velocity analysis and estimated the oil flow rates at between 56,000 to 84,000 barrels per day — roughly equivalent to one oil spill the impact and magnitude of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill every 3.5 to 2.4 days.

It’s hard for a blogger to get around the issue in real time. It may be that way for a president, too.

The one thing that’s been consistent (and consistently growing) since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico the night of April 20 has been calls for the intervention of the federal government, cries from lawmakers and pundits and editorialists for the White House to “do something” to end this environmental crisis. The calls for federal intervention haven't always been real constructive as to what “something” the White House should do.

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President Obama took care of that, or started to, on Thursday, in a way that reflected both the president’s trademark sang-froid vis-à-vis crisis management, and, it’s gotta be said, a willingness to deliberate that may be working against him in the eye of the public.

On Thursday at the White House, Obama held his first news conference in months and laid out an action plan defined, at least initially, by actions that won't be taken: exploration of two sites off the coast of Alaska is suspended; a pending lease sale in the Gulf and a proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia are cancelled; issuance of new permits for deep-water drilling is suspended for six months; action on 33 deepwater wells in the Gulf is suspended.

When it comes to talking about the BP spill, the usually rancorous tone of Washington politics has achieved a rare bipartisanship: Obama has had no shortage of critics from both sides of the political aisle. James Carville, a longtime Democratic strategist and Obama supporter, has been an attack dog against the current White House strategy of making BP take the lead in stopping the spill; Carville tore into the administration Wednesday on “Good Morning America.” On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida told CNN that “the perception is that we’re fumbling around” in dealing with the problem.

Predictably as the sunrise, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the White House’s handling of the Gulf crisis a “total failure.”

Even political personality Sarah Palin got in a shot. "I don't know why the question isn't asked by the mainstream media and by others if there's any connection with the contributions made to President Obama and his administration and the support by the oil companies to the administration," she told Fox News on Sunday.

But on Thursday the president proved that, regardless of how it looked to the outside world, the Gulf oil spill was, and always had been a front-and-center issue, not a flyover event, and one Obama took personally.

“[T]his is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night, thinking about,” he said Thursday, the room of White House reporters more silent than you’d expect. “I think everybody understands that when we are fouling the earth like this, it has concrete implications not just for this generation but for future generations. I grew up in Hawaii, where the ocean is sacred. And when you see birds flying around with oil all over their feathers, turtles dying, that doesn’t just speak to the immediate consequences of this. This speaks to, how are we caring for this incredible bounty that we have.”

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Obama, while disinclined toward making Gulf-spill-related decisions rashly and out of emotionalism, thus exercised one of his more pivotal responsibilities in times of national crisis: consoler-in-chief, a source of both rational calm and fellow feeling.

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, on MSNBC on Wednesday, understands this presidential task: fuzzier and imprecise but no less the job of the president than presiding over the State of the Union address.

“Emotionally the president has a duty to be there, to be on scene with these people,” Fineman said. “It sounds a little bit too technocratic and bland to talk about reducing oil demand at a time when a whole way of life is under threat and a whole ecology is under threat in Louisiana and elsewhere on the coast.”

Obama got Fineman’s message. On Friday, Obama goes to Louisiana, for all practical purposes the epicenter of the event. Obama’s visit was announced on Tuesday. If Steven Wereley's estimate is correct, in the three days between Obama's announcement and his arrival, another 56,000 to 84,000 barrels of oil — roughly equivalent to one oil spill the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill — will have bled into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Image credits: BP logo: BP plc. Oil spill live feed: BP. Deepwater Horizon explosion: U.S. Coast Guard (public domain). Pelican rescue: Les Stone/International Bird Rescue Research Center.

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