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Obama's missed opportunities

By Kate Sheppard

Update, 5:26 p.m.: Obama did mention the Senate bill in his announcement of new fuel economy standards for trucks Friday. There have been plenty of other opportunities to make this connection, however.

Original post: Throughout the past month, advocates for climate and energy reform have been hoping that President Obama would use the environmental nightmare in the Gulf of Mexico to illustrate the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels. The oil spill came at the heels of one of the worst coal mining disasters in U.S. history down in West Virginia. The president couldn't ask for two more graphic examples of why our energy system is dirty and dangerous.

In the midst of these tragic headlines, a pair of senators unveiled comprehensive climate and energy legislation. Their bill is at best a compromise, a centrist approach to a problem that needs a revolutionary change. But it's a bill that retains many of the broad goals of the House-passed measure, and would be a first step in attacking two of America's biggest challenges.

But instead of using this opportunity, Obama has remained hands-off on the Senate debate. In his weekly address Saturday, he announced the formation of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, a new panel "tasked with providing recommendations on how we can prevent – and mitigate the impact of – any future spills that result from offshore drilling." But Obama yet again missed an opportunity to talk about how the spill illustrates the need to approve a far-reaching new energy agenda. Instead, he gave passing acknowledgment to clean energy, while digging in further his belief that we need to drill for oil offshore.

His senior adviser David Axelrod made a halfhearted effort to promote Senate action on MSNBC this morning, but was also less than convincing. "I would like to think that this will increase the sense of urgency in Congress, because it underscores the value in developing alternative sources of energy," he said. "So I hope that it will give added impetus to Congress to come up with and pass a comprehensive plan."

But where's Obama? The climate and energy bill in Congress faces uncertain legislative prospects, and rather than uniting Democrats, questions about offshore drilling threaten to drive them even further apart. This bill has no hope of going anywhere unless Obama starts to give it some direction.

It was Obama's own chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who said shortly after the election that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste," referring to the economic meltdown. But the administration is certainly wasting this one.

This post has been updated since it was first published.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones's Washington bureau. For more of her stories, see here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 24, 2010; 5:27 PM ET
 
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Comments

Your last post suggested the Obama administration needed to "do more" in the wake of this disaster, and I criticized you and others for failing to be more specific. Is this what you mean by "do more"? Your not so much concerned about the actual stopping of the leak or mitigation of the damage, but rather the failure to exploit the disaster adequately. I don't necessarily disagree with you, but doing more to prevent future catastrophes and doing more to mitigate this one are different beasts.

Posted by: mattcrot | May 24, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama's overall behavior is such that he is trying to portray himself as a calm and cool leader, whatever the situation.

After all, do we want all our Presidents to always react to everything as if we are in grave danger all the time, or do we want a confident and thoughtful leader who won't try to politicize every little event or bit of news, serious or not?

Bush used whatever justification he could to raise the terror levels at every opportunity or to explain why some bit of economic news meant we needed to further cut taxes, and so on.

Yes, I agree he needs to show a sense of urgency with this oil spill, but at the same time I am tired of politicians appearing on TV and warning us about the latest threat to kill Democracy or raise your taxes or wreck traditional marriages.

Perhaps he is setting an example that the rest of us should follow. I.e. maybe we should all get real lives and let the gvmt do its job and stop worrying whether everything is being taken care of.

We've become a nation of alarmists and conspiracy theorists, so maybe that's why Obama seems different.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 24, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

It took the President 9 days to respond to this crisis.

This was after he received large campaign contributions from those associated with BP.

The Department of Interior failed to properly manage the Mineral Management Service and Secretary Salazar is starting to sound like a bumbling idiot.

Why won't the administration allow the State of Louisiana to start building sand berms to protect the wetlands byt instead is forcing them to deal with bureaucrats to obtain permits?

This administration is starting to appear to be incompetent and that is fatal!

Posted by: mwhoke | May 24, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Lomillalor,

Wait wasn't Bush a "cool calm leader" when instead of freaking out when he was told of 9/11 happening he finished reading the book to the children and calmly left the room? Sure he made hundreds of mistakes after that but wasn't that the epitome of calm, cool and collected.

I'm sorry but IMO you need to be CCC when an instantaneous negative event happens but this is no longer instantaneous. Its over a month after the fact. You can apologize all you like but Kate is 100% correct. They've bumbled this "crisis" and wasted it as she said although I doubt that'll get her much play around here.


Why is it OK to be a nation of conspiracy theorists when it comes to all the things Bush has done wrong but not on anything on Obama? You wouldn't be playing favorites, would you???

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 24, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Obama strikes me as someone who intellectually understands environmental issues, but has no real emotional or visceral connection to these issues. Growing up as he did, he has no real connection to any particular place and is our most urban President in a very long time, maybe ever. Kennedy had strong urban roots, but he also had a strong connection to the Cape and his family home there. Obama lived longest in Chicago and doesn't seem to have enjoyed camping or other pursuits in nature, other than surfing. He did live in Hawai'i, but that was a problematic time for him for many reasons.

He also isn't a crusader, and he does want to portray an atmosphere of calm detachment.

But climate change/energy is a huge, huge problem requiring sustained,passionate leadership. Things are obviously much worse than they had to be because of the retrograde policies practiced by the Reagan/Bush and then GW Bush administrations, which sought to undo all the progress made under Nixon, Carter and Clinton.

On this and on fin reg it seems to me that Obama is afraid to be strong and incur the wrath of the business community, even though it is clear they hate him anyway and are going to be as tenacious as the French ancien regime in trying to hold onto their privileged lifestyle.

That we are still issuing permits for more deepwater drilling is absolutely unconscionable. We coped during the 1970s Arab oil boycott and people can learn to adjust to less fuel this time around.

I hope he wakes up soon. Despite all the progress the Obama Admin and Congress have made, the problems are so immense the future still looks pretty problematical.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 24, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

After reading Ezra's comments, and being dismayed by them, I find myself very relieved that Obama has decided to not miss the opportunity to speak his mind regarding another national crisis: the future employment of Lebron James.

Posted by: dj_paige | May 24, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

My MAIN criticism of Obama on the oil spill so far relates to how he has handled the PR side of things and how he did not fully informing the public of everything happening.

I believe Louisiana's (R) Vitter (hope I didn't recall the wrong GOP name) praised Obama in the first few day's after the spill for their quick response.

I am not sure that there is anything the fed gvmt could have done different so far as regards the technical/engineering issues of killing the well. Firing BP before they tried the top kill would have been premature, and given the unprecedented challenges faced by this deep well, history might weigh-in that we all did the best we could, given the circumstances on the ground on the day of the explosion.

Most vehement criticism should be directed towards those who just two years ago promised that there would never be a drop of oil to hit gulf beaches if we expanded drilling and that the very best and safest equipment would be used. Obama was not President at that time and I believe the person who actually approved the deep horizon well was the same person who Bush appointed, though not to suggest Obama's man wouldn't have approved it either had he been there. The fact is gvmt regulators have long ago been compromised, and this is not something likely to have changed by this early stage in a new admin.

In time, we may indeed find gross incompetence by the Obama admin in a way comparable to Bush's handling of Katrina, but right now there is no evidence of that.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 24, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

thank you, kate sheppard, for writing so much about the gulf oil spill.
if it continues like this, it will eclipse everything else, and will affect everything else. you are doing a wonderful job.
the political and legislative consequences notwithstanding, have you spoken or attended any panels with marine biologists or other scientists or anyone from the center for disease control.....who are working there, and can tell us in a detailed way, what the conditions and expectations are???

Posted by: jkaren | May 24, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

mimikatz

Aside from this oil disaster, which was not of Obama's making, Obama has supported and begun some major changes in support of environmental and energy issues. For example, for the first time, automakers are now competing to have the most fuel efficient fleet in the world. For the first time, Obama has included light trucks and SUVs in the new mileage standards. His stimulus included many billions for green energy projects/companies and it is thought those investments may have saved those companies from the ravages of the recession. He has invested in high speed rail.

Regarding oil, it is a fact we need to heavily depend on oil for some number of years as we transition to clean energy. IMO, we will depend on carbon fuels for many decades.

And were it not for the say-no GOP leaders. we might very well be close to a meaningful climate bill.

Obama's contributions in these areas are unmatched by recent presidents.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 24, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Lomillalor,

yes we may in time find Obama 100% clear or we may not. Time will tell.

i will say now I saw a distressing piece on NBC news last night where Govenor Jindal was begging for the freedom to bypass regulation on some issues and he was stuck in bureaucratic red tape. We'll see the response to that and judge from there good or bad.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 24, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

So it's hard to discern whether he's just letting a situation get bad enough (a la HCR) before he steps in, or if he's just not that impassioned about "green." Strange for someone who vacations in HI.

I'm fear the latter: if you look simply at what charities the Obamas contributed to last year, it'll come as no surprise that he's not using these two fossil-fuel related disasters to rewrite our future history.

The third alternative is that he's not as great or transformational leader as we thought. His identity makes him transformative from the get go; but his actions are falling short of those expectations placed on him, rightly or wrongly. It's disappointing.

Posted by: Lonepine | May 24, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse


"maybe we should all get real lives and let the gvmt do its job and stop worrying whether everything is being taken care of."

yes, how i stopped worrying, and let the government take care of everything.
http://www.dezignstuff.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/alfred_e_neuman1.jpg

Posted by: jkaren | May 24, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

It would be a mistake to simply fire BP at this time and get the fed gvmt to take over. Why? Because all the experts that the fed gvmt would hire are already hired by BP. Since early May there has been a command center in Houston and they have had the best minds in the field working on this problem.

See this link....

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/us/25well.html

"Mr. Campbell is one of scores of experts working in a command center in Houston to help BP figure out a way to seal its blown-out well 5,000 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico."

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 24, 2010 10:16 PM | Report abuse

"So it's hard to discern whether he's just letting a situation get bad enough (a la HCR) before he steps in, or if he's just not that impassioned about "green.""

That is absurd.

The fed gvmt has been quite involved with the BP oil spill since the explosion.

http://mediamatters.org/research/201004300053

The explosion took place on April 21.

The Coast Guard was dispatched the next day and the same admiral, Thad Allen, who saved New Orleans took charge of the fed oversight effort immediately.

Mitigation efforts began in earnest immediately thereafter though BP hid the scope of the disaster until several days later.

I am not going to list all the things that were done in the immediate days after the disaster. YOU READ THESE REPORTS instead of listening to me, or listen to the media tell you that this is Obama's katrina.

Here's another link discussing activities:

http://www.gosanangelo.com/news/2010/may/24/5-23-2010-7-PM/

Here's more proof that a command center existed in early May and that major operations were underway.

http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/Salazar-Meets-with-BP-Officials-and-Engineers-at-Houston-Command-Center-to-Review-Response-Efforts-Activities.cfm

I am not saying the Obama admin has not made mistakes. But the highest decorated generals in war have made mistakes before they found a way to succeed and get their honors. Mistakes are always made by anyone. The difference is that Obama's are not willful or incompetent mistakes (at least as far as we know right now).

Time will tell whether the above record is falsified or misleading or incomplete, but right now there is no reason to suspect it is.

It's been decades since we have had major bills in Congress either enacted or being considered that have addressed our energy and climate and environment in the way they are TODAY.

Obama put his reputation on the line by attending Copenhagen and invested 10s billions in clean energy and green tech.

He has averted a war in Iran that the neocons have begged for, he has negotiated nuclear arms reductions, passed a health care bill that will reduce the deficit and save lives, has started cutting major defense weapons systems and his first year's deficit was 8% lower than projected even in the middle of the year.

I can't begin to personally remember all the things being done. I haven't even mentioned FinReg reform or the fact that it will take years of incremental change to correct what has been destroyed over thirty years of ideology and incompetence by past Presidents and Congresses.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 24, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

"I am not saying the Obama admin has not made mistakes. But the highest decorated generals in war have made mistakes before they found a way to succeed and get their honors. Mistakes are always made by anyone. The difference is that Obama's are not willful or incompetent mistakes (at least as far as we know right now)."

i also think that president obama has been doing a stellar job as president. i have great trust in him. moreso, than any other president in my lifetime.
but i have deep concerns about the way the oil spill has been handled by the administration.
even if the administration is doing all that it can, there has not been enough clarity and transparency with the american people.
if this spill continues, it will be worse than any act of terrorism...it will overshadow 911 and katrina, in how it will directly affect the lives of each of us.
if you are a patient, even if you cannot be assured of your outcome, you still need to trust that everything that can be done for you, is being done. you need the people helping you, to communicate with you, and let you know what is being done, day by day. a patient is entitled to the facts, and should have access to all possible information.
well, our planet is the patient now. and that means us too, as well as everything that is depending on the planet for health and life.
there may not be answers, but there is new information, day by day, and we shouldnt have to scavenge around through hearsay and disparate sources each day, to try and figure things out for ourselves. that is the responsibility of our leadership to provide us with the information that we need, in facing the prospects of this catastrophic event, and the effects we will all suffer because of it. especially, if it cant be stopped.

Posted by: jkaren | May 25, 2010 1:16 AM | Report abuse

"I am not saying the Obama admin has not made mistakes. But the highest decorated generals in war have made mistakes before they found a way to succeed and get their honors. Mistakes are always made by anyone. The difference is that Obama's are not willful or incompetent mistakes (at least as far as we know right now)."

i also think that president obama has been doing a stellar job as president. i have great trust in him. moreso, than any other president in my lifetime.
but i have deep concerns about the way the oil spill has been handled by the administration.
even if the administration is doing all that it can, there has not been enough clarity and transparency with the american people.
if this spill continues, it will be worse than any act of terrorism...it will overshadow 911 and katrina, in how it will directly affect the lives of each of us.
if you are a patient, even if you cannot be assured of your outcome, you still need to trust that everything that can be done for you, is being done. you need the people helping you, to communicate with you, and let you know what is being done, day by day. a patient is entitled to the facts, and should have access to all possible information.
well, our planet is the patient now. and that means us too, as well as everything that is depending on the planet for health and life.
there may not be answers, but there is new information, day by day, and we shouldnt have to scavenge around through hearsay and disparate sources each day, to try and figure things out for ourselves. that is the responsibility of our leadership to provide us with the information that we need, in facing the prospects of this catastrophic event, and the effects we will all suffer because of it. especially, if it cant be stopped.

Posted by: jkaren | May 25, 2010 1:16 AM | Report abuse

Rahhhm (that the progressives hate) is in Israel. I saw his picture in Haaertz today. He is there on personal vacation for his son's bar mitzvah. Big controversy with the Settlers who want to protest the mitzvah because Rahm wanted to have it at the Wall and the Settlers have decided they will protest loudly while it's going on. Nice people...wonder if they'll bring their racist signs depicting Obama.

Bad politics to be pushing legislation forcefully while others are actively suffering and freaking out because the oil has hit their shores imo. Pretty callous and I think they just might notice.

Posted by: carolerae48 | May 25, 2010 3:19 AM | Report abuse


Barry the incompetent boob Obama spent the first two weeks of the worst ecological disaster in history doing nothing at all; the rest of the time he has been finger pointing.

Now this headless chicken in the White House is going on yet another vacation.\

Miserable failure Obama

Posted by: screwjob15 | May 25, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

@ mwhoke:

"It took the President 9 days to respond to this crisis. This was after he received large campaign contributions from those associated with BP."

The above statement is the usual tea bagger mythology.

Here are facts, in case anyone wants to pay attention to them:

"According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Republicans receive far more campaign money from the oil and gas industry than do Democrats.

So far in 2010, the oil and gas industries have contributed $12.8 million to all candidates, with 71% of that money going to Republicans. During the 2008 election cycle, 77% of the industry’s $35.6 million in contributions went to Republicans, and in the 2008 presidential contest, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain received more than twice as much money from the oil and gas industries as Obama: McCain collected $2.4 million; Obama, $898,000."


So, by the mwhoke theory, we are VERY LUCKY that McCain didn't win, because he'd be spilling oil any place he could for that kind of dough.

And federal agencies mobilized within hours of the explosion, there was no nine day lag.

Jeesh. Now can we get back to talking about the issue like grown-ups?

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

"i will say now I saw a distressing piece on NBC news last night where Govenor Jindal was begging for the freedom to bypass regulation on some issues and he was stuck in bureaucratic red tape."

Yes, that would be the very same Gov. Jindal who mocked the administration for investing in disaster preparedness like volcano monitoring. Distressing indeed.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Scientists weigh in on what happens when the oil in the Gulf encounters a hurricane (hurricane “season” officially begins on June 1):

http://news.discovery.com/earth/oil-slick-hurricane-cyclone.html

see also:

http://www.slate.com/id/2253834

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

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