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A guide to blaming Obama for BP

upsetobama1.JPG

I was in China while most of this was playing out, but it seems really weird to judge President Obama on whether he has responded to the BP spill emotionally enough, or whether he's been able to stop a oil leak 5,000 feet below sea level. If you're looking to pin this on Obama, Tim Ferholz proffers a far more convincing approach:

The real failure here was in prevention. It was clear when Obama took office in 2009 that the Mineral Management Service, which regulates offshore oil drilling, was in desperate need of reform. At the time, I wrote a column about how the new administration could succeed at governing; one chief example was reforming the MMS, which had recently been exposed for a "culture of ethical failure." An influential transition briefing book prepared by the Center for American Progress discussed the need for reform of offshore drilling regulation. And though the president appointed Liz Birnbaum, a former congressional staffer, to head the agency, it's clear that she lacked the mandate, resources, and ability to change it. Birnbaum resigned last Thursday.

We know that BP told the government in 2008 that it could handle a spill 10 times larger than the current spill, a claim that was most certainly wrong and was alarmingly lacking in details about responding to a deep-water spill. We know that the MMS cut regulatory corners to meet a 30-day response deadline on a BP request that it could have delayed. Perhaps most damning, we know that in the weeks before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, the MMS approved a number of changes to the well, including a redesign that might have made the well more vulnerable. One of the requests was approved five minutes after it was submitted.

It strains credulity to suggest that presidents will enter office and zero in on failures at tiny regulatory agencies. But their underlings should. And they appoint their underlings. So insofar as Ken Salazar fell down on the job, it's Obama's fault in a "buck stops here" sort of way.

But this is also evidence of what a bad idea it is to routinely elect people who make it a point to degrade the capacity of regulatory agencies. If your regulators are going to be effective, the commitment to their effectiveness has to be continuous, not episodic. If every other administration has to come into office and nurse a sabotaged bureaucracy back to health, they're going to miss some of the problems, and much of the damage will already have been done.

So though Obama deserves to take his lumps on this one, Americans should take the lesson of recent disasters, from the financial crisis to the BP spill to Katrina, and realize that they actually like having good regulators and they get upset when their regulators fail them. Which might mean it's a good idea to elect people who are interested in making sure regulators don't stop doing their jobs every couple of years, as opposed to people who think that the best regulation is no regulation, and the second-best regulation is whatever the relevant industry tells them it is.

Photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

By Ezra Klein  |  June 3, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Energy  
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Comments

Or do what Britain has done - they have endured political turnover at the top without suffering decline in quality among their career bureaucrats. You have written about this: the need to reduce the number of political appointees that has to be confirmed by the Senate. David Cameron was able to quickly assume the Prime Minister position without a lengthy transition because of the emphasis on career bureaucrats under the British system.

The same can be said for financial reform or healthcare - ensure that regulations are in place and that folks will continue to enforce them regardless of party.

Posted by: AD1971 | June 3, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

After all, Obama didn't have anything like a financial sector meltdown, near depression, 2 ongoing wars, reform of a completely broken health care system, and a unanimous, meanspirited, hypocrtical, venal, vituperative and morally bankrupt opposition dedicated to undermining his presidency since its beginning to deal with. Hey he should be able to walk and chew gum and solve structural problems in the economy years in the making, end two intractable wars, and reform the MMS at the same time. What a slacker...

Posted by: srw3 | June 3, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

While I don't see blaming Obama for the gulf spill (in any way, shape, or form), I am interested in hearing how they plan to reform MMS.

But I don't envy Obama. Sometimes just reading about this stuff tires me out.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 3, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

It is easy!

1. Find something bad.
2. Obama's fault!

The most enviable thing about conservatism is their worldview is totally unfalsifiable.

Posted by: AZProgressive | June 3, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

"Which might mean it's a good idea to elect people who are interested in making sure regulators don't stop doing their jobs every couple of years, as opposed to people who think that the best regulation is no regulation, and the second-best regulation is whatever the relevant industry tells them it is."

It does seem like a good idea, but it also seems a bit like an obvious idea. Which is the real issue here. At some point, we're going to have to stop seeing elections as the source of or solution to all our problems. It's not working. Having so many catastrophic failures in such rapid succession should be an indication that we have some deeply systemic flaws. And just as with FinReg, we need a substantive legislative solution that will remove some of the caprice from our industry regulatory practices.

It's inevitable that there will be pendulum swings in our politics and self-correction will always need to happen. But as of right now, we're experiencing far too many existential crises to not be analyzing our systems on an existential level.

Posted by: slag | June 3, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Birnbaum, the MMS head, didn't even have a boss until August of last year, thanks to a "hold" put on by John McCain: http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/john_mccain_holds_up_interior/C530/L0/

McCain was, of course, bargaining for a waiver of a NEPA review of an Arizona mining land deal. What harm could there be in that?

Posted by: Clear_Eye | June 3, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Birnbaum, the MMS head, didn't even have a boss until August of last year, thanks to a "hold" put on by John McCain: http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/john_mccain_holds_up_interior/C530/L0/

McCain was, of course, bargaining for a waiver of a NEPA review of an Arizona mining land deal. What harm could there be in that?

Posted by: Clear_Eye | June 3, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

It is my belief that nobody in the Obama Administration is responsible for the BP Disaster. Nobody in the Obama Administration -- not even Barney Frank or Nancy Pelosi -- is responsible for the Financial Disaster. Nobody in the Obama Administration is responsible for the PPACA Disaster. Nobody in the Obama Administration is responsible -- for anything.

I do, however, ask that nobody hold anyone in the next administration responsible for the disaster which took place during the Obama/Pelosi watch. If the Obama/Pelosi Regime leaves a hundred dead Palestinians, thousand dead soldiers, a million dead unemployed citizens, and one hundred million children working every day to pay the debts of the PPACA, I hope nobody ever considers the Obama/Pelosi Administration responsible: without a doubt, the blame should be shifted to those not at the helm of government.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 3, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Seriously, the Depression and World War II were Hoover's fault, not the fault of F.D.R.

F.D.R. was a hero: he was left with "problems" and, despite the fact that he sacrificed the lives of 8 million Americans, 6 million Jews, and 5 million non-Jewish ethnic minorities, F.D.R. created only the second largest financial debacle for America and therefore should be hailed. The accomplishments -- and the "kill ratio" -- of F.D.R. has been topped only by President Johnson. For President Obama to come close, he would have to have a war in two or more countries, would have to pass a multi-trillion dollar entitlement bill, would have to "encounter" a "natural" disaster, and then would have to blame a previous administration for all of the difficulty.

And citizens would have to smell the burning ovens and do nothing.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 3, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

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