Why doesn't Obama 'take charge' of the BP oil spill?
For an Obama administration spokesman on the BP oil spill, Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant and national incident commander, is admirably straightforward. Working on behalf of the president who ran a campaign based on the mantra, “Yes We Can,” Allen awkwardly insists that, in this case, no, the government can’t.
“There are very few circumstances where the government does not have the means or national power to influence something this large,” Allen said said in an interview with me at the White House on Wednesday. “I think that’s a source of immense frustration to everybody.”
Commentators increasingly lambaste the administration for not “taking over” the cleanup effort. In a politically calculated response, some administration officials have ratcheted up their rhetoric about keeping the federal government’s boot on BP’s neck; they have now threatened to push BP “out of the way,” which just fuels the anger.
But what many of the critics, inside and outside the administration, don’t offer is much sense of what the federal government could really do better if it pushed BP aside, other than symbolic actions of questionable value, such as insisting that President Obama visit the Gulf of Mexico again and, as James Carville put it Wednesday, “take control,” whatever that means. (For what it’s worth, the president will return to the gulf on Friday.)
Under the water and on the surface, Allen says, there simply isn’t much that the federal government can add to what BP is already doing, beyond providing some supplemental brain power, advanced imaging technologies and review of BP’s proposals to plug the leak. Things the government has already furnished. “The private sector owns nearly all the means to deal with this problem and fix the leak and stop the source.”
Why doesn’t the Coast Guard bring in its own submersibles? There’s too much submersible traffic underwater already, he says. A couple of remote operated vehicles even got tangled inserting a tube to collect spewing oil, lengthening the operation.
Why hasn’t the government quickly approved a plan Louisiana officials favor to build sand berms that might protect sensitive wetlands? Because it would take months to execute, anyway. Even so, it’s undergoing requisite review at the Army Corps of Engineers.
Perhaps BP is the one with the technological capabilities on and under the water. But on land, why isn’t the federal government in full control of the cleanup? It essentially is, Allen argues, since Coast Guard officials are the ones making the top-line decisions and coordinating the effort. By law, he says, BP is responsible for cleaning the mess and hires contractors created after the Exxon Valdez spill that specialize in doing just that. But the federal government is responsible for supervising and ensuring the cleanup is effective.
So, according to Allen’s reckoning, Americans should at least feel free to hold the administration accountable for how well the cleanup proceeds, even if it might be a tad unfair to blame Obama for BP’s inability to plug the leak for more than a month. There are some problems that simply cannot be fixed quickly, no matter who is in charge. But on shore, Allen points out, BP and the government have fewer restrictions on how they can react once oil is sighted. That implies more responsibility, particularly since the government is, apparently, taking such an active role.
That will be little comfort to the angry Louisianans who lined up Tuesday at a town hall meeting in Plaquemines Parish to yell at officials about what they perceive as government inaction. Nor will it help the administration’s press operation, which would surely prefer to have BP as an enemy rather than as a partner.
But, like it or not, BP is the administration’s right hand in this effort, a fact Allen has made clear for days. Indeed, part of the reason the administration's messaging on the oil spill falls flat is that some officials attempt to play political defense by excoriating the company, even while it must admit that BP is its partner of necessity. In so doing, the Obama administration legitimizes unfocused and perhaps unfair complaints about the organization of its effort to cap and clean up the oil leak, even though, according to Allen, the White House probably couldn’t do much of substance to redress many of those very criticisms.
The White House is in a hard spot. The president will probably take a hit for this, fair or no, no matter what administration spokespeople say. All the more reason to be straight with Americans, as Allen seems to be, about what the government can and can’t reasonably be expected to do.
| May 26, 2010; 4:13 PM ET
Categories: Stromberg | Tags: Stephen Stromberg
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