On Tuesday evening, US President Barack Obama drew on the unique dignity of the White House’s Oval Office, familiar to South Africans thanks more to Hollywood than Washington, as he went on TV to explain how he will deal with the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.
As predicted, Obama also used this opportunity to advocate carbon “cap and trade” legislation to move the country forward on energy policy. In the hours leading up to his speech, White House aides had been at pains to explain that this speech would be the pivotal moment from laid-back, reactive responses to a new, higher-energy, more proactive level on the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Speaking for a little more than 15 minutes and affecting a tone not unlike the disappointed schoolmaster addressing a particularly insouciant, misbehaving child, Obama chastised BP for engaging in the kind of risky behaviour that had caused the worst spill in history in the first place. He promised to “make BP pay” for the damage it has caused to livelihoods, waterways, wildlife and the unique Gulf Coast way of life.
As others have done before him, Obama sat at the familiar “Resolute” oak desk made from the timbers of the British warship, HMS Resolute. Behind him were the inevitable family photos and an American flag as backdrop, though the look was Spartan rather than cluttered or homey. Despite the criticism that he has been almost bloodless in his public utterances about the problem, Obama spoke in a calm, even-tempered tone throughout with virtually no signs of anger in his remarks – although his blue, patterned tie seemed to have a bit of that disconcerting moiré patterned energy about it at times.
Obama said the federal government would insist BP establish an independent compensation fund, paid for by BP, to help those directly affected by the spill. The federal government would take the lead in dealing with the spill and the longer-term restoration of affected areas.
Watch: President Obama’s Oval Office address
Then, more controversially for some, he argued Congress should use this moment as the impetus to pass a new national energy policy that would move the country away from its growing dependence on offshore oil extraction. In issuing his call to the environmental equivalent of warfare, Obama said, “We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes.”
The Obama team clearly understood that his administration has been stumbling because of perceptions– and perhaps some reality too – about their response to this massive, ongoing oil spill and its response to BP’s own ineffective response to the crisis. Clearly the American people’s view has become increasingly critical. According to the newest Associated Press-GfK poll, as many Americans now disapprove of his handling of the spill – 52 % – as they had of George W Bush’s feckless handling of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in 2005. Curiously, Obama’s overall approval has not yet dipped seriously, hovering around 50%, and the public still blames the company more than the president for the mess. Disapproval of BP is now in red alert territory at 83%.
All in all, however, this is not good news for the administration. The groundswell of annoyance over the spill was a key to why Obama spoke from the White House on Tuesday night. Obama’s own reading of his predicament may well have come from listening directly to ordinary citizens on the Gulf during his four visits to the area so far.
Despite Obama’s assertion of political and managerial authority in his speech, preliminary responses seem to indicate his administration has not yet provided the level of specificity Americans, especially those who live and work along the Gulf Coast or who have concerns about environmental issues, were hoping to hear.
Instead of concrete plans, Obama announced he had called on former Mississippi governor Ray Mabus to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan, to be funded by BP Plc in concert with local states, communities, fishermen, conservationists and residents “as soon as possible”. Obama also announced that former justice department inspector general Michael Bromwich was his choice as the new head of the agency that regulates the oil industry, to be “the oil industry’s watchdog, not its partner”.
Admittedly we’re still at an early stage, but Obama did not detail what this battle plan would include or how much it would cost – though you can bet the farm the final cost will be in the billions. Obama emphasised, “We will make BP pay.” (And you can just about hear the country answering right back: “And you damn well better, too!”)
To advance this new, more proactive agenda, Obama meets on Wednesday with a clutch of – no doubt, now rather frightened – BP execs at the White House. The combatants will talk about how BP is going to ante up the money for the compensation fund, to be run separately from the US government and BP, how to insist on a much higher level of energy and vigour in its ongoing cleanup efforts, and how to coordinate these efforts much more closely with local, state and federal agencies as well as with private-citizen efforts.
In line with this, The Daily Maverick humbly suggests that getting some of these sleek, Hugo Boss-dressed, well-paid BP executives out to the oil-soaked tidelands and seashores to do some penance by helping clean up the goo themselves. It will certainly be a lot better for them than constant whingeing repetitions of CEO Tony Hayward bleating on about wanting to get his life back on YouTube.
Nearly two months into the crisis, the oil continues to gush from the broken well at a rate of millions of litres a day and some scientists and engineers now argue this may be greater than estimated in previous weeks. The ongoing problem has raised serious doubts that the administration has a leadership deficit in what Obama himself has called the nation’s worst-ever environmental disaster. Or, as The New York Times’ tough, acerbic columnist, Maureen Dowd, wrote on Wednesday, “You know the president is drowning — in oil this time — when he uses the Oval Office. And do words really matter when the picture of oil gushing out of the well continues to fill the screen?”
Meanwhile, earlier in the day, in another telegenic moment, executives of the country’s largest oil companies received a thorough verbal grilling from the members of the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee. Congressmen lashed CEOs from ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell – as well as BP America – for being no better prepared for the worst than BP was.
Republicans were quick to criticise Obama’s speech. Predictably, House Republican leader John Boehner told the media Obama “should not exploit this crisis to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses. Both parties should be working together to craft responsible solutions in response to this disaster. There’s nothing responsible or reasonable about a national energy tax that will raise energy costs and destroy more American jobs.”
Other Republicans chipped in that Obama’s administration had not sufficiently taken charge, that control over offshore drilling was too lax (although they have previously criticised Democrats for being too concerned about regulating ocean drilling), and that Obama was not interested in the plight of the little guy affected by the spill. They also insisted this was not the time to address new energy policies, especially the “cap and trade” approach they despise. Rather, government should just fix the leak and clean up the spill, they insist.
To The Daily Maverick, this latter argument seems especially disingenuous. What better time than during an artificially created oil spill crisis to make the development of new energy policies, more conservation and support for innovative other-than-petroleum-based energy usage the centrepieces of any debate that goes forward from the actual spill?
Regardless, this political battle, every bit as much as the struggle to cap the well, clean up the mess and help those affected by it, will go forward for months and months to come – especially since the country is now in an increasingly intense lead-up to the American mid-term election, and the spill may have overtaken unemployment as the most important topic of the election.
By J Brooks Spector