Ever since he became President, Barack Obama has displayed a disturbingly consistent pattern of behavior:
Ignoring the desires of the base that elected him in favor of consistently failed attempts at bi-partisan “co-operation” with Republicans, and – here’s the kicker – OTHER actors who are most definitely not part of that base, above all big corporations and industries who have made no secret of their opposition to even his weakest efforts at “change.”
The examples are too numerous to mention, but in passing we can at least reference the nonsensical “debate” about health “care” “reform” that was finally passed without any help at all from his supposed “friends across the aisle.”
Despite the total lack of Republican help – if not to say the often violent oppositionary rhetoric of its most active element, the Tea Party gang – Obama did actually reach back to his ever-seemingly brief past as a Chicago community organizer and then pol, and get at least some version of health “care” change passed in Congress.
While no one still really has any idea of what improvements, if any, Obamacare is going to bring Americans, there was general agreement that a failure to have passed the bill would have been disastrous for him, not just at home, but abroad as well.
In the general rush of relief that accompanied this “victory” again, accomplished without the help of any Republicans OR the major health industry giants funding them: “Big Pharma” / insurance companies / hospitals / HMOs / doctors – many members of his ever-shrinking “base” thought he finally got the message about who his real friends were, and things were, finally, going to change.
Unfortunately for them, they got a rude shock shortly after, on the last day of March, when Obama announced new plans for extensive offshore oil drilling, an initiative that not only came out of the blue, but put in play whole new areas that had previously been ruled off-limits.
As usual, of course, it wasn’t nearly enough for the Republicans or their patrons in the oil industry, but it was nevertheless a devastating blow to environmentalists and other components of his base, who couldn’t believe Obama was “betraying” his / their principles so soon after the hard-fought health “care” fight, where all his “bi-partisan” efforts had proven so blatantly fruitless.
Nevertheless, the upset over this was soon lost a few weeks later, on Friday, April 16, the day after “Tax Day”, with the seemingly stunning announcement the SEC was bringing civil – not criminal – fraud charges against Goldman Sachs, the current embodiment of Wall Street evil.
To be sure, some observers – including ourselves – were, and remain, a bit bothered by several aspects of the whole situation, but the general take among Obama supporters was that, in the words of the Baseline Scenario’s Simon Johnson, “the Pecora moment” had arrived, and Obama was finally going to take on Wall Street.
It was in the context of this major brouhaha over the SEC v GS – highlighted by a long-scheduled “Goldman Sachs Day” on Capitol Hill about 10 days later, on April 27 – that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, literally, erupted on April 21st.
If the explosion hadn’t been so huge – or long-lasting – it might almost have escaped national and global notice, overshadowed as it was by the fact of the SEC suit, and the in our view, not very impressive theatrics of the Senate hearing.
Unfortunately for BP and Obama AND our no-bid contract “friend” from the Iraq scam / invasion Halliburton, whose cementing job was directly involved in the disaster, the spill was not contained either quickly or effectively, but began to, literally, seep into people’s consciousness as perhaps one of the greatest ecological disasters in US history.
To be sure, coming on top of Earth Day, Obama issued the requisite statement of concern, but he certainly didn’t seem to be lighting any fires, so to speak, under anyone to make this situation a top priority of the Federal government.
Indeed, it took the president nine days to even address the tragedy and 12 days to allocate federal resources.
On the one hand, this was somewhat understandable, as there was a great deal of uncertainty about what was actually happening in the Gulf, and, more importantly, there was so much buzz about Goldman – a story that had been waiting to break ever since Black September 2008 – it was hardly surprising people were generally focused on that.
On the other, there were just a few too many eerie similarities between Obama’s seeming “no drama” approach to the oil spill and the “Heckuva job, Brownie” nonchalance of George W. Bush with Hurricane Katrina – not to mention the fact BOTH events were taking place in the Gulf of Mexico, and threatening the very same people and eco-system that had been so devastated by the hurricane.
But it wasn’t until a week after the blaze had started that Obama stated his administration would respond “aggressively” to the situation, and he raised even more eyebrows by coupling those announcements with the news that rather than going to make a first-hand visit to the affected sites he would instead be staying in DC attending the annual celebrity White House Correspondents Dinner, which is not only a high-point of what passes in Washington for “social life”, but whose distinguishing characteristic is “jocularity” in which the President – who is always the guest of honor – characteristically participates.
For Mr. Obama, the political fallout “[was] aggravated by the fact that the president traditionally gives a humorous speech,” said Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University.
“There you are in Washington with celebrities and the media while wildlife and fishermen are doused in oil? That [didn’t] do much for the White House or for the press, for that matter.”
While Obama DID go to the Gulf on Sunday, the damage had already been done and it compounded his apparent indifference beforehand.
In contrast with his treatment of the Massey Energy Company, which operates the West Virginia mine where 29 miners recently died in an explosion, Mr. Obama has not directed any tough rhetoric in public against BP, the British oil giant that was leasing the oil rig that exploded 11 days ago.
Nor has he struck any tones of outrage on behalf of Gulf Coast residents and businesses affected by the spill.
And while he HAS suspended oil drilling – “for the moment” – it’s a bit hard for him to pose as a strong defender of the environment, when he himself, less than a month BEFORE the spill, had so unexpectedly endorsed both the principle, and extension to previously untouched waters, of off-shore drilling.
Compounding the impression of indifference is the slow albeit relentless pace of the oil slowly approaching vital marshlands already battered from Katrina and its aftermath.
The oil has literally crept to the shores of the gulf.
While the eventual harm from the leak could outstrip that of the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, that will not be known for weeks, if not months …
Bill Eichbaum of the World Wildlife Fund said the disaster showed that the expansion plans [for off more off-shore drilling] were a bad idea.
“This spill in the gulf is like having a heart attack in New York City,” he said. “Everything is there that you need to fix it.
“If you have a spill in the Arctic, it’s like having a heart attack on the North Pole. There’s nothing there to help you fix it.”
So what does this tell us about Obama, aside from the fact that during the 2008 Presidential campaign cycle, he was the top direct recipient of contributions from BP, clocking in at an impressive USD 71,000.
Even more, it underscores the central point we made after our return from a two-month trip to the US: that perhaps Obama’s biggest mistake is his continual reliance on middlemen – almost all of whom have a direct financial interest in whatever issue is at play – to both formulate and carry out key policies that should be handled directly by the Federal government.
To be sure, Obama has a point that the entire situation is the direct result of the actions of several corporations – BP for overseeing the entire operation / Halliburton for the faulty cementing / and Deepwater Horizon for the actual drilling –
AND that all three are responsible for cleaning up the huge mess they have made.
But it is also the height of willful self-deception to believe they actually WILL follow through on those responsibilities without the active intervention of the Federal government in MAKING them take the necessary actions – especially when the consequences of any failure on their part are going to be dire, not just for people in general, but people and land that, less than five years ago, were already victims of the heretofore greatest natural disaster in US history, and who have just barely begun to recover from that, if they have at all.
For Obama to put the responsibility on the corporations not just for paying – which is fine – but actually taking measures to safeguard the affected populations and ecologies during a time of obvious danger, which threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of people AND an already fragile and damaged eco-system is truly the height of not just irresponsibility, but unfeeling crass indifference.
Obama’s reliance on middlemen has already made “reform” of the health care system a bad joke whose effects no one can predict with certainty, and it looks as if a similar reliance on the Too-Big-To-Fail banks and insurance companies is going to result in a financial “reform” that seems likely to benefit only those already blessed with wealth and power.
For him to take a similar “middleman-oriented” approach to perhaps the greatest environmental disaster in modern American history is nothing short of scandalous.
We can only hope he will realize this soon, and start to take advantage of the powers of his office and the Federal government.
If he doesn’t, then the BP oil spill truly will be his Katrina – and that is something that benefits neither him nor the US, nor, in fact, the rest of the world, which needs something much more humane, effective and visionary from an American President in whom so many hopes have been invested.
David Caploe PhD
Chief Political Economist