05.31.10

Don't Let Obama Fail

Petty finger-pointing over the oil spill threatens his presidency. Tunku Varadarajan on why we need a new bipartisanship-of-crisis.

Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that the Justice Department is investigating BP to see if any criminal or civil laws were broken in the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. "We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, anyone who has violated the law," Holder announced at a news conference Tuesday in New Orleans.

Plus, petty finger-pointing over the oil spill threatens Obama's presidency. Tunku Varadarajan on why we need a new bipartisanship-of-crisis.

The harsh political reality of American presidents in times of national catastrophe, now revealed in the increasingly pungent saga of President Obama and the BP oil spill, can be summed up in this variant of the old adage about damage and ownership: If you don’t fix it, you own it.

President Obama had no role whatsoever in the explosion that caused the eruption of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, whether at the level of high policy or quotidian regulation and oversight; and yet, American politics being what they are, we invest in our highest officeholder the most exacting expectations of executive potency. The oath of office is in effect a promise—cross my heart and hope to die—never to be inactive or inert. An air of impotence in a president—a perception of fallibility in a time of crisis—can be political death. And in the last few days, charges of impotence and inaction have rained down on the president like the stones of the righteous at Mecca.

What we need now is a new bipartisanship-of-crisis, in which neither the president and his party, nor the Republicans, use the oil spill to score unconstructive political points off each other.

I don’t think Obama has, as yet, reached a point where most Americans think of him in those terms. But many more do now than did forty-odd days ago, and many of those people are from within the ranks of Obama’s own supporters. Only about a third of those asked approve of the way he has handled this crisis. So it will do the president not one whit of political good to allow the situation in the Gulf to persist without his being seen to be in the thick of the rescue, in the belly of the cleanup, at the manful forefront of the effort to arrest the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Christopher Brownfield: How Big Oil Conned ObamaOnce the fate of a presidency becomes twinned with its success in fighting a national crisis, one cannot but wish that the president survives the crisis more or less intact: The alternative here, a once-in-a-lifetime environmental disaster in which a crippled presidency is only the lesser of a host of enduring national nightmares, is too awful to contemplate.

Make no mistake, this is a crisis of monumental proportions, the price of which we will be paying for many years to come, and in many forms. BP will go out of business, of that we can be fairly certain. But there is a danger that we will, here—as in our response to the financial crisis—suffocate a vital industry in a fit of populist rage.

Polls still reveal that Americans are level-headed on the subject of deep-sea extraction of oil; but there are those—especially in that part of the political class that describes itself as progressive—who would anathematize the oil industry and call for a permanent end to all offshore work. Still others will use the oil spill (as they so recently used Goldman Sachs) to question the moral case for free enterprise, deploying BP/Big Oil in “a new culture war” (to quote Arthur C. Brooks) between free enterprise and statism.

The quest for 100 percent risk-free drilling is as quixotic as it is self-defeating. How bracing it is, then, to be able to quote a Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who said at a recent Senate Environment hearing that “we need the oil that comes from offshore to keep this economy moving. We must examine what went wrong, weigh the risk and rewards, fix what is broken and move on… If we could do without this oil, we would. But we simply cannot—not today, not in the near future.”

What we need now is a new bipartisanship-of-crisis, in which neither the president and his party, nor the Republicans, use the oil spill to score unconstructive political points off each other. This requires, among other things, that the president be blind to the fact that the five governors of the Gulf states affected by the spill are Republican, and that politicians like Sarah Palin refrain from dime-store sneers about BP’s contributions to the Democratic Party.

Our politicians owe it to us—and in particular, to those of us who live in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida—to transcend the bilge of politics-as-usual and, instead, to unite in beating back the bilge that is oozes daily into our waters, and onto our shores.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)