Saturday, June 5, 2010

Obama And The Oil Spill, Bush And Katrina

Pundits on both sides of the aisle have been spilling a lot of ink debating the question of whether the gulf oil spill is "Obama's Katrina" - Karl Rove excoriating the slow response of federal bureaucracies to the disaster here, Maureen Dowd criticizing Obama's lack of visible distress over the matter there. So is it? The answer, I think, is yes, but only in the sense that both events A.)reveal the limits of government power, and B.)shed a similarly unflattering light on the political culture of today's America. We've come to two equally distressing points in our national discourse. Firstly, it's clear that a large number of us no longer believe in accidents or acts of God - many people seem convinced that the government should be able to prevent or solve any problem, no matter how severe or unforseeable it might be, and that if it is overwhelmed by events, it can only be due to malfeasance or incompetence. The President, as the personification of government, therefore takes all the blame, regardless of whether it is reasonable or not. Secondly, things have gotten to the point that any catastrophe that occurs on their opponents' watch is for rabid partisans an opportunity to score political points first and a national tragedy second - irrespective of the fact that culpability for these sorts of disasters, such as it exists, can be spread around in good measure.

People need to accept that there is a limited amount the government can do to prevent or respond to some crises. Bush could have appointed the world's foremost expert on hurricane relief efforts as head of FEMA before Katrina, and it wouldn't have prevented the storm from devastating New Orleans. When one of the most powerful hurricanes on record makes landfall directly on a city of half a million people that is situated mostly below sea level, severe destruction and loss of life is pretty much a certainty no matter what the President does. This is particularly the case when the levees designed to protect the city haven't been maintained properly due to the corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence of local officials, large numbers of people refuse to evacuate in advance of the storm, and relief efforts are hampered by the actions of opportunistic criminals in its aftermath. Bush could have and should have appointed a more competent and experienced person than the infamous Mike Brown to head FEMA, and he certainly could have handled the P.R. aspect of his response better, but even with the best relief plan imaginable in place the storm would have still killed hundreds of people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Similarly, I don't see how Obama could have prevented the Deep Water Horizon explosion. Offshore drilling is already a heavily regulated activity, so it's not like there's a law he could have pushed for short of an outright ban on it that would have prevented the disaster. And while it's true that enforcing existing regulations is part of the executive branch's portfolio, and that the Minerals Management Service appears to have been rather lax in doing so in the case of BP's offshore drilling operations, it's hardly fair to hold Obama responsible for that. He's one man, and can't be expected to be aware of every decision made by every bureaucrat in every one of the dozens of Federal agencies under his purview, even if he is nominally the boss. The idea that he should be able to DO SOMETHING now that the spill has happened is similarly misguided. He's not a petroleum engineer and he knows next to nothing about deep water drilling. Other than emoting for T.V. cameras or raising his voice with the petroleum industry, there's not much he can do now, but that doesn't stop those who've bought into what Julian Sanchez dubbed "the Care Bear Stare model of American politics" from holding his inability to make things better against him.

Despite all this, Republicans are predictably taking every opportunity they can to beat Obama up over the oil spill, just as Democrats took every oppotunity they could to fault Bush for the Katrina disaster. Some of the criticisms in both cases are fair. Others are not. But while neglecting the question of what can be done in favor of who can be blamed may be a good strategy to win the next election - voters have a natural tendency to chuck out the party in charge when things go badly, regardless of whether they're actually responsible - it's not remotely good for the country. A disaster like this calls for a concerted, coordinated effort to mitigate its impact until the problem can be solved. There will be plenty of time for recriminations later.

The National Review had about the right take on the question of whether this is Obama's Katrina - it is, but that doesn't mean what people think it means. If we've really come to the point that we expect the President to protect us from heartbreak, every President is going to be a failure in the public's eyes.

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