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President Obama Has Dropped The Ball with Handling of BP Gulf Oil Spill Disaster

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If the whole story wasn't so sad, I would've laughed at the headline: "Obama calls for tougher oversight of offshore drilling." Talk about locking the barn after the horse runs away. Just 18 days before the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama was calling for opening new areas to offshore drilling - with assurances that improvements in technology have made drilling significantly less risky: "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced."

Oops. Expanding offshore drilling would have been a slick (pardon the pun) political maneuver to gain support from the right had the timing not been so unfortunate. And now, weeks later with oil still gushing from the ocean floor, the President has suspended additional deep-water rigs from going into operation.  Additionally, the administration is recommending a reorganization of the Minerals Management Service and has set up a Presidential commission to study ways to regulate offshore drilling.

Such actions constitute an appropriate response to the disaster, according to the President: "We understood from Day 1 the potential enormity of this crisis, and we acted accordingly."

But that has not satisfied those criticizing Obama for lack of action, including his normally staunchest supporters. James Carville has taken the President to task for not getting the government directly involved in spill containment and even Keith Olbermann has expressed frustration with the lack of action with the Gulf Oil Spill.  And the administration received at best a back-handed compliment from Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, who called the suspension of Shell's drilling permit in Alaska "the first thing [Secretary of Interior] Ken Salazar has done right in response to the Minerals Management Service scandals."

Oh yes, the Minerals Management Service scandals. It seems that the Minerals Management Service inspectors charged with safeguarding offshore drilling platforms have president obama instead been letting the rig operators fill out their own inspection reports while they watch pornography and take drugs provided by the operators.

Not good. And while such antics have obviously antedated the current administration, nothing was done to remedy such problems prior to the Big Spill.

And from the right, in commenting on Carville’s chastisement of the President for not turning attention to the spill, conservative commentator Sean Hannity pointed out that Obama has taken the time to play golf, attend fundraisers for Barbara Boxer twice and host a state dinner for the Mexican President – all while the oil has been gushing.

But in his May 27th press conference, the President reasserted that he was in control and went so far as to state that BP was operating under the government’s direction to remedy the spill: “The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort. As far as I'm concerned, BP is responsible for this horrific disaster, and we will hold them fully accountable on behalf of the United States as well as the people and communities victimized by this tragedy... But make no mistake: BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance.”  The President went on to describe the too-cozy relationship between the Minerals Management Service and the oil companies as a problem “inherited” by Secretary Salazar and the need for stricter regulations. But none of these assertions went unchallenged by the press corps in what was perhaps the toughest questioning yet of the President in any White House press conference, and clear skepticism about both the government’s management of the spill and the implication to “blame Bush.” Not this time.

And so we see a rather unique consensus forming among some on both the left and the right, the environmental community and the media, that perhaps that President has not truly risen to this occasion and exerted the leadership required to address the worst environmental disaster in recent history. The pattern of claiming inheritance of a problem from Bush, demonizing an industry, assigning blame and attempting to address the situation with a new spate of regulations – a formula that seemed to work in the banking and automotive crises – won’t wash this time. This time, the American people want action, not political rhetoric. As James Carville stated, "These people are crying; they're begging for something to be done down here, and it looks like he's not involved in this. Man, you've got to get down here and take control of this, put somebody in charge of this thing and get this moving. We're dying down here,"

What worries me is the apparent disconnect between what the President considers an appropriate response and what those most affected by the disaster see as a complete lack of leadership. Assigning blame, appointing commissions, imposing moratoriums and proposing regulations are all political solutions that do nothing to keep oil from washing up on our shores. This is an unscripted moment for the President and the question is whether he is actually capable of anything more than a political response to a problem that is far bigger than politics.

And if the President cannot react effectively to an environmental disaster more than a month into it, how will he deal with other unscripted moments that may come his way - for instance, breakout of war between North and South Korea, or an Israeli airstrike on Iran or - God forbid - a successful terrorist attack on our own mainland? So far we have seen a President who is phenomenally effective at engineering political solutions to advance his own agenda, but one that seems paralyzed in the face of unscripted problems without political solutions. Perhaps this is the clearest indication to date of Obama’s lack of executive experience. And let us all hope and pray that he somehow gets it together before the next disaster.