Biologists say the ecological damage we are now seeing in dead animals and ruined habitats is just the beginning (WaPo 5/27). As things get worse, greater human consequences will follow (think seafood and tourism, huge factors in the Gulf economy). Not to mention the unknown ripple effects of such an environmental catastrophe on human health, globally migrating sea animal populations, and the national and international economy. Having surpassed the Exxon Valdez disaster now that BP's fig-leaf estimates have been yanked aside, the BP spill is taking on biblical proportions.
And the tide of oil is further undercutting the credibility of President Obama.
To be sure, the administration of Dick Cheney (and that sidekick what's-his-name) ran a legal payola scheme in the Minerals Management Service (MMS) that was second to none. But Obama -- who inherited an MMS whose officials legally collected bonuses from oil and gas leases while allegedly regulating those very leases(!!) -- still showed little interest in "change" until a publicly-visible disaster changed the PR landscape.
Now, suddenly, Obama's administration calls for separating MMS's leasing and enforcement arms, the President talks tough about clamping down on industry's disregard for safety and its cozy relationship with government regulators, and MMS head S. Elizabeth Birnbaum "resigns" after ugly details of her agency's corrupt culture come to light. But here is what her boss, Bold Reformer Obama, had to say about oil industry practices just 18 days before the BP spill, when he confidently called for expansion of offshore drilling: "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." (WaPo, 5/27)
Obama has already, deservedly, lost trust and gained contempt for failing to lead on both meaningful health care reform and fair resolution of the Wall Street bank job. His quisling tolerance of the brazen tryst between government and big oil, and his shyness in using his powers except that of on-camera eloquence since the spill, have now earned him more of the same. That is something he cannot blame on George W. Bush. As Maureen Dowd put it in her NYT piece this week, "The laconic president is once more giving too much deference and trust to rapacious corporate scoundrels and failing to swiftly grasp and articulate the alarm of Americans."
This is not Change We Can Believe In, nor, seemingly, is it a president who can be believed. We will hear plenty of artful bluster from Obama in the coming weeks as the casualties of the BP spill become clearer. But left to his own devices, I think, Obama will ultimately spearhead little change that matters beyond the slam-dunk compulsion to divide the MMS. If he musters the will to do much more, it will be as a result of, tragically, having a massive Gulf spill kill to use as political cover.
That's not leadership. It's, well, Obama.
Thanks to Laurie for suggesting Dowd's piece.