Given the geography and the politics, there is an inevitable tendency to compare the Obama administration's handling of the Deepwater Horizon disaster with the Bush administration's handling of Hurrican Katrina in 2005. While the advocates and apologists often line up Left/Right, the issue is not ideology - it is competence.
Much of the critique of President Obama's handling of the ongoing crisis is about the communications strategy -whether he has been fully engaged (between fundraisers and vacations); whether he is adequately infuriated (in his detatched intellectual way); who speaks for the administration? But, it is more meaningful to look at the substantive management issues - before the explosion, in efforts to plug the leak, and in efforts to protect the coast.
1. Both settings had a history of corruption - the notorious Louisiana levee boards which had allowed the defenses of New Orleans to deteriorate; the Materials Management Service which had effectively abandoned its role in regulating drilling platforms.
2. Both administrations had appointed an unqualified supporter to lead a key agency - racing industry administrator "Brownie" at FEMA; Harvard lawyer/green activist Liz Birnbaum at the Materials Management Service. (Obama's press conference admission that he did not know how she had been fired is an eye-opener.)
Plugging the leak:
1. Particularly if there have not been prior exercises, chaos frequently accompanies disasters. Katrina had its flooding, its overwhelmed rescue facilities, and its abandoned hospitals. Disaster preparations and decision making between BP, Transocean and the government were ineffectual at best - both before and immediately after.
2. The root issue - the hurricane and stemming the oil flow - were uncontrollable. It would seem that the best minds are now engaged and that those in the industry are the most qualified to lead the shut down efforts. For the future, it would seem better to have an industry consortium with government oversight since the scope can be large, and there are less qualified operators than Transocean and BP.
3. Much as the daily videos of people stranded on rooftops in the 9th Ward fed the media appetite following Katrina, the real time video of gushing oil remains available 24/7 on BP's web site. I am not sure that we need either.
Protecting the coast:
1. Bush had to work through a Lousiana governor (since deposed) who refused to be woken up to address the problems and a New Orleans mayor (since deposed) who wanted his "chocolate city". While the federal/state/local issue was significant, it was clear that FEMA was in charge federally. Obama seems to be intimidated by a 1990 law which may give BP the lead responsibility for the environmental defense efforts. (One wonders how long it would take Congress to pass legislation temporarily giving authority to the federal government.) In the current disaster, somebody fired the head of the MMS, the Coast Guard on-scene coordinator has been changed, and the leaders of Interior, Homeland Security, Justice, the EPA, and the White House Climate Change Czar have all been prominently involved.
2. FEMA was slow to realize the magnitude of the hurricane, organize the response, and deliver housing and other supplies. (Republican) Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal's request for sand berms to protect the coast were ignored for two weeks. A "do nothing" Army Corps of Engineers has been a problem in both events. And the MMS - Obama's FEMA - grants new drilling permits, then institutes a deep water moratorium, then extends the moratorium to shallow water, then seems to say that was a mistake.
3. The EPA apparently did a good job managing the subsequent health impact of Katrina. It is still unclear who - BP; the EPA - is making the decisions about the use of millions of gallons of chemical dispersants with their adverse impact on marine life.
In the narrow sense, the Deepwater Horizon disaster has shown the incompetence of the "we'll keep our boot on BP's neck; criminal liability" Obama administration. (By the way, most of BP's 2008 contributions went to the Obama campaign.) Taken together with Katrina, it raises further the public's skepticism about the government's ability to run the health care industry, car companies, insurance companies, mortgage finance companies, and whatever else may come down the pike.
But keep the faith, this will remain Obama's top priority - right up there with jobs, the Eurozone debt crisis, Israel's problems at the UN, Iran's nuclear weapon program, the Korean crisis, and everything else that is going so well for the leader of the Free World.
For the 46% of voters who still "somewhat approve" of Obama's performance, here is his nomination speech where he intones with "profound humility" that the rise of the oceans has begun to slow and that the planet has begun to heal. Oops.
bill bowen - 6/4/10