For the last two months, commenting on the BP oil spill, pundits have been on steroids. The environmental and economic catastrophe in the Gulf has been variously labeled as Obama's Katrina, Obama's Iran Hostage Crisis, Obama's 9/11 or Obama's Waterloo.
Take a deep breath. The answer is: None of the above.
Frankly, I wish all those who compare Obama's resolute response to the BP spill with George W. Bush's pathetic response to Katrina could have joined me at the White House on Wednesday, June 16 – the day of his fateful meeting with BP executives.
Advertisement - story continues below
Arriving at the White House at 1:30 for Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' scheduled 2 p.m. briefing, I was surprised to discover a huge crowd of reporters outside the entrance to the West Wing. And further surprised to find they were waiting for BP executives to leave the White House after their 10:15 meeting with President Obama, originally supposed to last only 20 minutes. Yet they were still locked in the Roosevelt Room with Obama, who had meanwhile postponed his statement on the summit, originally scheduled for 12:15.
Shortly before 2 p.m., we were informed that the meeting, which had now stretched to almost four hours, was breaking up, and we were escorted to the State Dining Room, where President Obama made his dramatic announcement: BP had agreed to the creation of an independent claims process for economic damages from the Gulf spill, fueled by an initial $20 billion pumped into a special fund for victims of the spill. In addition, they had voluntarily established a special fund of $100 million to compensate oil-rig workers who had lost their jobs due to the moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf imposed by Obama until the Deepwater Horizon leak is plugged and we know what caused it. Ten minutes later, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg – he who cares about "small people" – emerged from the West Wing to confirm Obama's account of the marathon meeting.
OK, that's it. Pundits beware! Drop all talk of Bush/Katrina and Obama/Gulf oil spill. The comparison was lame from the beginning. First, for obvious reasons: Katrina was a natural disaster, the Gulf spill manmade. Katrina impacted two or three neighborhoods of one city; the BP spill, five states and the entire Gulf of Mexico.
But there was also a huge difference in presidential response. After Katrina struck, Bush dithered on his ranch for a couple of days, flew 30,000 feet over New Orleans on his way back to Washington, then delayed any action for several more days – until flying to the region and congratulating horse trainer Michael Brown on doing "a heck of a job."
Advertisement - story continues below
Under Obama, by contrast, federal agencies, led by the U.S. Coast Guard, were on the scene of the Gulf blowout from day one: first, in a search-and-rescue operation for 11 missing platform workers; then, in a frantic effort to plug the leak. Granted, that effort has so far been unsuccessful. For several reasons: because never before has any oil company sunk a well in such deep waters; because BP was given a permit to drill that deepest well without having in place a plan and equipment to respond to the worst-case scenario; and because nowhere on the planet – in no marine lab nor oil company – does the technology exist to plug a leak a mile below the surface of the sea.
But those failings can in no way be laid at the feet of a president who has only been in office 18 months. They are, instead, the inevitable legacy of decades of special treatment of oil companies by the Minerals Management Service of the Department of the Interior, which authorized BP and other companies to "drill, baby, drill" in ever deeper waters, with no planning for the inevitability of "spill, baby, spill."
If the Obama administration can be blamed for anything, it's for not acting sooner to break up the Minerals Management Service and separate its permitting functions from its revenue division. But that would still not have stopped exploratory drilling on the Deepwater Horizon platform, approved in 2008.
It'll be a long time before the leak is plugged and the Gulf is cleaned up, but the difference between Obama and the Gulf and Bush and Katrina is already clear: as clear as the difference between competence and total incompetence.