In the Gulf of Mexico, plumes of black oil are gushing into the ocean, coating the wings of seabirds, poisoning shellfish, sending tar balls rolling onto white Florida beaches. It is an ecological disaster. It is an economic nightmare. And there is absolutely nothing that the American president can do about it. Nothing at all.
Here is the hard truth: The U.S. government does not possess a secret method for capping oil leaks. Even the combined wisdom of the Obama inner circle—all those Harvard economists, silver-tongued spin doctors, and hardened politicos—cannot prevent tens of thousands of tons of oil from pouring out of a hole a mile beneath the ocean’s surface. Other than proximity to the Louisiana coast, this catastrophe therefore has nothing whatsoever in common with Hurricane Katrina. That was an unstoppable natural disaster that turned into a human tragedy thanks to an inadequate government response. This is just an unstoppable disaster, period. It will be a human tragedy precisely because no government response is possible.
Which leads me to mystery: Given that he cannot stop the oil from flowing, why has President Barack Obama decided to act as if he can? And given that he is totally reliant on BP to save the fish and the birds of the Gulf of Mexico, why has he started pretending otherwise—why, in his own words, is he looking for someone’s “ass to kick”? I am guessing that there are many reasons for this recent change of rhetorical tone and that some of them are ideological. Of course, this is a president who believes that government can and should be able to solve all problems. Obama has never sounded particularly enthusiastic about the private sector, and some of his congressional colleagues—the ones talking of retroactively raising the cap on BP’s liability, for example, or forcing BP to pay for the lost wages of other oil company’s workers—are downright hostile.
A large part of the explanation is cultural, however: Obama has been forced to take on a commanding role in a crisis he cannot control because we expect him to—both “we” the media, and “we” the bipartisan public. Whatever their politics, most Americans in recent years have come to expect a strong response—an invasion, a massive congressional bill—from their politicians in times of crisis, and this one is no exception. We want the president to lead—somewhere, anywhere. A few days ago, the New York Times declared that “he and his administration need to do a lot more to show they are on top of this mess,” and should have started “putting the heat” on BP much earlier—as if that would have made the remotest bit of difference.
But Mitt Romney, who last I checked is right of center, sounded almost exactly the same note: Obama, he said, should be “leading this entire effort to bring together the experts, the various oil company executives, the engineers from various oil companies as well as from the various academic think tanks.” This comment reminds me of the time the European Union solemnly decided to form a committee to fight unemployment, as if that were an actual solution. I also love the idea that all those offshore oil engineers twiddling their thumbs at academic think tanks—the Heritage Foundation? The Brookings Institution?—are only waiting for the president’s phone call to spring into action.
In truth, the organization most likely to have the phone numbers of the “experts” is BP. The organization that will get them to Louisiana fastest is BP. I am writing this not because I like, admire, or even have an opinion about the company formerly known as British Petroleum, but because BP’s shareholders have already lost billions of dollars, and BP’s executives are motivated to find solutions faster than anyone in the White House ever could. Bashing BP or seeking to punish BP is pointless. This is not only because we will soon learn that many companies —American, Japanese, even Halliburton—were responsible for that rig, but because whatever the solution, BP has to be part of it.
Paradoxically, “talking tough” about this oil crisis also makes both Obama and America look weak internationally—just as “talking tough” about Iran made the Bush administration look weak. Harsh rhetoric is fine if it reflects a real will to do something, a real plan of action, and the existence of a Plan B for when the first one fails. But when angry words—anti-BP, anti-British, anti-oil-company—reflect the absence of any alternative policy whatsoever, they just sound pathetic. It’s right for Obama to be concerned about the consequences of this disaster, but wrong—and dangerous—for him to pretend he is capable of controlling it. We should stop calling on him to do so.