That Damn Leak Can’t Blame Obama for Katrina: Margaret Carlson

Big government? Bring it on, to borrow the words of our previous commander-in-chief.

Those looking for bipartisan consensus in a fractured Capitol need look no further than officials of both parties pounding on the federal government’s doors to stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Once “Drill, Baby, Drill!” begat “Spill, Baby, Spill,” Republicans pressed comparisons with Hurricane Katrina and berated President Barack Obama for not doing more. Yet all the king’s horses and men couldn’t put this blowout back together again. It was too late to order up the needed safeguards, the ones anti-regulatory conservatives say hamstring our wonderful free-enterprise system.

An inspector general’s report out this week reveals what decades of deregulation had wrought before Obama took office. The Minerals Management Service at the U.S. Interior Department was staffed by employees more interested in currying favor with industry than regulating it. Parties, trips (one to the Peach Bowl), sex, drugs, and gifts were commonplace.

In 2008, one employee was negotiating a job with a drilling company while inspecting its platforms. Seven compromised inspectors were still employed by the agency the time the report was completed in March, according to the New York Times. The acting inspector general at Interior, Mary L. Kendall, sent the findings to a U.S. attorney, who declined to prosecute.

New Tack

And what has the Obama administration done? Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, although suspected by environmental groups of being too sympathetic to the industry, put new ethics rules in place upon taking over in 2009. He reoriented the department away from the notion that regulating is for sissies. He even asked the inspector general to investigate whether the bad behavior has continued on his watch.

On the other hand, two months into Obama’s presidency, BP Plc’s lease at the Deepwater Horizon rig was granted a “categorical exclusion” from an environmental impact analysis, and new licenses for drilling were issued. And the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t initially stop BP from using Corexit, a dispersant so toxic it could be a decade before anyone can confidently eat a piece of fish from the Gulf. It does little to slow the oil but does break it into droplets, which could airbrush the inevitable video when the slick washes ashore.

Still, the idea of the oil spill as “Obama’s Katrina” breaks down under the slightest scrutiny.

No one expected George W. Bush to block a hurricane, only to stop utter incompetence in its wake. Katrina was an act of God before it became an act of man. When government obviously wasn’t doing its job, Bush kept insisting it was.

Atrophied Agency

Under Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn’t ready to respond. It had been left to atrophy under Michael “Brownie” Brown, fresh from his tenure at the International Arabian Horse Association, who presided over an unnecessary disaster after the natural one.

Now we face an unnatural disaster, and government has neither the equipment nor the staff to fix a pipeline a mile down in the ocean. That left us at the mercy of previously under-regulated BP, whose executives pitched solutions that could have come from a list of made-for-TV movies.

First there was “Giant Dome,” so big that it failed, and then the smaller one called “Top Hat.” Then came “Hot Tap,” destined to flop even if it hadn’t been an anagram of its predecessor. All that was before “Top Kill.” What’s next on that list -- Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”?

Anger Time

With the executives in charge looking ever more hapless, there developed something close to unanimity about what Obama should do: Get angry. A virtue can slip into vice if overdone, and Obama’s Gandhi routine in the face of the biggest disaster our country has faced since 9/11 could tick off the calmest of people.

A new CBS News poll found that 70 percent of Americans disapprove of how BP has handled the spill, compared with 45 percent disapproval for Obama. Worse for the president is that only 35 percent approve of his words and deeds during the crisis.

That’s why White House aides chose to leak -- how apropos -- that their boss had snapped, “Plug the damn hole.” Now can they get Obama to stop that bozo from BP from shifting the blame to the rig operator, Transocean Ltd., which shifted blame to the cement-casing maker, Halliburton Co., which shifted it to the battery in the blowout preventer? Really, Mr. President, don’t let them say it’s a Duracell problem.

Poor Executives

He’s still doing better than Republicans, who are hard at work protecting the poor, beleaguered oil executives at BP from having their liability cap lifted.

By this time, Obama must surely wish he had cleaned house at Minerals Management rather than, or at least before, calling for a resumption of offshore drilling to show the other side how reasonable he is. He remains so captive to the thought that we can all get along that he can’t go after the enormous corporate breakdown he inherited, from banking to mining to oil.

He should be less afraid of looking like Huey Long and more interested in governing like Franklin Roosevelt.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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