Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Oil Spill: Not Obama's "Katrinia," but it may be his "9/11"

Provoking op-ed by Thomas Friedman in the NYT on President Obama and the oil spill.

I was drawn to it by some headlines on MSN (which was actually a link to the New York Times) that the scientific community is faulting Obama and his administration. Reading the whole article suggested that there are things that the government has clearly done right, and the rate of response has generally been good, but there are some issues.

Of course, there have been some that has said that Obama has reacted (or, not reacted) just has Bush did with Hurricane Katrina.

So, I went looking for more commentary, and found Friedman's, and was surprised by these words:

President Obama’s handling of the gulf oil spill has been disappointing. I say that not because I endorse the dishonest conservative critique that the gulf oil spill is somehow Obama’s Katrina and that he is displaying the same kind of incompetence that George W. Bush did after that hurricane. To the contrary, Obama’s team has done a good job coordinating the cleanup so far. The president has been on top of it from the start.

No, the gulf oil spill is not Obama’s Katrina. It’s his 9/11 — and it is disappointing to see him making the same mistake George W. Bush made with his 9/11. (my bolding)

That surprised me, and hooked me into reading the rest of the article. Friedman's first analysed why Bush failed:

President Bush’s greatest failure was not Iraq, Afghanistan or Katrina. It was his failure of imagination after 9/11 to mobilize the country to get behind a really big initiative for nation-building in America. I suggested a $1-a-gallon “Patriot Tax” on gasoline that could have simultaneously reduced our deficit, funded basic science research, diminished our dependence on oil imported from the very countries whose citizens carried out 9/11, strengthened the dollar, stimulated energy efficiency and renewable power and slowed climate change. It was the Texas oilman’s Nixon-to-China moment — and Bush blew it.

Had we done that on the morning of 9/12 — when gasoline averaged $1.66 a gallon — the majority of Americans would have signed on. They wanted to do something to strengthen the country they love. Instead, Bush told a few of us to go to war and the rest of us to go shopping. So today, gasoline costs twice as much at the pump, with most of that increase going to countries hostile to our values, while China is rapidly becoming the world’s leader in wind, solar, electric cars and high-speed rail.

I would have added something about building relationship with our world allies, who already too well know the realities of terrorism, but overall I agree with Friedman's point. So, how is what Obama is doing like this?

So far, the Obama policy is: “Think small and carry a big stick.” He is rightly hammering the oil company executives. But he is offering no big strategy to end our oil addiction. Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman have unveiled their new energy bill, which the president has endorsed but only in a very tepid way. Why tepid? Because Kerry-Lieberman embraces vitally important fees on carbon emissions that the White House is afraid will be exploited by Republicans in the midterm elections. The G.O.P., they fear, will scream carbon “tax” at every Democrat who would support this bill, and Obama, having already asked Democrats to make a hard vote on health care, feels he can’t ask them for another.

Friedman feels that this is the wrong strategy. He points out that there are conservatives who would embrace a carbon or gasoline tax if it was offset by a cut in payroll taxes or corporate taxes, so we could foster new jobs and clean air at the same time. He also suggest that the reply to those who would cry "taxers" come election time could be countered with “Conservatives for OPEC” or “Friends of BP.” (Some smart politician should try and get Friedman on the payroll.)

Ultimately, Friedman is pleading for presidential leadership:

Obama is not just our super-disaster-coordinator. “He is our leader,” noted Tim Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics. “And being a leader means telling the rest of us what’s our job, what do we need to do to make this a transformative moment.”

Please don’t tell us that our role is just to hate BP or shop in Mississippi or wait for a commission to investigate. We know the problem, and Americans are ready to be enlisted for a solution. Of course we can’t eliminate oil exploration or dependence overnight, but can we finally start? Mr. President, your advisers are wrong: Americans are craving your leadership on this issue. Are you going to channel their good will into something that strengthens our country — “The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act” — or are you going squander your 9/11, too?

I really like what Friedman says. It seems that Obama is following a time honored church leadership technique (a bad one) to try and not rock the boat and hold on tighter to our previous positions (we can't be wrong, we just have to do what we do better), instead of doing what is right, which often requires change.

1 comment:

Fran said...

I find myself wondering whether the vast majority of Americans are really there. People are still buying hummers and bottled water. I love the post, and think that it would be great if our leaders would lead, but I'm not as persuaded as Friedman that the people will follow.