Stop the Spill, Pass the Bill

By / 6.3.2010

As diligently as cloistered monks, the commentariat is working hard to calibrate the exact amount of political damage the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is doing to the Obama presidency. Woeful analogies come fast and furious: the spill is Obama’s Katrina, or Obama’s hostage crisis, his Jimmy Carter moment.

All this would be comical if not for the media’s undoubted power to warp public perceptions by converting complex realities into political melodramas. What’s false about this one is its premise: President Obama could find a way to stop the leak if only he would “take charge” of the crisis.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the public doesn’t share the media’s apparently bottomless faith in the federal government’s problem-solving capacities. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, only 25 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing most of the time. Nearly a third say they “almost never” trust the government to do the right thing.

But what’s really odd, as Jonathan Chait notes today, is the “assumption of presidential omnipotence” that informs the media’s assessment of Obama’s handling of the spill.

Today presidents are expected to take ultimate responsibility for every problem, natural or man-made, and to voice the nation’s emotional solidarity with victims of every disaster. In this vein, James Carville recently blasted Obama for failing to show up and emote in Louisiana as the oil spill threatens its shores.

Obama, always the calmest head in the room, has pointed out that since government doesn’t drill oil wells, it’s not likely to have superior experience and technical expertise when it comes to plugging oil leaks. What the administration can do is what it is doing: keeping pressure on BP to improvise a solution. Facing mounting clean-up costs and plummeting stock prices, the company has every incentive to do so.

The president’s proper role is not to play superhero or therapist-in-chief, but to draw from the crisis the right lessons for national policy. He did so yesterday, underscoring the need to pass energy/climate legislation that’s bogged down in the Senate. The bill, he said, would “accelerate the transition” to a clean energy economy. Crucially, it would for the first time put a price on carbon emissions, which would provide markets with a powerful signal to invest in alternative fuels.

If the spill galvanizes Obama into going all-in for a clean energy bill, as he did for health care, it could yet be turned to the nation’s advantage. But if the disaster leads progressives to vote against the bill, because it also contains incentives for more U.S. oil and gas exploration, the result will be a cruel irony: Congress’ failure to act on clean energy would leave America as addicted to oil as ever.

Photo credit: Deepwater Horizon Response’s Photostream