Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Heckuva Job, Citizen

Here's another story which makes me wonder at the collective American psyche and how it relates to news and public opinion.

There has been some talk of the oil spill as being Obama's "Katrina," with people evidently attempting to correlate how different administrations have dealt with devastating natural occurrences. Maybe people can suss these things out better than I can (and better than I think they can), but to my eyes the situations seem to have little in common.

In the case of hurricane Katrina (leaving aside the failure of numerous administrations to do what they knew needed doing to adequately shore up New Orleans against a natural disaster) the Bush Administration basically sat on its hands before, during and for quite a while after a devastating storm. The world watched while the city basically reverted to the stone age and the federal government did much too little (the President first appointing the absurdly-unqualified-to-lead-any-federal-agency Michael Brown to run FEMA, and then publicly praising his "heckuva job" while the city howled). It wasn't a question of knowing what to do; it was a question of not doing much of anything and then failing to acknowledge the almost total failure.

I can't see the parallel with our present situation at all. With this oil spill, even the oil company itself admits to being stymied about how they should go about stopping the leak. How would government--particularly as vilified by the right for being inherently evil and ineffectual--have been able to step in after the fact and fix what the oil company itself can't contain? Send in troops? Bomb the hell out of the oil well? What does government have to offer in this case but a sensible degree of oversight and regulation in the interest of the public good (and fines when malfeasance is found)? It seems to me this is exactly what the President has been saying.

On the contrary, I see in this catastrophe the legacy of the Bush Administration's penchant for giving business prerogatives--and especially oil companies--complete priority over even the most basic public oversight. Hurricanes are no one's fault, but much about the BP well failure smells rotten. There is every reason to think this catastrophe could, and should, have been prevented. Normal scrutiny by an attentive government would very likely have prevented numerous safety and regulatory violations, probably preventing the explosion in the first place and ensuring that the required blowout safety measures would have functioned as designed. But we can hardly expect President Obama to inspect the oil rigs himself; and how much time are we going to give the President to undo 30 years of systematic Republican sabotage of governmental functioning?

The further irony is that Obama has said all along that we MUST deflect ourselves from our oil-based lifestyle. This is derided by his critics, but the difficulty of containing this leaking well stems in part from the extremity of its circumstance; we would not be drilling here if we had easier sources of oil. And it only gets worse from here.

What Obama IS doing is admitting that government has failed to address this growing issue adequately. This is not his personal failing, but he's taking it upon himself to do something to rectify our collective past failings. To me this sounds like taking the responsibility where we as a country have been--and, according to this poll, are still--looking the other way.

I don't know enough to say with confidence that government can't have done more or done it better. But there is nothing Katrina-like in the Obama Administration's response to this crisis. I think the guy deserves some breathing space as he tries to tackle our problems.


dbackdad said...

Comparing the two is indeed ridiculous. The BP spill is an environmental disaster, like Katrina, but Katrina and its response was a humanitarian disaster where over a 1,000 people died and numerous others were stripped of every bit of dignity.

I'm actually heartened that people are upset with the response and with BP. It means that people might finally be getting a clue about our environment and the harmful effect of our oil dependency on that environment.

Anonymous said...

While the comparison to Katrina is arguable, saying that Bush is somehow to blame for this oil spill (being too lax on corporations) is quite a stretch. Anyone who has ever worked in a corporation, big or small, can attest to the incompetence that goes on inside those walls. Just ask any current or former corporate employee. Opinions will be like, "it is amazing anything gets done around there", or "it is amazing that someone hasn't been killed by now". Even if you had a European-style "gestapo" checking every safety valve, every safety or security measure and every file and program on every computer, catastrophies are likely to happen every once in a while not just due to human error, but to "corporate incompetence" whereby the main concern of the managers in charge is to advance their careers, cover their butts, and make enough money to keep that lake home going. This corporate incompetence manifests itself in a US auto company as a financial meltdown, but in an oil company, well we have seen that outcome more than once. Sure Bush didn't work toward tighter regulations and safety measures (no republican will). But the worst you can say about him, in this instance, is that he was part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

wunelle said...

Fair enough. It's not as though Bush was personally responsible for the explosion and subsequent spill. And in fairness I know too little about this particular explosion and spill (and understand too little about any principles involved) for me to apportion blame with authority.

But I do get exasperated at the apocalyptic right wing harangues blaming Obama for everything. And I also think a lack of oversight has played a role in this oil spill. But this is something toward which Republicans have worked since Reagan--getting government out of the way of business, often by intentionally hobbling the government institutions. Thomas Frank shows just how systematically the Republicans (assisted somewhat by Clinton) have dismantled government oversight. This makes Republican criticism of the Obama Administration's response to the explosion and spill a double-irony: Republicans hate government oversight of oil companies, but they blame the Democrats for not overseeing and responding properly.

So I agree that this spill is not directly George Bush's fault. But I think that statement would be much closer to the truth than anything hinted at by calling the event "Obama's Katrina."

Anyway, I appreciate the comment!