Editorial

Oil change

The president ramps up his response to the Gulf oil spill and poses a fitting challenge.

June 17, 2010 

The Oval Office is not the typical venue choice for a speech to the nation when everything is humming along on all cylinders and the office's occupant is having a fabulous time being president of all he surveys. No, when we're addressed from behind that big, gleaming desk, it's as though we've all been called to the principal's office.

The message usually comes down to this: We're in a heap of trouble and we had better get our act together. Then, on the way out, comes a little encouragement to show that the person in charge hasn't given up on us and hopes - knows - we can do better.

With that in mind, President Obama's Oval Office speech Tuesday night ran true to form. But there was a sense that Obama also was asking Americans not to give up on him because we hope - know - he can do better.

The monstrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has knocked this once-confident administration back on its heels, barely three months after its come-from-behind victory in securing health care reform.

No, the federal government did not cause the spill (although it's obvious that stiffer enforcement of drilling safety regulations might have prevented it). After the blowout of BP's seabed well on April 20, it's arguable that nobody or nothing on the planet could have quickly capped the resulting underwater gusher.

Slow-motion disaster

But Obama and his team, despite presidential visits to the Gulf, have struggled to get atop the situation. There was too much deference to BP, perhaps resulting from a misplaced notion that since they broke it, they should own it.

Even with a Coast Guard admiral on the scene as "national incident commander," the government did not appear to take charge of the spill response promptly and with a fitting sense of urgency. Resources that could have been brought to bear - for example, more ships to help scoop up floating oil - went untapped.

Meanwhile the oil continued to spew. The working folks who depend on the Gulf's waters for their livelihoods were idled, angry and afraid. Marshlands and beaches throughout the Gulf and even up the Atlantic seaboard were threatened as Americans were told the spill might not be halted until August.

Finally it must have dawned on Obama and his innermost circle that - terrible irony - they were in the process of bungling their Katrina moment. Time to bring in the TV cameras and try to turn things around.

Battle stations

Certainly, the president painted the stakes in suitably sweeping terms: This is the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history. The way of life of a region's people hangs in the balance.

He spoke to his determination, and thereby attempted to summon the determination of all Americans, to fight the spreading oil as if it were an invading force - or an epidemic. The Gulf will be cleansed, he vowed, and the people battered by this manmade calamity just as they've been battered by wind and waves will be made whole. BP will pay for the damage it has caused. That is all as it should be.

Perhaps the Gulf Coast restoration plan Obama called for will do the trick. At least, the president now has taken a more conspicuous degree of ownership of the response to this disaster - the last thing a politician wants, but the first thing people want when they look to the White House for leadership and accountability.

The gusher must be capped and the oil now befouling the Gulf removed. Then, Americans must confront the larger challenge Obama posed - dialing back our use of oil to reduce the incentive and need to drill in places where the consequences of a mistake can be too dreadful to bear.

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