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Not so slick, Mr President

Philip Delves Broughton says that Barack Obama has not dealt well with the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico — and his party will pay at the congressional elections in November

Philip Delves Broughton says that Barack Obama has not dealt well with the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico — and his party will pay at the congressional elections in November

I suppose £260 million isn’t all that much in the scheme of things. Not when you are used to dealing in billions and trillions. Yet at the very moment when the entire Western world is hitching in its belt, slashing public spending and preaching austerity, work is to begin on the most extensive renovations at the White House in 60 years. New heating, cooling, electrical and fire alarm systems will be installed over four years. For £260 million, there must be a few contractors in Washington howling up their sleeves. Not to mention a Chinese creditor somewhere shaking his wizened head at the way America keeps spending what it doesn’t have.

For the past few weeks, it seems the Obama White House has been on a mental holiday. Perhaps it was the exertions of the past year, stimulating the economy and passing healthcare reform. But from the moment the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded deep under the Gulf of Mexico, the usually nimble-footed President and his staff have proved klutzy, allowing a political fiasco to edge towards them as inexorably as the vast spill has seeped across the Gulf towards America’s southern coastal states.

Finally, the spill has come ashore. As in Jaws, we are finished with the ominous duh-duh, duh-duh as the shark starts to circle. Now the teeth are snapping and the water is foaming. The oil is coating beaches and oozing into marshes which teem with wildlife. Mottled ducks and reddish egrets, snowy plovers and spawning bluefin tuna are in danger. Brown pelicans, the state symbol of Louisiana, are coming ashore coated with crude. When federal wildlife officials tried to rescue them, though, they had to back off after the pelicans were ‘spooked’. Even pelicans have a sense of who not to trust when their lives are at stake.


For Obama, the attacks are coming from every side. The right claims that this is his Katrina. Just as President Bush suffered for his delays in helping the benighted people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit, so Obama is said to have fiddled while the Gulf blazed. Sarah Palin accused him of ‘taking so doggone long to get in there’. Even some of his supporters on the left agree the President has shown an aristocratic disdain for the problem. James Carville, once President Clinton’s top strategist, accused Obama of being ‘lackadaisical’. He said the White House ‘seem like they’re inconvenienced by this, this is some giant thing getting in their way and somehow or another, if you let BP handle it, it’ll all go away. It’s not going away. It’s growing out there. It is a disaster of the first magnitude, and they’ve got to go to Plan B.’ Others on the left blame the President for not using the spill to hammer the oil industry and argue for alternative sources of energy.

Instead the White House has permitted open season on BP, encouraging a bout of Limey-bashing rarely seen on these shores since Cornwallis went down to Washington at Yorktown. The Cabinet member responsible for oil spills, an avuncular-looking fellow called Ken Salazar, has come on all Sonny Corleone with BP, threatening to ‘keep our boot on their neck until the job gets done’. And Obama’s Senate mentor, Dick Durbin, said: ‘BP in my mind no longer stands for British Petroleum — it stands for Beyond Patience.’ One can only imagine what the words ‘Dick Durbin’ conjure up in the minds of BP’s harried engineers.

The truth is that BP is trying to do something enormously difficult: cap a well 18,000 feet underwater. There has been a Great Egg Race quality to their efforts, from trying to disperse the floating crude with chemicals, to trying to cap the well with a giant containment box, from blowing shredded tires and golf balls into the hole to floating miles of absorbent booms along the coast line to soak up the oil. Inventors from around the world have applied themselves to the problem. Volunteers in the southern American states have been sending in stockings stuffed with human hair to be used as oil sponges. Others suggested the US Navy torpedo the well to bury it under debris. A Florida construction company offered to float thousands of bales of hay on the Gulf of Mexico to soak up the oil. The actor Kevin Costner even showed up in Louisiana with a centrifuge device he said he had been working on since the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, which can suck in oil, separate it and spit out water.

Whatever works, it is obvious that BP rather than the federal government should be leading the way on solving this problem. The problem for Obama, then, is not that he should have interfered more but rather that he and his team should have been more helpful. Once the scale of the disaster became apparent, the White House immediately started to blame BP for everything. BP was not acting fast enough. BP would have to pay. BP was a bunch of incompetent morons, but they had to stay in charge because they were least incompetent morons available.

It is a dangerous game for any government to keep belittling and harassing the private sector in the midst of a recession, and yet it is one this administration seems intent on playing. On Wall Street these days, you mention the President’s name at the risk of grave personal injury. The new financial reform bill has bankers apoplectic. Few of them see it as the cost of accepting the vast bailouts of 2008, but with mid-term elections looming later this year, this scarcely matters. Any sense of gratitude to the White House for rescuing the financial industry has long since given way to the fear that when night falls, the occupants of the West Wing don Che Guevara T-shirts and read Das Kapital.

For Obama, the oil spill has revealed his political shapelessness to be a source of weakness rather than adaptability. He has impressed no one with his handling of it. Environmentalists believe he doesn’t care about marshlands and plovers and isn’t serious about alternative energy. The oil industry considers him a whining scold. The fishermen of Louisiana think he has abandoned them and their livelihoods to a reckless foreign corporation. When he sends out proxies to berate BP, is he attacking the oil industry in general or just this one corporation for this one disaster? When those same proxies threaten to shove BP aside and take over the rescue efforts themselves, many hear the broader threat of government taking over the entire economy.

In November, American voters will get to elect a new Congress with this test of presidential competence fresh in their minds. The primary elections for candidates have produced results commensurate with the anger in the land, with populist Republicans surging against hoary Democrats. Obama’s response to the spill has shown him at his white-gloved worst, bunkered in the White House and blaming others, pointing at BP and saying the buck stops there. You would have thought that after witnessing the political consequences of Bush’s response to Katrina, he might do better. Even with the new air-conditioning at the White House, it should be a roasting hot summer in Washington.


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