Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

06/11/2010 (12:17 pm)

Of Oil Spills and Leaders

As the oil industry’s Chernobyl unfolds in slow motion in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House finds itself embroiled in a battle to defend itself against charges of aloofness and incompetence. Between golf outings, multiple vacations, meetings with sports teams, and parties featuring quail eggs and wagyu beef, a few hours’ visits to the Gulf have not reassured the public that the White House is in control, nor have the public reassurances reminding us how many meetings the President has held, nor have photos of the President on the phone. What do they want from him, wonders President “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”?

A week ago Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued what may be the Obama administration’s version of “Let them eat cake”:

…in an interview, Gibbs said Obama doesn’t see the need for a theatrical display of concern.

“If the president thought getting mad and yelling would plug the hole, he’d do it on top of the White House,” he said. “He understands we’ll all be judged by our response and our recovery efforts, not on whether he’s been a good method actor.”

Corresponding to their condescending and frankly unintelligent impression that what the public wants is theater, President Obama this week appeared on the Today Show and told Matt Lauer that his most helpful role in the matter was “Ass Kicker,” and that he consulted experts regularly so that he would know best “whose ass to kick.”

So, the White House hears criticism of the President’s “leadership,” and infers that it needs to engage in “method acting” and to go around yelling at the right people. Could they have said anything that indicates more clearly that they no idea what a leader does?

Bobby Jindal, Republican Governor of Louisiana, knows what a leader does. He’s not acting, he’s just doing his job, but unlike President Obama, he understands what his job is and goes about it in a manner that shows that he’s handling the situation. Jindal apparently realized the scope of the BP oil spill disaster within about a week of the event. By the end of April, he was coordinating local containment efforts and approaching federal authorities to obtain disaster aid and permits to build barrier islands to block oil from coming ashore. After three weeks passed with very little response from federal agencies, Jindal went public with his requests and announced “We’re not waiting, we’re moving ahead without them” — after which, suddenly, all his requests were met. Five minutes are shown below from the speech from May 24 in which he made clear what had not been acted upon:

Jindal provides us with a useful counterpoint to the Obama administration’s handling of the oil spill affair. Let’s take a look at a time line of actions taken by them both. I’ve embedded a calendar so you can picture the passage of time. Some of the times assigned to events are approximate, as specific dates were not included in some news reports.

  • April 20: The deep water horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana.
  • April 23: The Obama administration was briefed on the situation and told that it could potentially become the largest oil spill in US history.
  • April 23: The government of the Netherlands offered their expertise and oil-skimming booms, and proposed dredging sand barriers to protect marshlands. The Obama administration refused the assistance.
  • April 29: Gov. Jindal declared a state of emergency, and requested the first of several permits to build barrier islands to protect his state’s coastline.
  • April 30: Gov. Jindal requested a finding of “commercial fisheries failure” from US Dept of Commerce, and loan assistance from Small Business Administration for businesses affected by the oil spill.
  • May 1: Gov. Jindal, noting the slow response of BP and the federal government, announced that the state would begin its own measures to protect its coastline. He requested 3 million feet of absorbent boom, 5 million feet of hard boom, and 30 “jack up” barges from responsible federal authorities to help stop the oil from coming ashore.
  • May 6: The Small Business Administration announced that it was offering loan assistance to small businesses in Louisiana affected by the oil spill.
  • week of May 10: Gov. Jindal applied for permits to dredge a chain of barrier islands, since it appeared to the Governor that neither BP nor the federal government had a plan to stop the oil.
  • May 22: Gov. Jindal renewed his request for permits to dredge barrier islands.
  • May 24: Gov. Jindal delivered a nationally-televised speech detailing what had been requested and what had not arrived. He made it clear about the barrier: “We’re not waiting for their approval, we’re going to build it.”
  • May 24: Interior Secretary Salazar declared his resolve to “keep our boot on their neck,” referring to BP executives.
  • May 24: Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced his finding that a “fisheries failure” has occurred, freeing funds for the assistance of Louisiana fisheries affected by the oil spill.
  • Sometime around May 25: The Army Corps of Engineers approved Gov. Jindal’s barrier island plan, but said it would pay for only 1 island as a “prototype” to see if it will work.
  • May 25: Leaks revealed that the President, taut-jawed, growled “Why don’t they plug the damned hole?”
  • May 27: Ken Salazar, Interior Secretary, shut down all oil production in the Gulf of Mexico for at least 6 months, claiming for cover that an expert panel agreed that they should shut down all oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for 6 months. The expert panel later published a letter explaining that they agreed to no such thing.
  • May 27: President Obama acknowledged that the effort to stop the spill and clean it up is under federal direction. Responding to complaints that he appears not to care, he explained that he has more meetings about this topic than any other.
  • June 1: Eric Holder’s Department of Justice ordered BP to pay for all of Gov. Jindal’s barrier islands.
  • June 2: President Obama gave a speech in Pittsburgh implying that businesses involved in the oil spill may have violated federal laws, and emphasizing that he will “bring them to justice.”
  • June 8: President Obama told Matt Lauer that he talks to the experts “So I know whose ass to kick,” and said that his most important role is ass-kicking.
  • June 10: Seven weeks after it was offered, the Obama administration began accepting oil-skimming booms from the Netherlands.

What’s clear from this disturbing history is that the Obama administration, while responding in some sense to the fact that the oil spill had occurred, did not accept a role at the forefront, apparently waiting for other parties to solve the problem. When a proactive governor requested reasonable assistance, only one agency — the Small Business Administration — responded in a time frame indicating that they realized the gravity of the situation. Other agencies simply followed bureaucratic procedure for three weeks, until that governor made enough of a public splash to shine an unfavorable light on the administration — at which time his specific requests were met as quickly as possible, to be followed soon after with tough-sounding rhetoric. Now the administration, properly chastised, is being careful to issue more tough-sounding rhetoric, while also attempting to shift the blame away from themselves and toward the oil companies. Their agenda appears to consist entirely of talking tough and bashing British Petroleum.

Good leadership in this case would have created proactive measures to coordinate the responses of federal and state agencies to appropriate requests for aid, so that awkward legal barriers (like those preventing Dutch ships from bringing equipment) could be waived, appropriate permit requests could be expedited, and equipment could be procured and allocated smoothly. Gov. Jindal ought not have been made to wait three weeks for a permit to build barrier islands. The Dutch should not have been put off for seven weeks. Not a single foot of boom should have sat in a warehouse even a day waiting for instructions regarding where to send it. Nobody should have heard a single accusation against any party before appropriate investigation revealed the relevants facts.

Nobody wants theater, nobody wants the impossible, and especially, nobody wants angry foot-stomping; what we want is responsible action to ensure that whatever can be done, will be done. That’s what we’re missing, President Obama. Governor Jindal knows how to do that. You do not.

Ironically, Governor Jindal was dismissed with sneers in February 2009 after he delivered the GOP’s rebuttal to President Obama’s stimulus plan speech in Congress. As is usual when dealing with Democrats, Jindal’s awkward delivery apparently mattered far more than did the substance of his talk (one is astonished that Democrats apparently believe that delivering a speech poorly is supposed to disqualify one from holding high office, but delivering one containing plagiarized and fallacious details about one’s career does not). That’s why we’re now stuck with a President who apparently knows a great deal about organizing campaign financing schemes but has no idea how to lead a nation in an environmental crisis, and one whose $787 billion stimulus package, announced with such excellent style, has failed to stimulate anything other than the Census Bureau. President Obama ought to spend a few months studying Governor Jindal, who outshines him in every way when addressing matters requiring substance.

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