What Obama Should Have Said to BP

Jim Young/Reuters
Governor Charlie Crist and Barack Obama at Casino Beach, Pensacola, Florida, June 15, 2010

Barack Obama’s demand, in his June 15 speech, that the former British Petroleum Company create an escrow account, to guarantee the funds that will be needed to deal with the consequences of the continuing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, should have been made weeks ago, and should surely have been framed more strongly than it was.

The President, in this matter, continues to demonstrate the quality, laudable in itself, but in politics extraordinarily dangerous, of assuming that those he is dealing with are as reasonable and well-intentioned as he is himself. In fact they are often driven by ruthlessly self-interested motives that leave him in a position of seeming weakness and unwillingness to defend not only national but his own political interests.

At the end of May one saw the President on international television walking on a Louisiana beach, accompanied—off-scene—by hundreds if not thousands of newsmen, broadcasters, and cameramen. He seemed abject. He bent over and picked up a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers. He shook his head in concern. A cutaway showed his speeches earlier in this affair declaring that his administration is in charge of the great effort to save America’s coast and waters from the terrible pollution that is spreading as a result of a volcano of oil erupting from the sea’s floor and meeting the sickly-colored, toxic chemicals being mixed into the water that are meant to disperse it.

In his June 15 speech, Mr. Obama finally insisted that BP would pay for all the damage and cleanup and would be held responsible for any illegalities; and the next day at the White House BP agreed to an independently administered $20 billion escrow fund, while the full costs to the Gulf region are far from clear.

In the press conferences given by the President and the BP chairman that followed the meeting it was clear that the American government still does not control this situation. BP alone will determine what is done with respect to the oil geyser and its promised closure. While it will make available the $20 billion compensation fund, the timing, terms, and ultimate worth of BP’s assurances of compensation and reparation remain open to interpretation and change.

How can the President possibly say that his administration has “been in charge”? BP has been in charge from the start—it and its contract companies, all of them desperately trying to plug the hole in the bottom of the sea, and all defending corporate and fiscal interests of their own. The President’s associates and advisers have apparently decided that the agencies of the United States government are technically incompetent to give instructions to BP, which seems improbable. But they certainly can and must tell BP what priorities must be set, and they must…

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