Gulf Oil Spill: The Importance of Presidential Indignation and Explanation

bp oil spillAccording to a new CBS News poll 70 percent of Americans disapprove of how BP has handled the oil gush, compared with 45 percent who disapprove of how Obama has handled it. This could change in the days or weeks ahead if the spill continues to worsen and the White House looks and acts powerless.

The poll also points out a danger for Obama: Only 35 percent approve of his words and deeds so far during the crisis. He seems too willing to defer to BP executives, even as Bad Petroleum Ltd. tries to shift blame to Transocean Ltd., the rig operator, which is trying to put blame on Halliburton, which made the cement casings.

But it’s not just the oil gush. Most Americans continue to be livid at Wall Street executives and traders — for which they blame an economic crisis that’s cost many their jobs, savings, and homes — a crisis that’s still costing taxpayers a bundle even as the bankers are back to collecting huge compensation packages. Yet the President continues to consult and socialize with many of them. Inexplicably, the White House won’t go along with proposals by several Democratic senators to cap the size of the biggest banks (the only way to ensure they’ll never be too big to fail and their political power is contained), to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act (except in its weaker “Volker rule” form), or to force the biggest banks to do their derivative trading without the artificial support of tax-payer insured commercial deposits.

Most people are also furious that executives at Massey Energy failed to use mandated safety equipment and procedures that might have saved the lives of 29 miners. Where were the regulators? What does the Administration plan to do to the company or its executives?

Most Americans upset that the top guns at Anthem, WellPoint, and other health insurers are still hiking insurance rates. Why are these health insurers still immune from the antitrust laws? How can the Administration not blow the whistle on their current attempts blunt regulations that would cap their premiums?

Many are angry that the executives of credit card companies still charging outlandish rates on overcharges that are still hard to compute. What happened to the new rules that were supposed to stop this?

Most Americans who know about it are bothered that the managers of hedge funds and private-equity funds (the 25 richest of whom took $1 billion each last year) are taxed at only 15 percent because of a loophole in the tax laws that the Senate continues to protect.

You get my drift.

Yet the President is treating these corporate and financial executives the way he treats Senate Republicans. At most, he respectfully disagrees.

Respectful disagreement is virtuous in a democratic society, but so is appropriate indignation. Indignation signals to the public that social responsibilities have been breached, and thereby lends credence and authority to all those who are working toward them. Franklin D. Roosevelt had no hesitancy blaming the “economic royalists” – the rich bankers and executives who stood in the way of the New Deal.

Moreover, without indignation, the President opens himself up to libertarian critics such as Rand Paul, who oppose almost all government regulation (“What I don’t like from the president’s administration is this sort of, ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP”), as well as right-wing opportunists who claim the President is pulling his punches because he receives campaign donations from oil companies.

Here’s Sarah Palin, of all people: “The oil companies who have so supported President Obama in his campaign and are supportive of him now — I don’t know why the question isn’t asked by the mainstream media and by others if there’s any connection with the contributions made to President Obama and his administration and the support by the oil companies to the administration [and] President Obama taking so doggone long to get in there, to dive in there, and grasp the complexity and the potential tragedy that we are seeing here in the Gulf of Mexico.”

It’s also important for the President to connect the dots – providing Americans a clear narrative for why government is so critically important. Corporations are organized to maximize profits, not to achieve public goals such as environmental protection, financial trust, safety, and so on.

robert_reich.jpgSince Ronald Reagan first opined that government was the problem rather than the solution, right-wing Republicans have blasted all forms of regulation. Now we see the consequences of years of regulatory neglect.

The President has an opportunity now to express appropriate indignance and to assert the importance of reasonable regulation. He should waste no time doing so.

by Robert Reich

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission

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