For well over a year now I’ve been wondering why President Barack Obama, (who is a talented communicator and a student of history), failed to recognize Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s example of the necessity of speaking directly to the American people. Tonight, at long last, Obama gave his first “fireside chat.” He should have done so long ago to clarify his efforts to reform the financial sector, as well as to explain his stimulus package and health care initiatives. (A weekly Youtube talk is no substitute for a primetime Oval Office address.) His passivity allowed his political opponents, including well-heeled Wall Street and health insurance interests, to define the narrative on their terms. It was a political blunder.
Obama’s talk Tuesday night was dominated by a technocratic laundry list of actions he plans to take. Forcing British Petroleum to put some cash aside for compensating the victims of the spill is an important step but how exactly is the U.S. government going to take control of these funds? National “commissions” are slow and ineffective and usually offer only bland “bipartisan” recommendations, (like the 9-11 Commission). What is his commission going to accomplish? The President clearly still has confidence in Interior Secretary Ken Salazar even though he botched overseeing the Mineral Management Service. What makes him think this confidence is warranted? How is Obama going to confront the lobbyists and campaign money coming from the oil industry to buy off the Congress and block his proposed reforms?
Few people care about how Obama is going to reorganize bureaucratic boxes at the Interior Department or sell his plan for alternative energy to an obstructionist Senate, (certain to grow more obstructionist after the midterms). We’ve heard it all before. People want the Obama Administration to take decisive, forceful action against British Petroleum. Obama should have made it clear Tuesday night that the coddling of BP is over. We all know the Senate is going to water down any energy policy that claws back oil corporations’ profits. Promises about ending our dependency on fossil fuels can only ring hollow after hearing them for thirty years. Obama’s energy policy will probably go the same middle-of-the-road route as his financial and health care policies. Tragically, we were not even given the opportunity to see how popular single payer would have been, or breaking up the big banks, or capping greenhouse gas emissions. The times call for bold action but we’re getting industry-friendly half measures.
BP’s criminal negligence — with a big assist from corrupt federal “regulators” — is killing the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not only wiping out the habitats of thousands of fish and bird species, but it is also destroying the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on a relatively clean environment in the water and along the coastline. BP’s handling of the oil spill disaster is no different than what we would expect from Enron or Goldman Sachs. Why on earth would Obama continue to trust this sociopathic corporate enterprise to “Do the right thing?” All BP cares about is limiting its liability; hence the lies and the gag orders; the media blackouts and the low-balling the number of barrels released; the bogus contracts and the ordering of workers not to wear respirators; the reckless use of carcinogenic dispersants; the initial refusal to drill two relief wells; the lackadaisical deploying of vessels to suck up the oil; the hiring of Dick Cheney’s former publicist as a spokesperson, and so on, and on, and on. For BP’s executives it’s all about the years (or decades) of litigation ahead of them.
It’s not enough to send the Attorney General down to the Gulf to try to shift the “optics” to appear like something “tough” is going to happen. It’s not enough to say that you’re “frustrated” with the response (or “angry”) and will redouble your efforts to make it right. Reorganizing the Mineral Management Service is a necessary step but what’s the plan to prevent the oil industry from “capturing” the new bureaucracies? “Blue ribbon” commissions have become nothing but sad jokes. The evidence so far that Representatives Edward Markey and Henry Waxman are unearthing suggests that BP deserves a corporate death sentence. Enron’s former CEO Jeffrey Skilling is serving a 24-year prison term, but compared to BP’s executives his crimes seem about equal to jaywalking.
Historians have long pointed to the effectiveness of FDR’s fireside chats in educating the public and galvanizing support for his New Deal reforms. Although he used them sparingly (only thirty throughout his twelve years in office) when he reached out to the American people directly he expressed not only reassurance and optimism but also a steely resolve to take on the moneyed interests, i.e. giant corporations. When a president speaks directly to the American people in the intimate setting of the Oval Office it should give people the sense that their leader understands the gravity of the problems we face and can point the way out of the abyss. Jimmy Carter showed, however, that such intimacy could be a double-edged sword. His attempt to “chat” with the American people about the energy crisis in July 1979 was widely interpreted as offering neither reassurance nor optimism. One of the results was thirty years of oil industry control of America’s energy policy.
Tuesday night President Obama explained how his administration is going to respond to the most devastating human-made ecological catastrophe in the nation’s history. But he apparently doesn’t recognize how overwhelmingly popular it would be right now with the American people if he came out swinging against the malefactors of great corporate wealth like BP (or Goldman Sachs). His tendency is to pull his punches in an attempt to placate all sides, looking weak and reinforcing the Democrats’ negative stereotypes. Rhetoric aside, it will be Obama’s concrete actions in dealing firmly with BP that will determine whether tonight’s speech will go down in history as being akin to Franklin Roosevelt or more like Jimmy Carter.