It Is Up to Us to Decide What Government’s Role Will Be There and Elsewhere

reposted from The Bell
An op-ed.

Obama Has Lead Us to the Shore; It Is Up to Us to Decide What Government’s Role Will Be There and Elsewhere

President Obama and the federal government garnered widespread criticism for failing to act quickly enough and do enough to staunch the flow of crude oil spewing from a BP drilling site nearly a mile below the Gulf of Mexico’s surface. Republican opponents quickly labeled it “Obama’s Katrina.”

David Brooks of the New York Times takes another tack, arguing, “The real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis.” His cohort, Frank Rich, frets, “It might not only wreck the ecology of a region but capsize the principal mission of the Obama Presidency.” Rich goes on to define that mission as turning around American distrust of government and portraying it as a (potential) force for good in our lives.

So, last Friday, Obama traveled to Louisiana to stand on one of its beaches and examine the spill’s effects for himself as well as hold a press conference to reassure the public once again everything that could be done was being done. By all accounts, he was not particularly successful.

“I take responsibility,” Obama said. “It’s my job to make sure that everything is done to shut [the well]. The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.”

This was a good start, according to Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, but it still fell short of what was necessary. The problem was not the message or even the messenger but the lack of passion in its delivery. Per Fineman, “Voters expect [Obama] to convince them that he cares, that he’s focused . . . He didn’t inspire any confidence, especially in contrast to those pictures from the Gulf.”

Brooks expands on this expectation but questions its validity. “[Americans] demand that the President ‘take control.’ They demand that he hold press conferences, show leadership, announce that the buck stops here and do something. They want him to emote and perform the proper theatrical gestures so they can see their emotions enacted on the public stage.”

Obama’s mea culpa certainly failed to impress his many critics on the matter. The President said he was wrong to trust BP so much, both in terms of estimating the size of the leak and the company’s ability to contain it quickly and effectively. “That’s not a self-critique at all but classic passive-aggressive behavior,” sneered James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal.

Yet while some conservatives saw the federal government placing its foot on BP’s neck as an insufficient a response, others disparaged this approach for exactly the opposite reason. Rand Paul, Republican Senatorial candidate from Kentucky and Tea Party darling, caused eyebrows to rise nervously within GOP circles when he blamed Obama for being too harsh on BP.

“I think [Obama] sounds really un-American in his criticism of business,” Paul told an Associated Press reporter. “And I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be somebody’s fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acted quickly to pull Paul out of the limelight and Republicans angrily denounced the media for taking advantage of the new candidate.

On the other hand, columnist Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post is no political ingénue and his latest column makes it clear Paul’s sentiments are not a misstep but an unfortunate revelation into conservative thinking. Krauthammer blames the disaster on “environmental chic,” reasoning that rabid conservationists drove oil companies off land and near-shore drilling into deep water. The problem might have been avoided had unrestricted drilling been permitted in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Then Krauthammer espouses his own “accidents happen” philosophy.

“There will always be catastrophic oil spills. You make them as rare as humanly possible but where would you rather have one – in the Gulf of Mexico, upon which thousands depend for their livelihood, or in the Arctic, where there are practically no people? All spills seriously damage wildlife. That’s a given. But why have we pushed the drilling from the barren to the populated, from the remote wilderness to a center of fishing, shipping, tourism and recreation?”

Conservatives keep insisting Obama “just doesn’t get it” and perhaps he does not. Yet the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of their criticisms suggest maybe they do not get it either; perhaps the whole nation does not.

Brooks sums up the problem. “[Americans] want to hold [Obama] responsible for things they know he doesn’t control. Their reaction is a mixture of disgust, anger, longing and need. It may not make sense. But it doesn’t make sense that the country wants spending cuts and doesn’t want cuts, wants change and doesn’t want change. At some point somebody’s going to have to reach a national consensus on the role of government.”

Brooks posits such irrational demands flow from a growing nervousness over “America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems.” Bob Herbert, also writing in the New York Times, suggests this helplessness is self-inflicted.”

“For a nation that can’t stop bragging about how great and powerful it is, we’ve become shockingly helpless in the face of the many challenges confronting us . . . The American public [needs] to begin coping in a serious and sustained way with an energy crisis that we’ve been warned about for decades. If the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history is not enough to bring about a reversal of our epic foolishness on the energy front, then nothing will . . . When are we going to stop behaving so stupidly?”

Last year, Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana and rising GOP star, responded to Obama’s first address to Congress by, among other things, belittling research into environmental and other dangers from volcanoes as ridiculous and unaffordable. When oil from the BP leak began threatening his state’s shores, he started begging the federal government to spend and act without limits.

Republicans and too many Americans in general do not seem to see any more hypocrisy in this than they did opposing “socialistic” healthcare while simultaneously screaming over potential cuts to Medicare. They criticize Obama for failing to fix the BP leak but when faced with a disaster that resulted from far-too-cozy relationships between Big Oil and federal regulators, they argue for less regulation and “Drill, Baby, Drill!” They claim to embrace risk-taking associated with entrepreneurial capitalism but when they and their families are the ones at risk, they expect government protection.

As E.J. Dionne noted in the Washington Post, “Deregulation is wonderful until we discover what happens when regulations aren’t issued or enforced. Everyone is a capitalist until a private company blunders. Then everyone starts talking like a socialist, presuming that the government can put things right because they see it as being just as big and powerful as its Tea Party critics claim it is. But the truth is that we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task.”

It is the attitude of “not in my backyard” on a national scale. Unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico is the nation’s backyard and, as Dionne concludes, the current mess there is ultimately “the product of our own contradictions.” During his press conference, Obama related how his older daughter, Malia, poked her head in the bathroom while he was shaving that morning and asked, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”

In many ways, she speaks for a generation of Americans so immature as to demand a birthright of abundance without the slightest desire to make sacrifices even approaching those of the forbearers who earned that birthright for them.

Krauthammer and other conservatives have cast Obama in the role of King Canute of England, who once had his throne placed at the sea’s edge and commanded the waves to cease, only to have them continue lapping about his ankles. The BP leak, they say, reveals Obama’s hubris in declaring his election “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

They overlook two important things. First, Canute did not engage in spectacle because power and success blinded him to his own mortality. Instead, he wished to provide a lesson to his over-confident subjects about the limitations of even the greatest leaders to do great things alone. Second, Obama jubilant declaration began with the proviso, “If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it . . .”

Obama did not go to Louisiana expecting the tides to obey him. He simply went to the disaster and offered to do his best to lead us in dealing with it. It is our choice whether we want to give the man on the beach the tools, support, and assistance needed to begin addressing the problem or whether we will continue asking him to make everything better at no cost and then jeering at him when he proves unable to walk on water.