Who Gets Fired First?

Washington likes its scalps, and Paul Krugman is salivating for one. He blogged last night that the Department of the Interior had woefully mishandled the response to the BP oil disaster:

Every day there's another news story with Ken Salazar firmly declaring that he's losing patience with BP, and that if the company doesn't get with it ... he'll make another firm declaration tomorrow. Meanwhile, we get assurances that no more drilling is being allowed pending review, followed by stories that, well, actually it is; we get stories about MMS officials partying with cakes inscribed "Drill, baby, drill."

Krugman's right. Interior has dropped the ball. But so has everyone. The ball is too heavy. The frustration is that the the nature of the crisis did not hit policy makers until it was too late. It became an existential crisis immediately, but it wasn't seen as one immediately. The perception gap may have been due to poor initial government response, or to BP's fumbling, or simply to the complexity of trying to figure out what went wrong and how.

Forget about the administration trying to avoid getting blamed for the failure to contain the spill. The CBS Evening News and ABC's World News both spent half of their newscasts last night hammering into the brains of their viewers the failures of every equity holder in this catastrophe, including the administration.

There is absolutely an argument to be made that Republican anti-regulatory zeal neutered the Interior Department, and that the Obama administration had to build up the capacity. But both Democrats and Republicans expect their government to handle existential crisis, particularly manmade ones. But the truth of the matter here is that the gushing oil might not be able to be capped. The science of environmental engineering is being rapidly rushed into practical service, with mixed results. People are losing their livelihoods; an entire region and its economy will be transformed; our energy policies will have to be completely rethought. A major oil company, BP, might not survive.

The public is sick of political posturing. These Congressional hearings that Democrats are holding -- they certainly are useful exercises in ventilation, but really, the focus right now shouldn't be on blame assigning, it should be on crisis mitigation. Congress needs to stop yapping and start figuring out what it can do to support the administration, which, whether you like it or not, is on the hook for this.

Obama ran for president because he wanted to make government work again. He's had a tough time convincing people that it is possible for government to work benignly. A crashing economy will just make it tough to change opinions. But now he's faced with an equally impossible task -- one that he did indeed sign up for when he decided to run for president -- what happens when you're called upon to solve an unsolvable problem?

This links up a bit with the bubbling controversy over whether Joe Sestak was offered a job in exchange for not running against Sen. Arlen Specter.   One furthers the knife in the "open, honest, transparent" theme that has been on life support since health care, and the other furthers the knife in the "neither big government nor small government but efficient government" theme that has been on life support since the stimulus.  The administration will need to fight these two issues immediately, consistently, and relentlessly. 

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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