Not content to judge the administration's response to the Gulf oil spill on its own merits, the scribbling class is trying to come up with a metaphorical framework to issue its grade. On the right (and to some on the left like Bill Maher), the oilpocalypse is nothing short of Obama's Katrina -- an unmitigated disaster that highlights the failure of the federal government to effectively contain an enormous crisis. Moderate author Eldrod calls it Obama's Three Mile Island, in that it will convince the administration to abandon its plans for offshore oil drilling. Both analogies are faulty.
To begin with, Obama never fully embraced offshore oil drilling, which is evident by the enormous regulatory hurdles that the administration imposed on the prospecting process when Obama announced his "support" for the method a few weeks ago. Those hurdles have allowed the White House to say that new oil drilling under its regime would be safer than the extant platforms. Also, it is not clear whether British Petroleum could have prevented the accident -- sometimes, improbable things happen -- and we don't know whether tougher regulations and enforcement would have prevented a catastrophe. Perhaps offshore oil drilling is inherently dangerous, something that its opponents have longed claimed.
It is true, however, that offshore drilling is dead in the water as a policy anytime soon, much like the Three Mile Island accident soured politicians and the public on nuclear power. There are also some valid parallels about the political imperatives to find cheaper sources of energy.
The Katrina comparisons are silly. For one thing, the Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for the collapse of the levees. State and local governments were unprepared and responded poorly. (This, remember, was the GOP talking point at the time.) What role the federal government could have played to mitigate the oil spill early on is not clear. You can't send barges and helicopters to collect oil; there are only so many yards of boom. The extent of the disaster was not known immediately. There is no need for a national disaster declaration because there are no direct costs associated with the event yet that aren't being picked up by BP. And state and local governments seem to be cooperating effectively.
No doubt that the administration is concerned about perception. Obama wants to be seen as being on top of the situation, perhaps the worst environmental disaster in recent memory. But there was no "Convention Center" moment here. The early government response to the spill was largely unnoticed and unpublicized because it was standard operating procedure. The bandwidth-challenged minds at the White House seemed to really take notice of the scope of the calamity at about the time as virtually everyone else did. I don't doubt that there is a political desire to communicate to people that Obama is a competent administrator of government. I just don't think there is any reason -- yet -- to pass judgment.
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is a contributing editor at The Atlantic
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