In the five weeks since the Deepwater Horizon disaster began, troubling questions have been raised about the accident's causes and consequences. Most Americans just want to know whether the spill can be stopped. In Washington, however, there is almost equal interest in another issue: Who will be blamed?
The politics of the moment are almost as complex as the engineering issues. Obviously attuned to the potential political peril--"Obama's Katrina!"--the president and his cabinet have talked tough about British Petroleum's responsibility for the spill, with Secretary Salazar famously boasting that his boot was "on BP's neck." More recently, White House aides let it be known that the exasperated president had ordered them to just "Plug the damn hole!"
While his aides might assume that anecdote made the president seem decisive, the danger is that he instead appears impotent--which, in fact, the government seems to be. BP is working around the clock to stop the spill, assisted by an army of advisers from both the public and private sectors, and despite frustrated calls for the federal government to take over the spill response, there is not much evidence that doing so would improve the prospects for success.
There is a delicate dynamic at work here: While the president can protect himself somewhat by blaming BP, for many Americans, the buck still stops on his desk. It is the government's job to ensure such activities are done safely--and, if necessary, to stop a spill when one occurs. So the administration's understandable instinct to blame BP stands in tension with its obligations to the American people and its desire to project an image of competence and accountability.
Americans aren't giving Obama high marks for his handling of the spill--just 35 percent approval, according to a CBS News poll released on Tuesday--but that's still better than BP's 18 percent approval for its actions. Public support for expanded offshore drilling has also slipped significantly in recent polls; Americans are following this story very closely, and the reports of misjudgment and possible misconduct that caused this calamity are deeply disturbing.
The president must juggle competing concerns: He can correctly point to mounting evidence that both BP and Transocean cut crucial corners in their haste to finish this well, but he cannot succumb to the natural temptation to demonize drilling if he wants to preserve the opportunity for bipartisan climate and energy legislation.
Just on Tuesday, the president finally bowed to environmentalists' insistence that he use the spill to campaign for clean energy. It was a somewhat awkward mixing of messages, however; the solar panels the president touted won't displace deepwater drilling.
There are two things the president must do in the coming days to increase public confidence in his administration's response to this crisis. Much greater attention must be paid to efforts to remediate the spill's effects, protect critical coastal marshlands, and help affected communities recover.
State and local officials are increasingly frustrated with the federal response to date; that needs to change. Americans might understand that the government isn't capable of capping the well, but they do expect an effective emergency response to an environmental disaster.
In the long run, the administration will need to think carefully about both the causes of the spill and the capabilities of the government to respond to such disasters. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 entrusted the federal government with the responsibility for preventing or stopping such spills; clearly, more serious attention must be paid to what resources are needed to reliably meet those obligations in the future.
Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow at AEI and the codirector of the AEI Geoengineering Project.