Katrina and the Oil Spill

June 13th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are very different kinds of disasters.  However, there’s one glaring similarity — both showed that government can’t do everything.  Sometimes it can’t do very much at all.  At best it’s reactive, especially in the face of large-scale natural disasters.  At worst it can’t manage the rescue and recovery necessary after a disaster with the surgical efficiency that some expect.

This is no surprise to conservatives, who think government can’t do anything right, even though they don’t have much in the way of workable alternatives.  It’s disappointing to liberals, who foolishly think big government can protect them from all the vicissitudes of life.

The reality is this:  the city government of New Orleans and the state government of Louisiana were the main failures in the response to Katrina.  The federal government didn’t do a great job, either, in some respects.  The Gulf oil spill was the operational and legal responsibility of BP, aided and abetted by ineffective federal agencies such as the Minerals Management Service of the Department of the Interior.

Even while a whole lot of people are working as hard as they can to control these kinds of situations, many people are trying their best to score political points and assign blame.  The worst culprits are the media, often poorly informed, always sensationalist, and usually biased.  Second come the bloggers, many of them political extremists who never miss an opportunity to slime their perceived enemies, and they’re generally more ill-informed than the professional media.

After Hurricane Katrina, the media, leftist bloggers, Hollywood elites, and all the other usual suspects heaped an unprecedented storm of criticism on President Bush.  While the federal government, especially FEMA, often didn’t perform well, other parts of the government were magnificent, particularly the Coast Guard.  Meanwhile, the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana, both Democrats, were mostly given a pass by the media despite their failure to do their jobs very well.

Now we’ve got the Gulf oil spill, and the tables are turned, kind of.  The right is trying to focus blame on President Obama, like the left focused blame on President Bush for Katrina.  The missing ingredient is the media.  They’ve been mildly critical of the President now and then, but the vicious piling-on that President Bush endured is missing.

President Obama hasn’t helped himself by the way he has responded to the oil spill — too slow, not visible enough, pointing the finger of blame in all directions.  He’s been spurred to do silly things like talking about kicking someone’s ass and making a few short trips to the Gulf to point out what a glob of oil looks like.  To some extent, his response is another indicator of his lack of executive experience and the stress and crisis management skills that come with it.

The reality is that neither president was much to blame for the responses to these disasters.  I can accept that the president is generally responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen during his tenure.  But the partisanship that defines our politics these days makes it inevitable that the left and the right alike will use every opportunity to tear down those on the other side, no matter how much damage their efforts may cause.  What will it take for them to work together during a crisis in the interests of the nation?

We had divisions and political conflict during the run-up to World War II, but we came together to successfully prosecute the war.  If the deep partisanship and the corrosive influence of extremism had prevailed back then, Americans east of the Mississippi might be speaking German today and those west of the Mississippi might be speaking Japanese.

Are we even capable of national unity any more?


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6 Responses to “Katrina and the Oil Spill”



  1. larry ennis |

    Tom, you can bet that this administration is about to unleash one of histories greatest snow jobs. It’s an effort to distance itself from the worst ecological disaster in history.
    Katrina pales in comparison. The very mention of Katrina and how Bush handled it doesn’t even belong in the discussion. I can’t wait to hear the Presidents excuses for his lack luster performance.


  2. Dan Miller |

    Tom,

    Your lack of faith in President Obama is amazing, particularly in view of his well known abilities to deal with crises. Surely, He can do something about this (please forgive the all caps; I am not shouting; that’s the way the NHC presents its stuff):

    AN AREA OF LOW PRESSURE LOCATED ABOUT 1425 MILES EAST-SOUTHEAST OF THE WINDWARD ISLANDS CONTINUES TO SHOW SIGNS OF ORGANIZATION. ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS ARE EXPECTED TO REMAIN CONDUCIVE FOR DEVELOPMENT DURING THE NEXT DAY OR SO AS THE SYSTEM MOVES WEST-NORTHWESTWARD TO NORTHWESTWARD AT ABOUT 15 MPH. THERE REMAINS A HIGH CHANCE…60 PERCENT…OF THIS SYSTEM BECOMING A TROPICAL CYCLONE DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

    This crisis, should it develop, would give him a Neptune-sent opportunity to show his stuff and must not be wasted. Of course, if it fails to develop or to impact on the mainland US, he would certainly deserve lots of credit. It looks like a potential win-win situation for him either way.


  3. Tom Carter |

    I get the point — but I have to say, I didn’t have a lot of faith in Bush’s ability to deal with crises, and I don’t have much faith in Obama’s. But trying to be fair to both of them (what a weird thing to do!), some disasters go beyond the limits of being managed, at least very well.

    Maybe the Corps of Engineers should have done a better job years ago in the New Orleans area, maybe BP and their federal overseers should have done a better job before the blowout, but things are what they are. Bush couldn’t have done a lot more than he did, and neither can Obama. If you really look at it, a lot of the criticism comes down to visuals. Bush merely flew over New Orleans in the early days; he did actually land. Obama merely talked about the oil spill; he didn’t go down there right away and have his picture taken on the beach. I know visuals are an important part of leadership, but sometimes this kind of criticism goes too far and is really nothing more than blatant partisanship.

    One last point — presidents are just people, like the rest of us. In the face of a fecal storm of criticism, they’re likely to respond in ways that aren’t completely rational or productive. Like Obama threatening to kick someone’s ass. Why not get behind them once in a while and try to help instead of kicking the heck out of them every time we get the chance?


  4. Brianna Aubin |

    It is not Obama’s job to fix the oil spill, especially since he can’t. The government’s job is to determine if there was criminal activity involved in this accident and prosecute where appropriate. Any other punishment should be left up to the market, which I note is most capable of delivering it, as anyone who has seen BP’s lastest share prices should know.

    But there is one legit criticism that can be levelled at him over all of this. After a presidential campaign where Obama literally promised that this would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” Obama cannot now complain that his devoted leftist fanbase is expecting too much of him when they are disappointed that he has not waved his magic government wand and solved everybody’s problems yet.


  5. Dan Miller |

    Tom,

    I agree that

    presidents are just people, like the rest of us. In the face of a fecal storm of criticism, they’re likely to respond in ways that aren’t completely rational or productive. Like Obama threatening to kick someone’s ass. Why not get behind them once in a while and try to help instead of kicking the heck out of them every time we get the chance?

    That presidents are neither omnipotent nor omniscient is clearly true. Unfortunately, some seekers of public office try to convey the impression that they are and lots of voters seem to accept the premise at least initially. Candidate Obama was a master of the art, and now it is kicking him in the ass, particularly among those who earlier approved of him strongly. The mainstream media, I understand, have recently become less adoring and that matters. Perceptions are often more important than reality.

    I think there was little if anything President Obama could have done to ameliorate the oil rig disaster, other than tell his minions to back off, get out of the way and encourage folks who had some pretty good ideas to implement them. Instead, a massive bureaucracy has done more to impede solutions than to contribute to them, at least I have been told by a neighbor who is working as a consultant on the oil rig. I look forward to talking with him when he returns. What President Obama has been doing instead is reminiscent of Al Haig’s famous “I am in charge here at the White House” comment after the assassination attempt on President Reagan. As I recall, it didn’t go over very well even though probably well meant. “It left many wondering what was going on while President Reagan was being treated and who was really in charge of government.”

    The daily Rasmussen tracking polls suggest a similar problem for President Obama. Today, “Forty-two percent (42%) Strongly Disapprove, giving Obama a Presidential Approval Index rating of -18.” Looking at the graphics, it seems as though his strong disapproval rating has fluctuated but has remained fairly steady while his strong approval rating has been exhibiting a basically downward trend for quite some time. My guess is that the strong approval and strong disapproval ratings are more important than the overall ratings because folks who feel strongly tend to be more energetic and more likely to vote come election time.


  6. John |

    Obama is working hard on crafting his next speech, full of apoligies to BP, and to its CEO. So for anyone to suggest that he is not ‘working’ is not true! On a serious note, if the Government,and BP have no idea how to fix the mess, why not send out a request around the country, asking for possible and working suggestions from skilled men and women. This administration is not putting enough presure on BP, nor the issue is an important one to them in DC. I want to see a list of the high ranking politicians and official who made a visit to the region to see the issue directly, including the Republicans.


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