By Ron Daniels
Clearly British Petroleum Oil Company (BP) is responsible for the most disastrous oil spill in U.S. history and must be held fully accountable for its negligent behavior. Beyond overseeing the crisis and ensuring that BP is deploying the necessary resources to stop the flow of oil and clean-up the damaged beaches and marshlands, there is precious little President Obama can do to clean up the mess.
However, I agree with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and other commentators that the crisis presents the President with an opportunity to offer bold and visionary leadership in terms of the future direction of the U.S. economy.
Ever the pragmatist and craving “bi-partisan” support for his massive energy bill, prior to the horrific oil spill, Obama caved in to the McCain/Palin “drill baby drill” crowd and ordered more areas opened for off shore drilling. Earlier he threw another plum the Republicans way by placing priority on building new nuclear power plants. I strongly disagree with these decisions but chalk it up to Obama being Obama.
It’s his inside the beltway method of trying to drag defiant Republicans to the legislative table at a time when they are out to create a “waterloo” moment by whatever means necessary to defeat him and advance their conservative agenda. However, the oil spill has potentially created a new political calculus.
Now is the time for Obama to lead on several fronts. First he must understand that perception is reality. It doesn’t matter that BP is responsible for this catastrophe. Because of the enormity of the crisis, the American people want to see their President in charge. Hence, as some commentators have suggested, it would be helpful if Obama delivered a nationally televised address to describe the magnitude of the crisis and lay out a clear command structure for how the federal government will be managing BP’s efforts. State and local officials and the affected residents need to know who’s in charge of what, how to communicate their concerns and where to get correct information and/or a decision. Second, Obama needs to be much more engaged with the people when he visits the Gulf region.
Dropping in for three hours, walking along a beach to pick up a few oil blobs and then meeting with elected officials just won’t get it. He needs to show more empathy with the common folk, and that means getting into a boat owned by one of the locals to personally view spoiled wetlands; spending time with some of the fishermen, small business owners; and, touching some of the workers whose lives are being ruined by this debacle. The nation needs to see their President touching and interacting with the affected people.
Equally important, President Obama should view the gigantic oil spill as a teachable moment to educate the American people about his vision for a more energy efficient and sustainable economy, a green economy with alternatives to fossil fuels that can generate millions of new jobs. And, as Thomas Friedman has argued for years, such a vision and approach would dramatically lessen U.S. dependence on foreign sources for oil. That education must begin with an expose of the reckless behavior of a corporation and industry that consistently places profits over the interests and security of workers and the nation.
The debacle in the Gulf demonstrates that it only takes one spill to wreak havoc on an entire region in terms of the devastating effects on fish, wildlife, ecosystems and the livelihood of people. Frankly, I was shocked to learn that there are thousands of off shore oil rigs in the Gulf, any one of which could potentially spring a leak at any time — particularly given the lax regulation of the energy industry under Bush-Cheney. BP had more than 700 hundred violations and its own internal memoranda indicate concerns about the safety of the rig that ultimately exploded.
The problem is that the giant oil companies, like the giant banks and financial institutions, loathe regulation. They want free rein to maximize profits by minimizing cost including having to comply with regulations. Accordingly, they spend big bucks to enlist the services of lobbyists and buy-up politicians to promote and protect their interests. BP’s criminal behavior offers Obama and the Democrats (those who are not already bought and paid for by the oil companies) an opportunity to drive this point home as a basis for building momentum for a new energy policy.
Finally, the dangers of off shore drilling have been made crystal clear. So, Obama need not fear the “drill baby drill” proponents any longer. One of his great gifts during the campaign (which he has rarely shown during his tenure in office) was the capacity to use his oratorical skills to inspire people to envision a greater good for themselves, their families and the nation. There is no greater challenge facing the nation and the planet in the 21st century than making the decisive shift to a green economy. It is far more important than JFK’s challenge to the American people after the Soviet Union forged ahead in the race in space with the launching of Sputnik.
It would certainly be wonderful to hear this President both educate and challenge the American people to be at the forefront of the ‘new frontier” of creating a green economy. But, this will require confronting the oil industry head-on, admonishing the American people to envision life beyond addiction to fossil fuels and the audacity to mount a national mobilization to create a new way of life in this country, a green America. Once again, President Obama has been presented with an opportunity to have his leadership match his vision and rhetoric. The question is will he seize the moment.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected] .