Monthly Archives: May 2010

Why the Minerals Management Service Should Not Be Blamed for the Oil Spill

Not surprisingly, the Gulf  Oil spill has prompted the media to shine a spotlight on the Mineral Management Service (MMS), the government agency responsible for issuing permits allowing oil companies to drill in federally-owned waters.  Stories such as this one in today’s New York Times suggest that the MMS’s cozy relationship with the oil industry led to a lax permitting process, thus contributing to the disaster.  As evidence, they point to previous instances in which the MMS ran afoul of government regulators and attracted congressional interest in reforming the agency.  However, these media stories are somewhat misleading; while it is true that the MMS was accused of overseeing a lax permitting process and being too cozy with the oil industry,  the stories do not really focus on the reason why this situation exists.  In fact, the government institution that bears primary responsibility for how the MMS operates is the very one whose members are calling for investigations now: Congress.

Some background on the MMS is in order. News accounts suggest it was “created” in 1982 via executive order issued by President Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt.  In fact, what Watt did was consolidate into one agency the mineral revenue management functions previously exercised by the US Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, and US Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Any government agency, when first established, must determine its “mission”.   What is it about?  How the agency determines its mission has important implications for its internal structure, especially which employees will wield the most influence, its hiring strategies, and how it relates to its external environment.  Typically, the mission is designed to insure the agency’s autonomy and political survival.   In this case, the MMS essentially inherited its mission from these previous agencies.

As a consequence the MMS from its inception defined its mission as collecting payments for minerals extracted from federally-owned waters.  A look at the backgrounds of the 10 MMS directors serving from its inception until the Obama administration shows that many had backgrounds in litigation and revenue collection.  These backgrounds are well suited for negotiating revenue agreements with private companies – not for understanding the environmental impact of off-shore oil drilling.

Here is the MMS mission statement, taken from its website:

“The Minerals Management Service (MMS), a bureau in the U.S. Department of the Interior, is the Federal agency that manages the nation’s natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS). The agency also collects, accounts for and disburses an average of $13.7 billion per year in revenues from Federal offshore mineral leases and from onshore mineral leases on Federal and American Indian lands. The program is national in scope and is headquartered in Washington, D.C.”

Note what its mission statement does NOT cite: environmental oversight or regulation.  Although it is supposed to consult with other governmental agencies with environmental responsibilities when it issues permits, that is not how the MMS defines its primary task.  Revenue estimation and collection is what it does.  And by most accounts it has been effective, at least as measured in dollar amounts, at fulfilling this mission. Since 1982, it has collected more than $210 billion in royalties and other revenues, most of which is then distributed to states, Indian tribes, counties, and the federal treasury. On an annual basis the $13 billion it raises constitutes about 95% of the total revenues collected by the Interior Department.  This makes it, next to the IRS, the most lucrative agency in the government (if my calculations are correct).

But if it is so effective, what about all those reports the NY Times and other new agencies cite about GAO investigations and congressional hearings?  Although these news accounts seem to imply that investigators primarily worried about the environmental failures linked to the MMS permitting process, that is not the case.  Instead, the more typical concern (although not the only one) was that the MMS did not  charge the oil companies enough money to drill in federal waters. Most of the GAO reports dealing with the MMS focus on the weakness of a “payment-in-kind” or other aspects of the royalty program – not an environmentally-lax permitting process.   Similarly, the IGS investigation cited by the Times also focused on the MMS’ revenue decisions.  The recurring complaint in these investigations is that MMS executive are cutting oil companies a revenue deal, rather than engaging in lax environmental regulation.

When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came in as the “new sheriff in town”, his ethics changes were designed not to heighten environmental awareness of potential oil spills, but instead to more strongly regulate the cozy relationship between oil companies and the MMS that threatened revenues.  In fact, it was Salazar – following Congress’ decision to open up off shore oil drilling – that initiated the hearing process designed to solicit comments on the Obama administration’s  off-shore drilling expansion plan.

My point is that Congress’ and regulatory agencies’ alarms regarding the failure of the MMS to fulfill its mission almost never focused on the environmental aspect of its permitting process, but instead on the revenue side.  (There are exceptions – the GAO, for example, in a 2007 report did question the environmental basis of some of the MMS’ Alaskan bureau’s review process).  In general, however, the MMS read the political signals – focus on revenues -  and acted accordingly.

But didn’t other government agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warn about the environmental aspects of expanding off shore drilling? Yes, but again the news accounts don’t tell the full story here.  As the Huffington Post and other website reported, the NOAA did express concern, as part of the hearing process into off shore drilling initiated by Salazar, about the environmental impact of drilling in sensitive areas.  But that concern, as one can read in its report here focused almost exclusively on the environmental impact of drilling in Arctic areas.

While it is easy with hindsight to blame Salazar, and by extension Obama, for pushing to expand off-shore drilling, the reality is that companies drilling in U.S. waters have a pretty good environmental safety record. Since 1969, there have been only a handful of major spills from drilling (that is, spills with over 1,000 barrels of oil leaking)  and the most significant occurred decades ago.  There’s a reason Obama touted the safety record of off-shore drilling – the data supported his claim.  Indeed, drilling off shore seemed far safer than relying on oil tankers to import oil from abroad; spills from these vessels (until now) were far more numerous and extensive.

My point here is not to totally absolve the Obama administration from some responsibility for this spill.  But the media focus on his handling of the spill and in overseeing the MMS obscures the fact that it is Congress that is largely responsible for signaling to the MMS that its primary mission, when issuing drilling permits, is not protecting the environment, but instead protecting the government’s revenue stream.

The MMS operates in a political environment that is best described, in the words of political scientist James Q. Wilson, as “clientele” politics.  (Some of you may recognize the more common phrase “iron triangle” which is a version of clientele politics.)  In this policy context, the President and his political appointees, including Salazar, rarely exercise lasting influence. Instead minerals management policies tend to be made in a closely-knit network consisting of agency officials, representatives of the affected industries, and congressional oversight committees.  Given this fact, I have little hope that Salazar’s organizational remedy – splitting the MMS permitting process off from its environmental regulatory side – will have much impact.  Under the reorganization, both the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which will supervise traditional energy development in federal waters, and the new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), will still report to the same individual overseeing the Interior Department’s land and minerals management.  (A third organization – the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) will take over the MMS’ royalty and revenue functions.)

Government agencies are created for a purpose.  They develop a mission, which is how they define their purpose, and they organize their functions to most effectively achieve that mission.  The MMS’ mission was not defined as weighing environmental concerns during the permitting process.  It was to insure that the government received full compensation for leasing federal property to energy companies. Whenever the MMS found itself embroiled in controversy, it almost always centered on congressional complaints about this function – not the environmental aspects of the permitting process.

The real story, one that the Times and other news agencies are missing,  is not  ethical lapses or mismanagement at MMS – it is that the MMS typically did precisely what Congress wanted it to do, and – news reports about is dysfunctional nature notwithstanding – generally did it well. Given its mission, and the climate in which it operates, the “organizational” reforms Salazar has instituted on Obama’s behalf will likely have little long range effect.  It is Congress that must change the MMS.  To date it has had little incentive to do so.  I am not optimistic that in the long run the Gulf oil spill will change this.

P.S. Don’t forget to visit the MMS website for kids!  There’s cool things to see and do! Learn about “tide pool” math!  Play “Watts It to You!”   Sweet.

Live Blogging Obama’s Press Conference

Well, my live “streaming” video here in the hills of Ripton is more like an intermittent stream, so I’ll be limited in commenting on the video, although I have the audio going.

He’s on – expect the opening statement to stress what the government has done so far.

Here’s the expected attack on Big Oil.  And here’s the expected distancing of his administration of the failure of the Minerals oversight agency (MMS – Minerals Management Service).

And here’s the litany of things he’s done to react to lax regulation, weak agency, etc….so far, no surprises.

BP must be wondering what they got for targeting Obama as their number one beneficiary of campaign donations…

And here’s the understandable “leave the door open” to future off shore drilling.  Moratorium does not mean ending off shore drilling.

“We are going to stop it.”  Who, exactly is the “we”?

He doesn’t care about politics?  Then why is he giving his first press conference in 10 months!  Politics!

Ok, let the fun begin!  Questions!  (Note that I can’t see who is asking the questions, so bear with me).

Question 1:  Summary – We have been on top of this (i.e., this is NOT KATRINA!  REPEAT AFTER ME!)

Obama talking about “the agencies under his charge” – note that this is one reason presidents are too often assumed to be in charge of the government bureaucracy – they talk as if they are!

The issue, according to critics, is not whether the federal government has the capacity to stop the leak – it’s whether it responded quickly enough to contain the spill.  That’s the question local and state officials are raising. So far he hasn’t addressed that…

Ah, now he’s addressing it.   (note that we are about 10 minutes into this conference and he’s taken exactly one question.)  (Is it me, or does it sound like  he’s calling the Coast Guard commandant “Fat” Allen? [It's actually Thad] Ho, ho, ho!)

Question 2. (Jake Tapper – ABC – I think):  Good question Jake!   To the point, specific, factual.    And Obama’s response is a reminder of how much presidents are at the mercy of their advisers.   Here, he has to rely on the input of the Army Corps of Engineers to determine the tradeoffs in  creating barriers to stem the flow of oil into coastland areas.   What does Obama know about barriers?  About what Bush knew about levees.  Obama’s struggling a bit here, preferring to deal with generalities rather than respond directly to Tapper’s specifics, and you can’t blame him.

Question 3:  Chuck (I have disdain for you) Todd:  Back to the offshore issue and the relative roles of BP and the government.  And he slips in a Katrina question! Confident that history will judge that we’re  “on top of an unprecedented crisis” – is this his own “Heckuva job, Brownie” moment?  Get ready for the campaign ads….

Not a great answer to the first part of Todd’s question, but there’s not much more that Obama can say except his version of Bush’s “we’re working hard”.

Obama has to walk a tightrope here – on the one hand, he wants to show that the federal government is in charge, especially of the cleanup, but also to shift responsiblity for failures to BP.   We’ re in charge, but not really.

Question 4.   Same theme: “Were you really acting from Day 1 on a worst case scenario”….. the press is doing a really good job here of staying on point and following up on questions. Kudos to them…

Obama, “I am very confident the federal government has acted…with a sense of urgency.”   Local and state officials will disagree.  And again, the effort to shift blame to the pre-Obama role of the permitting process, particularly the role of the MMS.  And a subtle jab at Congress’ role in effectively gutting the environmental waiver requirement.   Obama is making good points here, but it’s not clear they are very useful politically – people just want the oil to stop reaching the coast.

Question Six (I think – don’t hold me to these numbers)  – Chip Reid.   Do you blame the Bush administration?  Obama again accepts responsibility and at the same time blames the previous administration.  In effect, I inherited a bad situation and tried to reverse it, but might have done so more effectively.

Again, subtleties that may or may not play politically.   Sure didn’t help Bush.

Question 7.  Easy question – let’s point the finger at BP!  Everyone hates Big Oil.   A nicely worded response by Obama.

Question 8.   (I hope I didn’t miss a question – had to step out. I think this is Helen Thomas – leave it to her to change topics.)

Question 9. NY Times:    Back to oil drilling.  Another great question. Does Obama regret calling for expanding offshore drilling if he knew MMS (Minerals Management Service) was corrupt/lax in regulating drilling?   Obama admits he was wrong in thinking oil companies could handle this type of accident, but in the same breath admits that it was an unprecedented oil spill.

She persists -follow up on the cleaning up Minerals Management Service, and a question on whether Obama knew about “firing” of Birnbaum (she’s an MMS official, but not the highest up).

How likely that Obama doesn’t know whether Birnbaum has been fired, or simply resigned?  Not likely at all – he’s likely obfuscating here and will leave it to Salazar to take the heat.

as for the permitting, let’s wait until the study is done.

I must say that the media seems on top of their game at this press conference, and I have to believe that part of that stems from a subtle resentment against Obama for shutting them  out so long.  There’s a real edge to their questions, and they are pushing the follow up much more than they did in previous  press conferences.  The worm may have turned here in terms of presidential-press relations.

Question 10 – Decision to send national guard to the border.  He’ll be expecting this and should have the response ready.   And he does…. a chance to reaffirm his opposition to the Arizona law while signaling, via the sending of the Guard, that he understands the sentiment that motivated it.   And it gives him a chance to plug comprehensive immigration reform…..

Still waiting for the Sestak question!

Final Question – and it turns into four questions!   And here’s the Sestak question!  Obama dodges it – very, very curious response!  Why not simply come out with an answer?  Probably because they don’t want Youtube videos of Obama providing the response – let someone else be the bearer of politically sensitive news.

As for the “boot on the neck” comment – shift the blame there to Salazar.  nicely done.

An Amy Carter moment!  (Students – ask your parents about how Jimmy Carter brought his daughter into the debate with Reagan regarding nuclear weapons.)

A chance for Obama to finish on key:  “I care”.   The target here is the Gulf Coast voters.  The question is whether anything short of actually stopping oil from reaching the coast is going to sell here.  I suspect not.

And here he steps up to the plate to take responsibility.  I’m actually surprised by this statement, but it is an indication that he realizes at this point in the spill there’s no way he can avoid taking some responsibility for the failure at least on the cleanup side.

Summary:  I’ll be curious how the talking heads play this, but I was impressed with Obama’s performance.  He was candid, upfront with the failings of his government, and generally avoided missteps.  But I was equally impressed with the media.  They were on their game – asked pointed questions, didn’t let Obama evade answers,  and generally showed a vigor I haven’t seen from them toward Obama before.

I suspect he’ll get some pushback on his claim not to know whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, the MMS official was fired or not, and on whether he did enough to clean up that agency, and on backtracking but not ending offshore drilling.   And he totally punted on Sestak – very curious there.

But this is a reminder that press conferences – even under the current format – can be a useful exercise.  Let’s hope Obama doesn’t wait 10 months for the next one.

I realize this is the middle of the day and short notice,  but if you have thoughts, send them along….I’ll update with the media roundup later tonight…..

Stop the Presses! Obama to Hold Live Press Conference in One Hour!

President Obama is scheduled to hold a news conference today beginning at 12:45 p.m. – about an hour from now.  By my count, it will be his first full-fledged conference since July 22, 2009 – just over 10 months – when he infamously said that officers from the Cambridge Police Department acted “stupidly” when they arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  in his own home.  Obama later backed off from that statement, and subsequently held the famous ‘beer summit” at the White House with Gates and the arresting officer.  But he has never held another formal press conference until today.  In the interim, he has carefully managed his interactions with the press by either relying on smaller, less formal interactions, handing exclusives to favored journalists (particularly favoring, according to critics, the New York Times) or bypassing the media directly and speaking directly to the public.

Although I would not have predicted he would go this long between formal press conferences, the fact that he has tried to avoid them should come as no surprise.  Even before the ‘Gates-gate”, I had predicted that Obama’s promise of a more “transparent” administration would, in the area of press relations, fall prey to the realities of the modern, televised press conference.  That is, Obama would realize what previous presidents invariably learned: from the president’s perspective, the televised press conference serves no useful purpose.  In theory, of course, the press conference is an opportunity for the media to hold the president accountable for his actions to date, and for the President to explain those actions. In practice, neither of those objectives tends to be met.  Given the constraints under which they operate – reporters must be called on by the president, and they have no time for follow-up questions to probe answers in depth – journalists too often feel pressured to ask The One Question that will elicit a controversial and thus newsworthy response.  Presidents, anticipating this, become adept at eating up time with long opening statements and by answering questions with the equivalent of the Senate filibuster, or by “suggesting” questions in advance to favored reporters.

In a previous post discussing the history of presidential press conferences I have suggested a way to reform the press conference so that it addresses the interests of both reporters and presidents – and thus the public.  In the meantime, however, Obama’s failure to hold press conferences has led to no little grumbling from the media who accuse him of treating the press with contempt.  Several of them, citing my previous post, have castigated Obama for his failure to meet regularly with the press (see, for example, here and here.)  Most recently, Chuck Todd complained of Obama’s “disdain” for the press.

Rather than disdain, I would argue that Obama is motivated by the same feelings that led previous presidents to shy away from formal press conferences: political self-interest.  If so, what has prompted Obama to finally hold another press conference today?  Two words: Oil Spill.  As I’ve discussed in my last two posts, the growing public backlash, spearheaded by officials from both parties, to the allegedly slow response by the federal government to the spill is threatening to have Katrina-like implications for Obama’s presidency.   Obama has evidently calculated that the risk of losing control of the oil spill narrative (see here and here and here) outweighs the risks inherent in holding a press conference.   Look for him to start the conference off with a lengthy statement detailing everything the government has done, and will do – such as tightening regulations governing drilling, extending a moratorium on off-shore drilling and making organizational changes to the agency responsible for issuing drilling permits – before taking questions.  He will likely stress two themes in his answers: it’s BP’s fault, and the government will hold them accountable.  Journalists, meanwhile, should try to get him on the record to respond to the charges leveled by Governor Jindal and others about the bureaucratic obstacles that have prevented local and state authorities from placing booms and using dredging to prevent the oil spills from endangering delicate coastal areas.  Note as well the tone of the questions – has Obama’s reluctance to meet directly with the press in these types of exchanges turned journalists against him?

My big fear, however, is that journalists will chase the wrong rabbit – that they will spend much of this conference pressing Obama on relatively minor issues, such as the alleged attempt to clear the field for Arlen Specter by offering Joe Sestak a government job.  Explaining the intricacies of government organizations, which is at the heart of the government’s slow response to this spill, is an inherently unsexy task and one not easily done in the context of a televised Q&A.  And yet the performance of these agencies – the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department – is of far more consequence to the public interest than is the Sestak issue.

The conference is in an hour.  You can watch a live feed at the White House website.   I’ll try to follow up with a post-conference post.

P.S.  You should be able to watch a live feed of the press conference at the White House link:  http://www.whitehouse.gov/live

I’m tempted to live blog this because it may be the last press conference before the midterms!

P.S.S.  I think I can get the live  feed from the White House here at:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/live/president-obama-speaks-press-1

so I’ll try to live blog.  I realize it’s last moment, but join in if you want.

Blame, Baby, Blame! The Politics of the Oil Spill

When bad things happen, Mother Politics abhors a vacuum. Somebody has to take the blame, fairly or not.  Usually it is the person ostensibly “in charge.”   So it is with the Gulf oil spill.  As President and “CEO” of the country, Obama has increasingly become targeted from both sides of the political spectrum for his administration’s alleged failure to respond effectively to the ongoing catastrophe.  As a sign of the bipartisan nature of the criticism, bothSarah Palin and Donna Brazile have attacked the Obama administration for being too cozy with BP.  Democrat strategist James Carville leveled his own broadside against Obama’s response as well.  Others point out that Obama received more money in the form of BP PAC donations than anyone over the last two decades.  (Never mind that the amount going to Obama – $77,051- is dwarfed by the total money BP – $3.5 million – shelled out to myriad federal candidates in that period.)

Meanwhile, during debate in the Senate on whether to raise the liability cap for disasters like the oil spill, the Obama administration sided with Republicans against members of his own party who wanted the liability set at $10 billion, up from the current $75 million. (Administration officials worried that a $10 billion cap would drive small oil companies out of business.)   This is a crisis that is increasingly pitting Democrats in Congress against Obama, much as Republicans found themselves running away from George Bush in the aftermath of Katrina heading into the 2006 midterms.

The fact that Obama’s policies had almost nothing to do with causing this spill, and that there is very little his administration can do to stop the leak, is not going to stop efforts to place at least some of the responsibility for the disaster and its aftermath on his administration, anymore than a similar lack of actual responsibility protected Bush from the Katrina fallout.

Obama makes an easy target in part because of the politics of the oil industry. Currently there are about 6,500 offshore oil and gas installations across the globe – and 4,000 of them are in the Gulf of Mexico.  These produce about 30% of the U.S. total output, and are a major source of jobs and revenue in this region.  This is why the members of Congress representing the Gulf Region have to walk a fine line in response to this spill, and why they are so willing to target Obama for the failure to stop the spill.  With midterms coming up, it makes perfect sense for them to run for office by running against Obama’s handling of the spill.  But they do not want to come out openly against offshore oil drilling per se.  Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s comments on the Senate floor against a moratorium on off-shore drilling capture this sentiment. Comparing the gulf spill to the Challenger shuttle disaster, she argued in favor of continued drilling: “We don’t think that burying our head in the sand and pretending that our country doesn’t need this energy is the way to go,” she said.

Not everyone agrees.  Some of Obama’s critics, like Tom Friedman, have argued instead that Obama should use the spill to reverse course and instead call for a total halt on all off-shore drilling, and the imposition of carbon fees to reduce consumption.  This is unlikely to happen, given the politics of oil described above.  If demand for oil-based products remains high – as it almost certainly will – oil companies will continue to push the limits of oil exploration in search of greater profits.  Between 2005-08, production from wells drilled in waters 1,000 or more feet down increased by 67% – that’s more than 10% of global production.  Brazil has recently announced its intention to sink deep-water wells – some more than four miles down – to tap an oil field 200 miles off its coast.  Deep-water drilling is not going to stop – indeed, it is likely to increase in frequency. When unprecedented endeavors take place, however, unprecedented consequences may result.   We are witnessing that now with the Gulf oil spill, as engineers grapple with developing a solution for blocking the outflow of oil more than four miles down. The lessons learned from this spill will undoubtedly spur improvements in drilling techniques that may decrease the likelihood that this type of spill will occur again.

Politically, however, that is likely small solace for an Obama administration that has already seen its share of unprecedented policy problems, and which faces mounting political backlash from its handling of these issues six months before the midterms.  In apportioning responsibility for the Gulf spill, I would put the Obama administration way down at the bottom of the list.  Nonetheless, when it comes to distributing political blame, Obama is heading toward the top, with no evidence that he can cap the outflow of criticism anytime soon.

Spill, Baby, Spill! Obama’s Katrina Moment?

As the nation’s chief executive, presidents are often assumed to be “in charge” of the executive branch’s departments and agencies. In truth, however, in our system of shared powers at the national level, presidents exercise joint control – and control is probably too strong a word – over the federal bureaucracy with Congress.  Indeed, many government agencies are much more responsive to members of Congress than to the President. Moreover, in many policy areas federal agencies’ authority is shared with state and local government agencies.  Think law enforcement, or education.

Despite this, when a crisis occurs that calls into question the performance of a government agency or agencies, presidents invariably take the brunt of the blame.  So it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the Bush administration shouldered primary responsibility for the failure of the system of levees protecting low-lying areas of the Louisiana delta, and for the less than stellar evacuation efforts. Never mind that it was the Army Corps of Engineers – an agency long viewed as primarily responsive to Congress – that actually designed and installed the levees that failed. Nor did people much care that the bungling of the evacuation was at least in part due to the failure of the state agencies and local municipalities to coordinate actions with the feds. Critics also overlooked that FEMA, the federal agency charged with disaster relief, had seen its traditional mission altered when it was incorporated – at congressional behest – into the Department of Homeland Security prior to the Hurricane. Instead, it was the Bush administration that was charged with “incompetence” – a charge that helped the Democrats regain majority status in the 2006 midterm elections.

We now see the same political dynamic at work with the Gulf oil spill.  In this case, the Obama administration has been accused of failing to properly regulate off-shore drilling because of its close ties to “Big Oil”. Environmental  groups such as the Sierra Club have filed suit charging  that the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which issues drilling leases and oversees drilling, violated federal law by not first forcing oil companies drilling in the Gulf  to disclose their plans for preventing blowouts and for dealing with worst-case oil spills. Critics also accuse the Obama administration of failing to react quickly enough to the initial spill and of hiding that failure to respond.   To be sure, compared to Katrina, the Obama administration got lucky in its choice of disasters; it was able to deflect criticism for a while by pointing the finger at “Big Oil” in the guise of BP. In contrast, Bush’s only recourse was to blame “Big Deity” for causing a Category 5 hurricane.  But that distinction is gradually losing effect the longer the spill goes on. As we near the end of the second month since the explosion that first ripped the pipeline apart, criticism against the White House is mounting. The latest accusation comes from Louisiana Governor Bob Jindal, but Obama has been hearing it from members of both parties who have piled on during Senate hearings, and from those representing districts most likely to be affected by the spill.

As Bush found out with Katrina, federal agencies are not all alike, and they certainly do not always respond with the speed and effectiveness that a president desires. In fact, bureaucracies charged with different missions, and reacting to different political pressures, may often appear to work at cross purposes.  The net effect is to further erode the perception of presidential leadership effectiveness. Thus, even as Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was threatening to take charge if BP failed to stem the leak, the Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen was telling reporters that the government simply lacked the expertise to do the job.  Moreover, in hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee Salazar acknowledged the need for changes in the Minerals Management Service which is ostensibly under his direction.

In truth, about all Obama can do at this point is appoint the requisite presidential commission to find out what went wrong and to continue to show the flag by sending officials down to the coast – and hope he doesn’t have his own “Heckuva job, Brownie” moment.  Unfortunately for him, his earlier announcement touting the need for, and safety of, off shore drilling is beginning to get play on YouTube – the bane of all politicians today.  He will continue to point the finger at BP, of course, but the longer the leak continues, the greater the likelihood that this will be his Katrina moment in 2010.  Almost since the spill happened local papers (see here and here) along the Gulf region have been castigating the Obama administration for its slow response.  It has been a particularly big issue in areas, such as Florida, that are politically highly contested and which may determine whether Democrats hold onto the House and Senate in 2010.  Progressives and environmentalists, meanwhile, have used the spill as an opportunity to renew their criticism of Obama’s earlier decision to encourage off shore drilling.  In fact, despite Obama’s recent decision to impose a moratorium on issuing new permits for drilling, new off shore wells continue to be drilled in existing oil fields.   In all likelihood, this won’t be the last off-shore oil spill that happens.

In addition to the political consequences, Obama needs also to worry about the policy consequences of the Gulf spill. Some readers will recall the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.  Although no lives were lost in the accident, and it in fact spurred myriad regulatory changes that made nuclear power production even safer, the political fallout from the incident put a damper on the construction of nuclear power plants for the next two decades – a consequence that even some environmentalists – concerned about global warming – are now viewing as unfortunate. Obama has to hope that the Gulf spill will not so poison the political waters as to prevent a sober-minded analysis of the costs and benefits of future off-shore drilling.

The immediate lesson here, however, is to drive home a point I made earlier in the context of Dennis Blair’s resignation as DNI.   For better and for worse, presidents are held responsible for the performance of government agencies, even though presidents rarely have the tools, expertise, or experience to fulfill this expectation. It is a rare president – think FDR, Eisenhower or the first George W. Bush – who takes office with a decent knowledge about the executive branch. More often, however, presidents are like Obama – they know next to nothing about the bureaucracy and typically learn about it only the context of crises. Moreover, our system of shared power and of federalism makes it easier for government agencies to shrug off actual responsibility – whether it is evacuating residents in the teeth of a hurricane or preventing an oil spill from contaminating shorelines – when such crises occur.   In these instances, the media – taking its cue from politicians – typically lays the blame for bureaucratic failings at the president’s feet.

As Obama undergoes what may be his Katrina moment, he becomes but the latest president to discover that his control over the bureaucracy is not nearly as strong as the media portrays it to be.