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

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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.

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