Will eco-disasters destroy Obama’s legacy?

That’s the headline of my new piece in Salon (click here).

The president is in now in genuine political trouble over the BP disaster, some of his own making, some not.

Here are my thoughts — as always, I’d love to hear yours:

The truth is that there’s not much more that President Obama can do to stop the eco-disaster now hitting the Gulf of Mexico. But his response to our fossil fuel-driven crises — so far — can still be deemed grossly inadequate.

That’s because the Gulf spill is actually one of two environmental catastrophes now unfolding, and Obama doesn’t seem to understand how they are related.

The milder but more imminent of the two is the BP disaster. It’s now clear that the Gulf Coast will be ravaged, that the impact will be felt for at least a generation, and that we will probably be testing seafood from the area for decades. If the Loop Current entrains a significant amount of the oil and dispersants to the Florida Keys, America’s great coral reef might suffer irreparable damage.

Most of the blame rests with BP — and with Big Oil’s powerful supporters in Congress, who have created the voluntary, “trust us” self-regulation we now have. Some of the blame also resides with the Minerals Management Service, which became absurdly cozy with the industry under the Cheney-Bush administration.

Because BP and Big Oil deluded themselves (and everyone else) into believing that such a disaster was unthinkable, nobody was prepared for it. The Rube Goldberg contraptions that BP is slapping together now is proof of this. If a single major oil company had thought that any of BP’s jury-rigged solutions made sense, they would have pre-built and prepositioned them a long time ago.

With its reckless cost- and corner-cutting and efforts to hide the magnitude of the gusher, BP has proven itself completely untrustworthy. As millions of gallons of oil and hundreds of thousand of gallons of dispersants cause their inevitable damage to sensitive coastal wetlands, fish, fowl and wildlife, frustration will boil over, a process that has already begun.

The right is out for Obama’s head because that’s what they do. The media is out for Obama’s head because that’s what they do. And, of course, the left is out for Obama’s head because that’s what they do. Many environmentalists are angry over Obama’s too-clever-by-half embrace of drilling earlier this year and eager to say I told you so.

Unfortunately for Obama, Congress established the principle that the oil companies are responsible for dealing with major spills after the Exxon Valdez disaster two decades ago. The oil companies pay for the cleanup and the federal agencies oversee the process.

But even more unfortunate for Obama is that in spite of BP’s incompetence, nobody really knows how to stop the mile-deep undersea volcano (other than drilling a relief well, which takes many weeks). And nobody knows how to clean it up. Independent experts calculate that BP may be spewing the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez disaster ever few days. As Robert Brulle, a professor of Public Health at Drexel University and 20-year Coast Guard veteran, has noted, “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”

Buried at the end of a piece on how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and others are criticizing the administration for various failings, the Washington Post has this quote from Byron W. King, an energy analyst: “But really, Uncle Sam has almost no institutional ability to control the oil spill. For that, you need people with technical authority, technical skill and firms with industrial capabilities.”

As of Monday, the Coast Guard, which is overseeing BP’s cleanup efforts, has no plans to take over. Adm.Thad Allen said, “To push BP out of the way would raise the question: to replace them with what? They’re exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak.”

On Monday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., issued a seemingly compelling call that others have made: “The military ought to take charge. The military can organize it and be the head of the rescue operation. Otherwise we have a situation that’s going out of control.” But the Navy is already providing technical assistance in plugging the leak and the Coast Guard is coordinating and overseeing the cleanup effort by BP. Even Nelson couldn’t explain how the military was better positioned to deal with the disaster.

If I were Obama, I’d put Jindal in charge of the Louisiana response. In the unlikely event Jindal can accomplish much, everybody wins. In the likely event he can’t, well …

Obama’s problem is that the situation is virtually uncontrollable. And this is characteristic of big environmental disasters — particularly so with the biggest catastrophe that is now unfolding: human-caused global warming. Indeed, the impact of unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases — from sea level rise to desertification to ocean acidification — will likely be irreversible for centuries.

And that’s why Obama’s legacy — and indeed the legacy of all 21st century presidents, starting with George W. Bush — will be determined primarily by whether we avert catastrophic climate change. If not, then Obama — and all of us — will be seen as a failure, and rightfully so.

There would be no other way to judge all of us if we (and the rest of the world) stay on our current greenhouse gas emissions path, which risks warming most of the inland United States by nine degrees or more by century’s end and which could lead to sea levels 3 to 6 feet higher (rising perhaps an inch or two a year), cause the Southwest — from Kansas to California — to become a permanent dust bowl, and transform much of the ocean into a hot, acidic dead zone. All of this would make the BP oil disaster fade into distant memory.

By the end of the third decade of this century, all of American life — politics, international relations, our homes, our jobs, our industries, the kind of cars we drive — will be forever transformed by the climate and energy challenge.

Obama is the first president in history to articulate in stark terms both the why and how of the sustainable clean energy vision. Last April, he said, “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.” In October, he said at MIT, “There are those who will suggest that moving toward clean energy will destroy our economy — when it’s the system we currently have that endangers our prosperity and prevents us from creating millions of new jobs.”

But while Obama is a great speechmaker, he is not yet a great communicator — like, say, Ronald Reagan or Winston Churchill. He lacks Reagan’s overarching, consistent ideology and he lacks Churchill’s laser focus on the imminent threat and the consequences of inaction.

Obama needs to take charge of the spill response, yes. But more important, he needs to communicate to Americans that the disaster was ultimately caused by our addiction to fossil fuel — and to make it clear that we face a far greater disaster if we don’t start working toward ending that addiction. In short, it’s time to move away from the dirty, unsafe fuels of the 19th century and to embrace the clean safe fuels of the 21st century that never run out.

He needs to devote himself to passing comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation this year, the best chance he’ll have during his presidency to do so — and thus to preserve the health and well-being of future generations of Americans (not to mention his legacy). And this means more than just saying all the right things. What Obama must do is lead the Senate to a solution that many are too fearful to devise themselves.

There may not be much more Obama can do about the eco-disaster in the Gulf. But he absolutely can — and must — do much more to stop the eco-disaster hitting our climate.

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27 Responses to Will eco-disasters destroy Obama’s legacy?

  1. Oliver James says:

    Agree about the missed oppty re: climate, but you need to realize that nothing is polling well currently, that’s a reflection of the overall sour mood of the country. So there is dissatisfaction “bleed through” at a time like this, and you have to account for this. Actually, compared to Reagan at a similar point in his Presidency (i.e. with 10% unemployment) Obama is considerably more popular in terms of approval rating. Re: BP, nobody expects the army to come in and fix everything or Obama to put a diving suit on.

    As a communicator, I think Obama can do things that Reagan never could, including reach the young, and defend policies off-the-cuff, although Reagan was excellent (as good as Obama, but with a different style) at delivering prepared speeches. And as for Reagan’s “consistent ideology?” Come on. The guy raised taxes as Calif governor, and then again as President (the payroll tax – a huge raise, and it was necessary) yet he railed against government and taxes when it served him. And there are other examples. Reagan was extremely inconsistent. But he was consistently charming to a patriotic older generation that was traumatized by a loss in Vietnam and hated they young kids with long hair.

  2. daniel smith says:

    On the question of taking charge of the “spill,” I just read in the Times all about how the CEO of BP is reviewing tests before deciding on whether to proceed with the top-kill, which has the potential to make things worse if it fails to plug the “leak.” That this can be said without irony is astounding. Some suit with an MBA and a few decades of predatory-capitalist behavior under his belt is weighing the data before HE decides what to do about the fate of the Gulf of Mexico? Note that this is not a question of who has the resources to do the work, but rather about who makes the call on what to do next. BP may have an advisory and a technical role to play, but they have absolutely no business making such decisions. If this is not a matter of “homeland security” then what is? And is not the president supposed to be in charge of such things in times of crisis? Between this and the sham of a financial regulation bill about to become law (read Simon Johnson on this, at baseline scenario), it seems pretty clear that the banks and the oil companies are running the show. I guess things can always get worse, but it’s becoming harder and harder to see how.

  3. Chris Dudley says:


    I think it is a mistake to say that no one realized this would happen. The Sierra Club, for example, has opposed deep water drilling since 1974: This has been an inevitability. What is outrageous is that permits were given without assessment, including by the Obama administration. Government scientists who objected were ignored and the whole thing rattled along despite foreknowledge that this would happen.

    We don’t need this oil. We don’t need the royalties. There is no excuse for this or Obama’s offshore drilling policy. The one small hope is that karma sometimes strikes those who are capable of learning from it.

  4. Rockfish says:

    I was thinking as read this, if this is how we deal with an oil spill, how would we deal with something like an impending asteriod impact. Then I realized there has probably been MORE advance thinking on that topic than on a deppwater oil spill! Scary.
    You point about the relative magnitude of the problems (oil spill vs climate change) is true, but the perceptual problem is that one is acute and one is chronic, and we all know that people don’t react to things that happen slowly over the entire planet.
    What if… someone made a “War of the Worlds” type mock-umentary that actually depicted global carbon poisoning as an acute problem, rather than chronic…

  5. mike roddy says:

    I like both Joe’s piece and Chris’ response.

    The real puzzle is this: Obama is a smart man, well aware of the danger of global warming, and the character of those who are trying to shunt it aside.

    Why, then, has he continued to give the oil companies the benefit of the doubt? There are many examples of this, and most of them occurred prior to the gusher in the Gulf. Plenty of us have pointed these out here- no need to repeat them- but maybe someone can tell me why. The theories I’ve heard about his unwillingness to act against their interests don’t quite add up.

  6. Chris Dudley says:

    There is another issue that impacts Obama’s presidency coming out of this. He seems be facing insubordination on three fronts now. In his own administration he ordered a halt to drilling permits but they seem to be flowing right on out despite his order as though there is drilling permit spill not just an oil spill. BP has also refused an order to stop using a dispersant. The president and his administration clearly have the authority to issue such an order and should expect it to be obeyed. Finally, the Governor of Louisiana is ignoring the law regarding response to an oil spill.

    These breakdowns in authority may have been seeded by hate radio and the racism pedaled there but it is very dangerous for the nation to let these things go. There will need to be action to deal with this. An emergency response needs one chief and the law names the President. He needs to recover his authority. Starting with recalling drilling permits and disciplining those who failed to follow orders makes sense. Criminal prosecution of BP and reconsideration of the Governor’s commission to command the National Guard might also be pursued.

  7. Doug Bostrom says:

    Obama dropped onto a massive rolling ball with both huge moment and inertia as well as a plethora of externally imposed accelerations. Did anybody expect that because he volunteered to take the job, he was claiming to be Superman, could change all this in a few panels of the cartoon?

    Was it a viable option for Obama to unilaterally suspend drilling permits without a butt-puckering object lesson emerging to concentrate public attention and outrage? I think we can agree not. Was it possible for him to identify MMS and by extension long-developed poor habits as a key area of concern, prioritize them and expend political energy rapidly changing their vector while successfully changing the vector of other equally massive policy juggernauts variously heading in disastrous directions? The conclusion is less certain but it’s still hardly plausible to imagine an ideal outcome.

    As to his policy on domestic production, the fact is we’re riding on a runaway train of hydrocarbon habits; bringing this to a halt is going to take some time. Does anybody really believe we can bring the mass of this vehicle we’re stuck on to an -instant- halt? Superman could, that but sadly he does not actually exist. Obama has the key virtue of existence and he does seem to have a gift for seeing the big picture and how our vector should change, as well as recognizing what accelerations are possible to impose on our system given political and physical realities.

    No kvetching; join the crowd and push in right direction, expect to encounter friction, heat and fatigue.

  8. Daniel Ives says:


    Excellent piece you have here. You keep your thoughts well organized, concise, and easy to understand. You have said that we face an uphill battle, and indeed we do. But this type of clear thought is needed to wake the public up. It is very easy and feels good to vent our anger at BP (who deserves it no doubt), but you rightfully show that every American consumer shares in this responsibility. I only hope that the average American can draw that conclusion and think about the externalities the next time he/she buys a car, or buys their food, etc.

    Well done, and thanks!


  9. mike roddy says:

    Chris, I didn’t know that the permits were issued against Obama’s orders, and assumed there was some kind of technicality. That is important news.

  10. Peter Sergienko says:

    My frame for this is a little different. The Katrina aftermath, the Wall Street bail out/regulatory process, the gulf oil spill, and Congress’ inability to pass needed climate and energy legislation all lay bare a basic truth about American society and culture: there are different and more favorable rules and possibilities for rich and powerful persons and corporations than for the average citizen in this country. It’s easy to say it was ever thus. We’ve been trending this way in terms of predominant political philosophies and policies since at least the Reagan administration. At the end of Bush II, however, it seemed obvious that the scales had tipped too far and that President Obama’s administration would provide some needed correction.

    To date, the Obama administration’s politics have seemed overly cautious and disconnected from the seemingly populist (at least expansive) electorate the campaign built to sweep him into office. From a policy standpoint, and to anyone that read his position papers, President Obama campaigned fundamentally as a centrist and mainstream corporate Democrat. However, in virtually all of his speeches and events (I attended two in person) he presented himself as an agent of change for a new and more inclusive politics that would be more responsive to the average person. This change was the highest priority of his campaign, not his basically centrist policy positions on health care, climate and so on.

    Interestingly, the cry for a more responsive politics (in the form of an empowered federal government with the capacity to prevent or address a disaster like the BP gulf oil gusher) now comes from the conservative right as well as the liberal left, from the Tea Partiers of today to John Edward’s “Two Americas” from the last presidential campaign. It is almost certainly beyond any one person to move our politics to be more inclusive and responsive, but that’s the hope and promise from the Obama campaign that seems to be dying out here.

    Thus, in terms of legacies, as candidate Obama did with race during the campaign, President Obama should treat us all as adults, addressing the imbalances in America openly and directly in a prime time speech. He should lay out his proposed solutions clearly, asking all Americans to support him in changing our poltics so that the federal government can respond competently and promptly to the challenges we face as a people. Clinging to our current politics works for the privileged few, at least for a time. However, if we don’t face these problems and start to correct them with a fierce urgency, we’re condemning everyone–ourselves, our children and our grandchildren–to a truly dystopian future.

  11. Harry Applin says:

    I don’t understand why no one is looking at the Louisiana Oil Spill Contingency Plan ( It actually gives the governor the right to appoint a leader to take control of the oil spill response. They are also suppose to have a $30 million fund to help respond to the disaster. Instead we see the “states rights” governors demanding the feds to take over. Originally these states fought the federal response plan and forced a document that gives individual states the power to oversee the clean up effort.
    Also, the fed plan assigns the Coast Guard to monitor the actions of the clean up and that the companies that cause the problem to clean it up. Since the Coast Guard yearly budget is less than $9 billion and BP’s profits for the first quarter were $6.7 bil. The Coast Guard was one of the first responders during the Haiti earthquake and was first on scene during the platform disaster.
    Another point is that after all the court cases in the Exxon Valdez spill, Exxon wrote off $200 mil. of the $500 mil. settlement placing 40% of the penalty on the American Taxpayer. I am sure that BP will do the same 20 years down the line.

  12. Berbalang says:

    From what I’ve been able to find the no APD permits (Application for Permit to Drill) are being issued, only bypass permits for where a change is need in an ongoing operation, usually for safety reasons.

  13. Chris Dudley says:

    Mike (#9),

    I read the news that the President had ordered a halt and I read the news that permits continue to be issued. So, I infer that the order is being ignored. It is possible that something else has occurred too but I doubt it.

    I used to work for DoD under Rumsfeld. We’d all jump when he wanted something stupid. He did not have our respect much but he did have our obedience because you have to have a responsive Department. When the President makes a public announcement of an order, it is hard to see how you can get reports of it being flouted without insubordination being the cause.

  14. paulm says:

    This is not a disaster its a catastrophe.

    That oil is just going to fill up the Gulf and spill over – even into the Caribbean! And you can bet there will be others, as we desperately try to get at these more difficult reserves in an extreme climate.

    We are truly drowning in Black Goo. (And suffocating in in GHGs.)

    “…The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.”

    No…its between decline and chaos. We have left getting off oil too late.

  15. SecularAnimist says:

    Will eco-disasters destroy OBAMA’S LEGACY ????

    How about, will eco-disasters destroy THE EARTH’S BIOSPHERE ????

    Of course, that is boring compared to politics.

    [JR: Yes, well, I’ve done the latter to death, so to speak.]

  16. mike roddy says:

    Secular Animist, thanks once again for bringing us back to reality.

  17. “Too big to fail” power and influence of such corporations really means too big for any democracy.

  18. Michele says:

    I think what’s missing is a clear sense of leadership from our President, and I think that’s what people are really asking for when they beg him to intervene. I remember when the rig sank, the first word out of the Whitehouse was “don’t worry, BP will pay the bill”. My brain was utterly unable to compute that statement. “The Bill?!” I thought. “Are you not understanding what’s at stake here?” The people need a leader to be visibly engaged in a time of crisis – not retiring behind policy statements. The point made here about the Administration’s tolerance for insubordination is another example of a fundamental leadership problem.

    The quality of leadership aside, Reagan and Churchill were both effective leaders because they each applied their own singular talents to job one: the task of leadership. President Obama has remarkable talents as well. More than anything, he is a disciplined analyst. We have seen him tirelessly sorting through extremely complex issues and we know that when he does make decisions we can count on those decisions to be well considered – if not popular. He’s worked hard to persuade us to trust him to act on our behalf, and most of us do. All we really need is to see him “on it”, but that – we absolutely must see.

    BTW Secular Animist: The rest of us are grief-stricken too. I can’t even think about losing our precious Gulf without crying. But she’s gone. Right now we have some serious collective motivation working toward the possibility of preventing this from happening ever again, but that window of opportunity won’t stay open for long. I encourage you to make the most of it too.

  19. Dan B says:

    Obama’s administration has focused on one aspect of “Politics”: the art of the posssible. His speeches have focused on overarching moral principles and the practical implications, negative consequences, of the status quo.

    There’s a disconnect between the emotional fervor of his speeches and his seeming degree of contentment with the glacial pace of politics. Among other things this has created the perception among his base that he is aligned with wealthy elites and large businesses.

    His handling of the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has served to further the public’s perception that he trusts BP and is only a bit annoyed at them.

    Many people understand, at some level, that the fossil fuel behemoth is thrashing around in its death throes, lashing out at foes and friends. It’s similar to the risky things that people do in crisis mode. (and creepily like the reckless behavior of adolescents)

    Obama is the father figure in the eyes of conservatives. It’s inconceivable to them that there is no anger and little threat of punishment. To liberals he promised to be the leader of a movement for positive and optimistic change. Since he has not empowered the mass of his campaign supporters to concrete action he’s abandoned his power, and disempowered liberal supporters.

    If he expects us to push back hard against the status quo that will be his undoing since it creates a leadership vacuum, one that will be filled by someone else.

  20. Keith says:

    The problem is governing from a position of Republican-lite. It seems to be going on everywhere since right here in NY our Democratic Gov. candidate, Cuomo, sounds an awful lot like Pataki with his proposed campaign platform. Could an out-and-out aggressively progressive candidate win at a meaningful level in this country? Don’t know, but I wish someone would try.

  21. john atcheson says:

    Joe: Great piece — you say: “Many environmentalists are angry at Obama’s too-clever-by-half embrace of drilling earlier this year and eager to say I told you so.”

    Well, you’re right, I am, and I did, in just those words in an article I wrote yesterday.

    I keep thinking we’re all missing the important point here — this is taking place in the context of a larger failure — the complete and utter failure of the conservative/Reagan small government, uber-free market agenda.

    The BP megaspill; Big Branch Mine disaster; the Wall Street-Goldman-Sachs-subprime-derivative-hedge fund rip off of the middle class, and yes, our climate change response fiasco are all evidence of that failure.

    That mythology needs to be engaged. It is the issue from which victory in all others will come. And now is the time to do it. Taking that bigger issue on will make it easier to prevail in the related crises. Indeed, it may be the only way we can prevail.

  22. Bob Wallace says:

    Chris and Mike – the permits. I think Berbalang #12 gave the correct answer. There are (at least) two kinds of permits.

    There have been no further “new well” permits issued after Obama order a halt to new wells.

    There have been something like 13 permits which pertained to wells already drilled or which were already in the drilling process. And I’m not sure any of them were deep water wells.

  23. Roger says:

    “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

    Yes, Obama is starting to help the expensively climate-confused American electorate connect the dots about fossil fuels, and peak oil and climate change. And it’s about time that he begin to undo millions of dollars worth of fossil-fuel-funded confusion!

    Ask Obama to be a hero, an educator and a world climate leader here:

    We need Obama to communicate like a Dutch uncle: to sit US confused citizens down on a hard stool and tell them the unvarnished truth. We are up the creek without a paddle, and we should have started carving a new one decades ago. But much better late than never, so start carving, folks!

    I fear our GOM gusher is a small-scale prelude to what lies ahead.

    C’mon Obama, lead the nation,
    give us climate edu-ca-tion!

    Warm regards,

  24. Chris Dudley says:

    Bob (#21),

    There are details here: My impression from the article is that new drilling is being permitted.

    [JR: No. These are just existing permits.]

  25. Gary says:

    communicating just to be communicating adds up to nothing…..Obama
    is an impressive communicator, however, the content which is everything
    is often mediocre and follow up is abysmal…..he needs….we need the
    oratory of a Bill Moyers.

  26. Chris Dudley says:

    According to the article, Newfield Exploration Company contradicts Salazar’s claim of no new drilling. It is worth remembering that Salazar got $357,000 from the energy and natural resources sector in 2008 His League of Conservation Voter’s score card is OK but he did have some criticism when nominated, particularly on offshore drilling. Looks like that rooster is home to roost.

    Perhaps it all depends upon what the new meaning of the word “new” is?

    [JR: I believe they have given revised permits to people who had permits and whose first well didn’t take. Not saying it’s a good idea, just that it isn’t quite the same as “new drilling.”]

  27. John L. McNeil says:

    It seems sadly comical that most of the public response to the Gulf disaster/dilemma is just so much “monday morning quarterbacking”, no-body with a serious respect for the magnitude and immediacy of the gulf situation has ventured to say anything at all, knowing full well that it is of utmost importance, now, to grasp the really monstrous proportions of this mess.
    The gulf mess will get resolved, in its usual bumbling, reactionary, half-baked manner… and we will move on. What CAN come out of this moment–the realization that we can–MUST–change our energy focus.