Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Hands-Off Presidency

Lord knows I loathe James Carville. And people calling the BP oil spill "Obama's Katrina" is absurd and nothing more than a Republican talking point.

However, Carville is right to criticize Obama's handling of the oil spill:

Democratic strategist James Carville, who is also a resident of New Orleans, attacked President Obama's response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast today, saying: "You got to get down and take control of this, put somebody in charge of this and get this thing moving. We're about to die down here."

On Good Morning America, Carville said that "the political stupidity of this is just unbelievable," and that he has "no idea why their attitude was so hands-offy here."

"The President of the United States," Carville continued, "could've come down here, he could've been involved with the families of these 11 people" who died in the oil rig's explosion.

"These people are crying, they're begging for something down here. It just looks like he's not involved in this," he said.

I do slightly disagree with the point of Carville's analysis. While it might make political sense for Obama to go to New Orleans and see all of this for himself, as Lyndon Johnson did immediately after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, that's not really the biggest problem. It does show Obama's odd unwillingness to create political capital for himself outside of elections. Why not go down to New Orleans and show empathy? Why even allow yourself to be compared to Bush after Katrina?

The larger problem is Obama taking a back seat on the cleanup and trusting BP to do the right thing. Time after time we see Obama allowing others to take control. He seems so determined to not be a Bush-esque cowboy that he refuses to set an agenda. During health care he deferred to Congress with disastrous results. His Supreme Court nominees have been determined by his desire to not rock the Congressional boat. He's allowed Chris Dodd to shape financial reform instead of it coming from the White House. His reticent to take on immigration has allowed racists like Jan Brewer to set the agenda and now Obama responds to that by ordering troops to the border.

I feel that despite all the campaign rhetoric about change, what we elected is a cold technocrat who believes in expertise and consensus above all else. I actually feel Obama would have been an excellent cabinet member in the Kennedy Administration--one of the Best and the Brightest. I wonder if there's not a kindred soul in one Robert McNamara, who also put moral questions behind cold technical policy decisions. A bit harsh I admit and probably not quite true. But I can't believe I can legitimately make this comparison.

This reliance on expertise brings up big problems for Obama. First, it is in his nature to defer to corporations who can claim expertise on particular problems but who really just work for their own benefit. On the bank bailouts and now with BP, we see Obama in bed with corporations, protecting their interests rather than demonstrating the efficacy of a powerful and activist central government. For all the talk of climate change legislation, all Obama has done on energy is support increased nuclear power and allow more off-shore drilling. If he thinks this is going to get big energy on his side for climate change legislation, he's fooling himself. But he probably does think this. He'll allow BP and ExxonMobil to influence that legislation and little will come of the bill.

Back in the spring of 2008, my students asked me who I supported for the presidency. This was when the Democratic primary was still in doubt. I responded that I was ready to be disappointed by someone new. I knew Obama was a centrist. And I figured he would disappoint me. But I am surprised at the level of disappointment I feel. I could deal with a Clintonian-centrist because that's what I figured he was. But the cold, unfeeling technocrat surprises me.