Obama’s Katrina?

Ken AshfordDisasters, Energy and Conservation, Environment & Global Warming & Energy, Obama & Administration, Obama OppositionLeave a Comment

A lot of "serious" right-wing contributors are comparing the Obama's response to the Oil Spill to Bush's response to Katrina.  

Read, for example, how unhinged the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan

I don't see how the president's position and popularity can survive the oil spill. This is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office.

She continues:

I wonder if the president knows what a disaster this is not only for him but for his political assumptions. His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality. But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: "Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust." Then the oil spill came and government could not do the job, could not meet need, in fact seemed faraway and incapable: "We pay so much for the government and it can't cap an undersea oil well!"

This is what happened with Katrina, and Katrina did at least two big things politically. The first was draw together everything people didn't like about the Bush administration, everything it didn't like about two wars and high spending and illegal immigration, and brought those strands into a heavy knot that just sat there, soggily, and came to symbolize Bushism. The second was illustrate that even though the federal government in our time has continually taken on new missions and responsibilities, the more it took on, the less it seemed capable of performing even its most essential jobs. 

Peggy conveniently overlooks the obvious.  Katrina is not the same as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in some very significant ways.

For one thing, the federal government never took it upon itself to oversee oil spills caused by private industries.  There is no federal expertise in capping oil blowouts. There is no federal agency tasked specifically with repairing broken well pipes. There is no expectation that the federal government should be able to respond instantly to a disaster like this. There never has been. For better or worse, it's simply not something that's ever been considered the responsibility of the federal government.

The same cannot be said of hurricanes.  In that case, we specifically have FEMA just for that purpose.  And FEMA worked like a charm during the Clinton administration.  But when George Bush became president and Joe Allbaugh became director of FEMA, everything changed. Allbaugh neither knew nor cared about disaster preparedness. For ideological reasons, FEMA was downsized and much of its work outsourced. When Allbaugh left after less than two years on the job, he was replaced by the hapless Michael Brown and the agency was downgraded and broken up yet again. By the time Katrina hit, the upper levels of FEMA were populated largely with political appointees with no disaster preparedness experience and the agency was simply not up to the job of dealing with a huge storm anymore.

So is the oil spill "Obama's Katrina"?  Hardly.  There was nothing for the Obama Administration to do.  BP had the experts to stop the thing.  BP was tasked to stop the thing (although the Obama Administration was clearly breathing down BP's back).

In fact, there's a very good argument that the BP oil explosion could have prevented if the federal agencies under Bush hadn't been watered down.  The BP blowout was made more likely because that Bush administration decided that government regulation of private industry wasn't very important and turned the relevant agency into a joke. If you believe that government is the problem, not the solution, and if you actually run the country that way for eight years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we shouldn't pretend it's inevitable.