It saddens me to write this, but I cannot deny the truth anymore. As one of the many twenty-something progressives who supported Barack Obama in 2008, I was high on nothing but the “Hope and Change.” I was drunk on the possibilities of holding the Bush Administration and corporate executives accountable for their egregious and destructive behavior over the previous eight years. I was intoxicated by promises of universal health care, new approaches to foreign policy, and the renegotiation of trade agreements. Unfortunately, after taking office in 2009, Obama spent all his momentum mired in the indecision that all too often results from that inherently Democratic trait of sacrificing effective leadership for the unattainable goal of “consensus.”
Now the destruction of our southern coastline is threatening to unravel his presidency, much like the Katrina disaster washed away George W. Bush’s self-proclaimed “mandate.” We can all learn a thing or two from our political opponents, though. The success of the Bush administration in installing “Islamic Terrorism” as the primary concern of a public already wrought with fear of the outside world is a lesson that President Obama would be wise to examine.
Within twelve hours of hijacked airliners crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration saturated the media with announcements that al-Qaida was responsible and that the government would stop at nothing to “bring the evil-doers to justice.”
Whenever anyone tried to bring up the role of the U.S. in creating al-Qaeda, conservatives and administration officials responded, “They attacked our country!” Whenever questioned about the methods of interrogation or treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, conservatives and administration officials responded, “We have to keep al-Qaeda from attacking us again!” When antiwar activists mobilized in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conservatives and administration officials responded, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.”
Bush’s popularity soared. His “pro-business” agenda sailed through a sharply divided Congress with hardly a peep from the Democratic opposition, despite it causing the transfer of wealth from the bottom ninety-five percent to the top 5 percent of the economic ladder.
This would continue until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina exposed President Bush’s lack of concern for the majority. The country was attacked again, this time by natural forces. The federal government had to show some kind of response; however, by this point, the agencies that weren’t completely underfunded to the point of uselessness were overrun by incompetent cronies who conveniently passed off blame to the next available subordinate instead of coordinating a swift plan of action.
The destruction of New Orleans became the fault of a laundry list of Republican scapegoats. Democrats in state and local government were accused of not requesting aid in a timely manner. The Army Corps of Engineers were accused of not properly maintaining the levees. The designers of the levees were accused of not building the levees high enough. Even the founders of the city itself were blamed for choosing that location. In the end, the conservative media came to a consensus that the whole thing was the fault of the population of New Orleans for having the audacity to expect an effective response from the federal government in the first place.
Bush’s popularity ratings tanked. The public lost confidence in his party as a whole, and Democrats would go on to retake the Congress in 2006 and the Presidency in 2008. The margins of victory were exacerbated by the economic crisis of 2008 and the wide scope of promises made by progressives about restoring the effectiveness of government for all of its citizens (not just the wealthy few). Unfortunately, Obama has lost control of the narrative, and you can’t blame his lack of leadership on Republican obstructionism.
I caught a clip of Chris Wallace interviewing Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour on Fox News Sunday. Barbour accused the media of sensationalizing the ongoing environmental destruction and revealed his deeply-held concerns for the environment by stating, “The average viewer [of] this show thinks that the whole coast from Florida to Texas is ankle-deep in oil. And of course, it’s very, very bad for our tourist season. That is the real economic damage.” His concerns for the environment extend only as far as the beaches of Gulfport.
Most progressive blogs have been talking about his insinuation that everything was fine on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and it was only Florida and Louisiana’s problem. I found something a bit more problematic in his statement that “250,000 to 750,000 barrels of oil seep into the Gulf of Mexico through the floor every year, so a few tar balls are no big deal.”
The Sunday talk shows are the vehicle for both parties to launch the narratives they hope will define the debate in the coming weeks, and, as always, Democrats will be oblivious until it hits the mainstream media. Democrats will once again forget that the goal of statements like Barbour’s is to separate the spill (which is completely the responsibility of BP) from the environmental impact (most consider it the duty of the federal government to protect the coastline).
For the next several weeks, Republican commentators will be emphatically screaming that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was just a folly of humanity and not that big of a deal since the ocean floor leaks a bunch of oil anyways (Rand Paul got a little excited and jumped the gun on this one a couple of weeks ago with his comment that “accidents happen”). Then, when the effects of the disaster on the environment are brought up, those same Republican commentators will rail on about the ineffectiveness of the federal government and how “unresponsive” Obama is to their concerns.
In the meantime, BP will continue to funnel buckets of money into Republican National Committee coffers instead of taking care of the mess that they made. Coincidentally, every Republican Congressman and Senator will be “unified” in their opposition to a bill raising the cap for damages in civil lawsuits against oil company negligence that results in environmental destruction.
While that is going on, the Obama administration will be running around trying to defend themselves against the public perception that the federal government is not doing anything, never mentioning that legislative maneuvers are being made by the opposition party to eliminate the culpability of the company whose negligence caused the disaster in the first place. The legislation quietly disappears while the stockholders cheer, and BP doesn’t have to pay a dime. Obama is perceived as aloof and out of touch by an increasing majority. Democrats lose the Congress in 2010 and the Presidency in 2012. Everybody else wins (except for the environment and the majority of the American people).
There’s only one way to avoid this scenario. Obama has to make BP the new al-Qaeda. Every time Mitch McConnell questions the federal government’s response to the crisis in the Gulf, Obama must firmly remind him that BP destroyed our coastline. When Bobby Jindal and David Vitter claim that regulatory agencies dropped the ball and place blame on the federal government, Obama must remind them that it was BP who obliterated the wetlands of Louisiana. When James Inhofe tries to water down or block legislation holding BP financially accountable for the destruction of Gulf Coast wildlife, he must be asked, “Are you with the American people or the oil company that destroyed Fort Walton Beach?” When claims that corporations can be trusted to be environmentally responsible are bellowed by conservatives during Congressional debates on environmental legislation, the only response should be that we trusted BP, and we’re going to make sure they can’t betray our trust again.