Oil gusher. Lost opportunity to redefine America's political debate?

My opinion is the “spill” could be a gift to bring down the Cheneys, oil companies, “drill baby drill”-

With a huge natural disaster there is political danger, but also political opportunity. For the people living on the Gulf, and the fish and wildlife, it is all downside.  For the President there is a mighty political opportunity, but so far he has baubled the basketball while standing right next to the basket. He’d better recover and slam dunk it or the other team will soon have the ball. They are already calling it “Obama’s Katrina” now that it looks like the oil will gush until August, well into the hurricane season.

Let me explain.

In politics and government, there is what is actually happening, but for the average American who does not follow politics or current events much, it is what they think is happening.

What the public thinks is happening is the most important thing.

Most now understand the “oil spill” is a big disaster. They want it stopped and cleaned up, but they also want it explained. How could this happen after all the oil company ads saying how careful they are and all the political support for drilling.  The average person wants reassurance, and when angry they want justice. For there to be justice, there needs to be blame placed. A convincing story (a “narrative”) explaining all these things is what the public craves. Obama needs one quickly, a narrative before an alternative one about his aloofness is put firmly in place. Maureen Dowd’s latest column in the NYT certainly understands this. “Once More, With Feeling.” NYT. May 29, 2010.  The President has got to get angry and point the finger of blame. . . none of that “no drama, Obama.”  He needs drama, and a good melodrama requires a hero going after the villains.

Obama and Salazar did little to actually change the Bush Administration oil leasing/regulation policies, but the public doesn’t know that. More than any other person, the one who set this all in motion was Dick Cheney, beginning with his secret meetings with the energy companies back in 2001. The unlikable Cheney, with his permanent sneer, the oil companies, and a handful of visible pro-oil company senators (e.g., Lisa Murkowski) would make ideal villains in a narrative that could change the course of politics.  Others, such as Palin, drill-baby-drill folks, and newcomers like Rand Paul could also be swept aside.

For a long time we’ve thought of the Democrats as the Mommy party and Republicans as the Daddy party. Both perceptions help and hurt the two parties, but right now Obama needs to be a very angry daddy as well as a mommy helping Gulf residents with their skinned knees and upset stomachs.

He can’t stop the flow of oil, but he could be moping it up politically with the greedy oil companies, Dick Cheney, and unrepentant oil company politicians as the mops.

He is a very smart man. So was young President Bill Clinton. They both made a lot of early mistakes, but Clinton learned. This President seems slow yet right now he needs to go for the jugular before he is gutted himself.





  1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    For once, I decided to look at this like a political scientist, using what they know about how to change political agendas, the politics of disasters, attitude change, public opinion, etc.

  2. jdubya Avatar

    When I teach, I always appreciate when the subject matter of the lecture coincides with the a headline in the newspaper. That is a rare “teaching moment” when suddenly the dry stuff of a presentation has real time consequences.

    President Obama has been presented with just such a teaching moment. It is our thirst for oil that drives the cost of the stuff up, and makes drilling at 5,000 feet economically viable. This is the PERFECT time for Obama to say we must reverse this trend. We need a carbon tax on oil, gas, coal, etc. and use the funds to fuel renewable energy research and development. If we continue to push the envelope of obtaining oil from the deepest depths of the ocean, these kind of environmental disasters will only increase. We need to stop fouling our nest and move away from fossil fuel extraction and consumption. Obama could not have asked for a better opportunity to sound this clarion bell. Will he?

  3. Nathan Hobbs Avatar
    Nathan Hobbs

    I hope real change can come of this tragedy, however watching the inability of the Government to properly react and to allow BP to call all the shots and also the unchecked continued flow of lies and disinformation from BP I worry if our government is so hopelessly interconnected with these giant companies that true real change is impossible.

  4. mikarooni Avatar

    Some great modern scientist once stated the most common element in the universe is hydrogen, technically true; then some great modern philosopher, possibly Frank Zappa, responded that the most common element in the universe is actually stupidity, technically incorrect, but absolutely true on a practical working level. I wish I could believe that Obama and the forces of enlightenment could have a chance to combine their moral and intellectual superiority, their benevolence and wisdom, to turn the stupidity of the mob toward the light; but, my long life experience tells me that scum like the Bushes, the Cheneys, the Palins, and the filth that resulted from a twisted family that would name their son Brit Hume have an overwhelming advantage in communicating with the mob. The mob wants its guns, its delusions, the shabby buzz it gets from its cheap swill, drunken fun with cheap tattooed hoochies, and its thrillcraft; for them, enlightened intelligence is just for party poopers.

    1. Paul White Avatar
      Paul White

      Moral and intellectual superiority? What government have you been watching? Obama is just another politician. He abandons people when it’s advantageous to him. Look at his pastor–yeah he was crazy but Obama had attended that church for 20 years then as soon as political fallout resulted, bye-bye. What real change has happened? On the environmental front he’s not much better than GWB. On the civil liberties front, he’s *no* better than GWB. Keep gitmo open, continue to allow extraordinary interrogation measures, force people to buy health insurance…bleh.

    2. mikarooni Avatar

      Oh my, look what I dredged up from off the bottom.

    3. Paul White Avatar
      Paul White

      because I don’t think Obama’s the 2nd coming of Christ? I voted for the man (better than McCain/Palin) but he’s hardly a knight in shining armor. He came up in Chicago politics for god’s sake.
      People that deify their favored candidate are deluded.

    4. Mal Adapted Avatar
      Mal Adapted

      I’m backing Paul here. I voted for Obama too, and considering the alternative I don’t regret it. But he’s a politician first, last and foremost, no more to be trusted, much less deified, than any other. Our vote will always be a decision on the margin, between the lesser of the evils on offer. That’s the way our system is set up. YMMV, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  5. monty Avatar

    Reality tells me that the world’s demand for oil will continue to increase for the next few decades. Will not the pressure to drill on land increase like renewed efforts to open up places like the Arctic National Wildlife refuge? What if Obama asked American’s to change their driving habitats one day a week thus reducing our oil consumption by 1/7. It will never happen, Obama would be accused of being a socialist or worse. We have a “pack” with the devil in that we are a “consuming society” that believes we can “exhaust and pollute” our way to a higher standard of living.

  6. RLMiller Avatar

    Obama is very analytical, thinking through things before making a decision. I’ve criticized his expansion of offshore drilling very loudly on DailyKos, and I’ve been even louder on the Gulf disaster (I take full credit, or blame as the case may be, for naming it “Oilpocalypse”). However, I think and hope he understands the relationship among this disaster, our thirst for oil, and our need to change that. Rumor has a big climate speech coming soon. So it may be a case of slow to grasp an opportunity, but not a lost one.

    1. kt Avatar


      Thanks for writing this. RL Miller: I think it is just part of the pathetic weak-kneed Democratic Bought by BP reaction.

      Here’s what I predict for the climate speech -catapulting mega-wind and solar – With NEPA shortcuts.

  7. Virginia Avatar

    I wonder if people would prefer Obama respond with “knee-jerk” reactions like W. to every crisis that occurs while he is president. Of course we all want solutions, but to criticize him for not immediately emotionally reacting to everything seems to be rather childish. I don’t think things are as simple as they might seem.

    1. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      Lets see Virginia,

      I has been 40 + days now? Seems to me the man in charge with virtually all of the resources of the world at his beck and call, could have come up with something by now?

    2. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      And I am not saying GW was the best, but I have to say, Obama has been pretty dismal on most fronts since he took office, I am just not seeing that Change he promised! Seems like business as usual in the Capital…

    3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      Save bears,

      I agree with you that 40 or so days is far from a knee jerk reaction period. It is a long time in such a disaster.

      One thing he doesn’t have is all the resources of the world that are relevant to the situation [my addition] at his beck and call. I afraid British Petroleum might have him and all of us over the barrel (no pun intended).

      Who else but them have any way of stopping the damn thing? There might be others, but that is no more than speculation.

  8. Paul White Avatar
    Paul White

    Myself I keep hoping Obama will man up and start working on getting us off oil. Build wind/solar plants in cities. Hell, build a nuclear plant or three (or four). It’s at least an intermediate solution. There’s myriad reasons for not wanting to need a natural resource we cannot provide to function: environmental, political, national security…there’s factors present in all of those fields that suggest we should start using other fuel sources even if it’s expensive.

    Yeah he’s suggested/started on one or two large solar farms (that’ll bulldoze pristine habitat, what a waste) but that’s not even a drop in the bucket. There’ won’t be real improvement until we can lower our consumption of these resources drastically. I’m afraid transportation may take longer than city power plants, but we can at least make a start…

  9. dcookie Avatar


    Renewable Energy: Inexpensive Metal Catalyst Can Effectively Generate Hydrogen from Water
    ScienceDaily (May 1, 2010) — Hydrogen would command a key role in future renewable energy technologies, experts agree, if a relatively cheap, efficient and carbon-neutral means of producing it can be developed. An important step towards this elusive goal has been taken by a team of researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley. The team has discovered an inexpensive metal catalyst that can effectively generate hydrogen gas from water.

  10. Virginia Avatar

    SB and Ralph – I guess my terminology was not great – as in “knee jerk.” Ralph, I agree that Obama certainly has an opportunity here to push some environmental changes in this country. I hope more than anyone that he does so. However, as you said, other than taking over BP he has to go with their “expertise” as far as the oil spill situation goes. I do feel personally that he has been involved in this from the beginning, but it is a pretty impossible situation to solve. BP was offered help by 17 oil companies and only chose to let 2 get involved. BP has behaved disgracefully, but you can bet that they are hoping to solve this oil spill even more than you and I. Their stock has plunged in value and they are now despised by probably everyone in the world.

  11. Alan Gregory Avatar

    When I think of the Katrina debacle, what always comes to mind is the image of Dubya peering earthward from a window o Air Force One. He was like the city cop who spends his entire shift just driving a patrol car around and never getting out of it and talking with real people. President Obama has got to do likewise and do it now.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan