President Obama announced on Thursday the government's toughest response yet to BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but the environmental and economic damage from what scientists are now calling the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history is turning into a political albatross around the president's neck.
In his news conference, Mr. Obama said he had ordered a temporary halt to drilling on nearly three dozen existing wells in the gulf pending the findings of a presidential commission, as well as a six-month moratorium on new wells in the region. He also called for canceling sales of oil leases for drilling off the Virginia and Alaska coasts — an abrupt turnaround from his endorsement earlier this year of limited offshore drilling as part of a comprehensive national energy strategy.
While the president received praise from environmental groups and from Mid-Atlantic senators including Maryland's Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski — who called on BP to offer a $1 billion prize to anyone who could stop the leak — it remains to be seen whether Mr. Obama's actions will be enough to defuse the growing populist anger that has gone viral in Louisiana and other threatened states as successive attempts by BP to cap the spill have ended in failure.
Mr. Obama must know that the growing frustration with the government's lackluster performance regarding the spill is bipartisan. Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has been complaining for weeks that the federal government has failed to take over repair and clean-up efforts, but so is Democratic campaign strategist James Carville, a Louisiana native who joined the chorus of critics this week in by blasting the administration for failing to charge of the crisis.
The forced resignation of Elizabeth Birnbaum, director of the federal agency responsible for overseeing offshore drilling operations, on the same day President Obama spoke to the press, clearly was no coincidence; the agency had long been criticized for being too cozy with the companies it was supposed to regulate. But it's unlikely the departure of a relatively obscure Washington bureaucrat will mollify the anti-government rage welling up along the coastal communities of the gulf where people's homes and livelihoods are on the line.
To his credit, Mr. Obama acknowledged that simply by virtue of being president when the disaster occurred, he bears ultimate responsibility for its resolution. But the reality is that there's not a lot he can do about it. The federal government doesn't have the equipment or the expertise to deal with a disaster of this sort at the bottom of the ocean, so Mr. Obama and the government are in the awkward position of having to base clean-up efforts on the personnel and equipment of the very company that created this mess.
That's a politically toxic combination, and it will only get worse the longer millions of gallons of oil continue to gush from the sea floor and wash up on shore. The best Mr. Obama may be able to do is to use the opportunity to point out the enormous costs of our addiction to oil that only become apparent when a disaster like this strikes, and to push for renewable sources of energy sources that don't threaten us with environmental Armageddon. Unfortunately, his efforts on that score have been tepid, too.