Interestingly enough, when Obama seems to be doing something wrong the pundits and others say that it is Obama’s X (where X is something bad that happened under the Bush administration). At this time the oil leak is being considered as a candidate for Obama’s Katrina. Katrina, as you will recall, was a paradigm of government inefficiency and poor crisis management. So, the obvious issue here is whether or not it is fair to compare the situations.
On one hand, the comparison seems apt. First, mismanagement played a role in setting up both disasters. In both cases politicians had a hand in this. Second, both cases involved a delayed response on the part of the government. Third, the responses made in both cases tended to be inadequate.
On the other hand, the comparison does break down in some important ways. First, Katrina was clearly within the responsibility of the government. In the case of the oil spill, the initial responsibility was on BP and BP claimed it could handle the situation. Perhaps the administration should have assumed that BP was mistaken (or perhaps even being deceptive), but this is clearly an important difference. In the case of Katrina, there was no corporation that caused the storm-it was a straight forward natural disaster of the sort that the government is supposed to handle. The BP situation is a corporate disaster of the sort that the corporation should have been equipped to handle, which leads to the third point. Third, the government does not have the equipment that is needed to contain and repair such oil spills. This is because the government is not an oil company. BP is, which is why it makes sense that BP should have been able to handle the situation. True, the Coast Guard does have some very limited ability to deal with spills. However, this is what the Coast Guard has been doing.
However, the government has failed in two important ways. The first was in allowing BP to operate the well without having the means to effectively deal with such an accident. The second is the failure of the federal government to step in and do everything that it could do to address the situation. For example, the federal government should have started organizing the onshore cleanup (using BP’s money, of course) so that people would be trained, equipped and in place as soon as the oil hit the shores. As a second example, a comprehensive plan is needed to address the economic and environmental disaster that will arise from this situation. Plans and contingency plans should have been in place weeks ago.
There are some interesting ironies about this situation. One is that just as Obama was giving in to “drill, baby, drill” this disaster occurred. The second is that the pundits who have been slamming Obama for his alleged desire to expand government power and regulation are now slamming him for not getting “big government” involved right away and on a massive scale.
My considered view is that the situation is not yet Obama’s Katrina. As noted above, one important distinction is the cause of the disaster. Another is that while the government could have made a huge difference in New Orleans, the same is not true in this case. After all, the government does not have the equipment to do well repair at the bottom of the ocean. That is, obviously enough, something that BP should have been able to do.
That said, the situation is still developing. It does have the potential to be his Katrina or perhaps even worse.