Missed Opportunity: BP Gulf of Mexico Disaster

One of my criticisms of George W. Bush as President was, when presented with an opportunity to achieve greatness, he repeatedly failed to rise to the occasion. Indeed, his presidency can be viewed as a series of missed opportunities:

“Once in a generation, the stars align for a political leader. There is this perfect moment – too often based on some enormous danger of long-lasting consequences for generations to come …the perfect combination of leadership and threat, of challenge and response meet. The leader – imperfect, fallible, yet ready to rise to the occasion – grabs the brass ring.”

That was what I wrote following 9/11. There was a moment to transcend politics. Restructure global alliances, refocus military spending away from its cold war footing, force some sort of Israeli/Palestine deal, wrestle the US deficits to the ground. Rather than dare the nation to rise to the challenge, to make personal sacrifices for the greater good, to step up to greatness, the country was told . . . to go shopping.

Barack Obama seems to be following W’s footsteps. He has now twice failed to is rise to an occasion of great import. In the words of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, he has — repeatedly –”wasted a good crisis.” The financial collapse was a grand opportunity to undo three decades of misguided decision-making and radical deregulation. He chose to focus on . . . Health Care.

Now, we have another crisis — the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster. And yet again, we see another missed opportunity. The Oval Office speech the other day was just that — a speech, filled with mere words. There was no challenge, no sense of national need, no urgency. It was the same tired energy speech that, as Jon Stewart of TDS pointed out, every single president since Nixon has given.

For the greatest orator of his generation, our president appears to be lacking in imagination.

I am not a speechwriter, but if I were, this is what I would have suggested to President Obama that his June 15, 2010 Oval Office Speech looked like:

“Good evening, my fellow Americans.

On April 20th, an explosion ripped through BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Estimates of this leak have risen from 1,000 barrels per day to as much as 100,000 BPD. The Gulf of Mexico is now endangered — the food that it produces, its pristine beaches, its travel and tourist destinations are all threatened with despoilation.  This environmental catastrophe is a tragedy of unprecedented proportions.

But there is worse news: This may be the future we are looking at. This may be the first of many such catastrophes we may face in the years to come. It is the result of a series of many bad decision made by too many people about too many important things. Our corporate partners have made inexpedient decisions to take on more risk to pursue greater profits. We saw this in both the banking sector and more recently, energy companies. Our regulators have become too cozy with their charges. Our Supreme Court somehow has mistakenly come to the conclusion that corporations are the equivalent to Human Beings, with the same guarantees to free speech and political participation.  We have failed to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. We have allowed ourselves to become so inured to the benefits of cheap, plentiful energy, that we have ignored the risks and the costs.

We are in danger of losing our way, of no longer being a Democracy, and morphing instead into a corporatocracy — a nation of, by and for Corporations

This has gone on for far, far too long.

So tonight, I am proposing 10 sweeping changes for America:

1. Energy R&D: First, we need to recognize that a decade into the 21st century, we are still wed to 19th century fuel sources. What we need is a fundamental breakthrough in energy technology. Toward that end, I am convening a new “Manhattan Project” — only this time, it is for fundamental research into new forms of Energy. We need more than incremental improvements in solar and battery power, we need a major breakthrough that is the equivalent of the Atomic bomb in its magnitude.

I am requesting Congress Fund a $250 billion dollar Federal research agency to fund fundamental physics and chemistry research — into battery technology, solar efficiency, wind and wave power, thorium nuclear, and all manners of new ideas. The private sector has failed to do this over the past century, so it is up to we the people to get this accomplished.

If we were able to find $185 billion dollars for AIG, then surely we can find $250B to secure our energy futures.

2. Gas Taxes: Gasoline is cheap and plentiful. This has encouraged us to be incredibly wasteful in our energy choices. We are the only industrialized western nation that has not implemented some form of disincentive to to be so profligate in our fuel consumption. Hence, we will be phasing in Pigou taxes over the next 10 years of 10 cent per gallon of gasoline.

The US consumes 16 million barrels of gasoline a day. Automobiles use nearly 10 million of those barrels — about 400,000,000 gallons per day. We want to slow that consumption, and channel the pigou taxes into productive research and mass transit.

Speaking of which:

3. Mass Transit: I am implementing a massive overhaul of our national mass transit. We are too inefficient in how much energy we consume merely getting around from place to place. Hi Speed rail between cities, increased rail within the cities, natural gas burning buses, and electric vehicles will become the standard.

4. CAFE Standards: For local driving, we need to also be more efficient. Thus, we will raise our national Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for automobiles. We were making progress in the 1970s and early 80s, but we got complacent. I am confident that our auto engineers and manufacturers will find a way to deign more efficient vehicles.

5. Alternative Energy for Homes: I have already established tax credits for making homes more efficient, replacing old furnaces, upgrading insulation and windows. But we can do better. So we will be offering a new set of tax credits for alternative energy sources at the home level. Solar, geothermal, wind will all be subsidized by a federal tax credits for home and apartment owners.

6. Upgrade the Grid: Our existing energy grid is antiquated, inefficient and problematic. I am appointing a panel of scientific experts to make recommendations to upgrade the electric grid, transmit power more efficiently, and help to reduce black outs. Further, we need to make the grid more secure from attack from overseas hackers and others who would use our open society to do us harm.

7. Campaign Finance Reform: I have appointed my old colleague, John McCain, as head of a task force on campaign finance reform. Both sides of the aisle have become corrupted by the money in politics. No one knows the campaign finance rules better than John, who has been working on this issue for decades. The time has come for reform, to prevent the banksters and the ol company lobbyists from having their way.

8. Lobbying Rules: The revolving door between regulators and industry, between Congress (and Congressional staffers) and lobbying firms is totally unacceptable. Whether its Toyota and Auto safety regulation, the SEC and Corporate defendants, or BP and MMM, it will no longer be tolerated.

Hence, as CEO of the Executive Branch, I am putting a 5 year waiting period before you can leave government employment and take a job with the industry you were regulating. For Congressional  staffers, you cannot go into any industry covered by the elected official you worked with. This includes any legislation they worked upon. This moratorium will also be submitted as legislation for Congress to pass, and woe to the lawmaker who votes against it.

9. Corporate Donations:  The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission granted “corporate personhood” — it gave corporations the same speech rights as flesh-and-blood human beings. This was an error, and ws not what the founders envisioned when they wrote “We the People.” Hence, I have introduced legislation into Congress to reverse that Supreme Court decision.

10. Transparent Disclosure: Finally, we are mandating a completely transparent system of disclosures — for all campaign donations, lobbying activity, and any and all donations to groups that engage in lobbying. You have the right to give money to whatever groups are trying to influence legislation . . . but the people have a right to know what was given to whom and for what purpose. All of this information will be published on publicly available websites.

My past 6 predecessors in this office all made similar promises — but the danger was not acute enough to get the nation to act. The Gulf tragedy has now focused our attention in a way that perhaps never was before. It will require effort, sacrifice, hardship.Butit will also create new jobs, develop new industries, and put the United States on firmer footing to be a world leader in energy.

In the end, we will be a better nation for it — stronger, more secure, wealthier — for the sacrifices I am calling upon all of us to make.

Good night, and God bless America.


That is the speech I would have had the President make. Truly great leaders, when presented with terrible situations, find a way to achieve greatness. He missed the last time out. If the mess in the gulf gets appreciably worse, he will have one last opportunity. I hope he doesn’t pass up the chance yet again.

Originally produced at The Big Picture and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

30 Responses to "Missed Opportunity: BP Gulf of Mexico Disaster"

  1. M.C.   June 23, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Ritholtz for President!