Obama’s Oil-Slicked Presidency

Given its abject captivity to the same corporate and military power structures that control the Republicans, there’s little that the Democratic Party as currently configured could do to convince me to vote for one of its candidates.  Still, I do have some advice for Democrats who want to win back some of the progressive support they’ve managed to demobilize with their centrist and right wing policies: drop the partisan airbrushng of recent history.

Here’s a typical example from Roxanne Conlin, the Iowa Democratic Party’s nominee to run against the reactionary U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA).  Grassley recently raised some eyebrows by suggesting that “beer” – well, a beer-like fermentation  process (being developed by researchers at Iowa State University) in which microbes would eat away at oil – might be part of the solution to the epic British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  In response, Conlin said that the real problem is that “our government is not protecting us” with “common sense regulation” because George W. Bush and other Republicans including Grassley “took the [federal] cops off the beat.”

For Conlin and the Democratic Party, it’s all about those nasty, pro-business Republicans. That’s how our narrow-spectrum one and a half party system and corporate-managed fake democracy operates: corporate-captive Big Brother A (the Democrats) points the finger at corporate-captive Big Brother B (the Republicans, the other permitted political party) and vice versa and we are all supposed to be impressed by the “democratic” meaning of it all. A mailing I just got from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) explains that “It’s Time to Stop the Party of ‘No!’…We must Stand with PRESIDENT OBAMA for LASTING CHANGE [as he] Keep[s] cleaning up the mess left by eight years of Republican control.”

Let’s think about Conlin and the Democrats’ “analysis” for a moment. Did the militantly plutocratic George W. Bush administration and the Republican Party attack and undermine meaningful environmental regulation with their pro-big business and so-called free market agenda and ideology? Yes, of course they did.

Is the current ecological and economic tragedy in and around the Gulf just a mess left over from Republican rule and something that the Democratic administration has been trying to “clean up”? No it isn’t.  Not by a long shot.

It pains me to quote a Republican operative, but Grassley campaign spokesman Bob Renaud has a point when he says that “Conlin should check her calendar.  The oil spill disaster happened a year and a half into the Obama administration, which gave Transocean [the rig operator at the Deepwater Horizon site that blew up last April] an award for safety excellence in 2009. Clearly the Obama administration cops were off the beat and the response team has been twiddling its thumbs for the last 50 days.”  (James Lynch, “Beer a Metaphor for Oil Solution: Grassley Aide,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 11, 2010, at http://gazetteonline.com/blogs/covering-iowa-politics/2010/06/11/beer-a-metaphor-for-oil-spill-solution-grassley-aide ).

“It was Obama Who Gave BP the Green Light”

Renaud could have said more, much more. Well before the April blowout, the Obama administration’s offshore drilling “regulators” knew that backup systems were required for the “blowout preventers” that broke down in the Deepwater catastrophe.   They never did anything with this critical information but communicate it to the big offshore drilling corporations, believing (or pretending to believe) industry claims to have the problem under control.

British Petroleum (BP) received permission from Obama’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) to drill wells without obtaining environmental permits they are “required by law” to first receive from other government agencies. Deepwater Horizon was one such well.  Since the month of Obama’s inauguration (January 2009), MMS has waived environmental protection requirements for three giant lease sales, more than 100 seismic blasting projects and 348 drilling plans.  Under Obama as under George W. Bush, MMS staff scientists have been bullied and overridden by management when they dare to raise concerns about the potential environmental effects of drilling projects.

As Tim Dickinson notes in a recent important investigative piece in Rolling Stone (a magazine that practically worshipped at the altar of Obama in 2008 and early 2009): “It’s tempting to believe that the Gulf spill, like so many disasters inherited by Obama, was the fault of the Texas oilman who preceded him in office. But, though George W. Bush paved the way for the catastrophe, it was Obama who gave BP the green light to drill.” (T. Dickinson, The Spill, the Scandal and the President,” Rolling Stone June 8, 2010 at http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/111965)

“Looking for Someone’s Ass to Kick”

The president recently sparked a silly media stir when he told NBC’s Matt Lauer that he’s “looking for someone’s ass to kick” in connection with the Gulf disaster. Obama could start with a backward heel thrust to his own posterior. “Took the cops off the beat” (Conlin) does not quite capture the true nature of the problem, rolled over from corporate-militarist Bush to corporate militarist Obama.  The cops have been working but in service to corporate masters – including a serial eco-cidal firm with a strongly criminal record regarding the environment. As Dickinson explains:

“BP is the last oil company on Earth that …MMS should have allowed to regulate itself. The firm is implicated in each of the worst oil disasters in American history, dating back to the Exxon Valdez in 1989. At the time, BP directed the industry consortium that bungled the cleanup response to Valdez during the fateful early hours of the spill, when the worst of the damage occurred. Vital equipment was buried under snow, no cleanup ship was standing by and no containment barge was available to collect skimmed oil. Exxon, quickly recognizing what still seems to elude the Obama administration, quickly shunted BP aside and took control of the spill.”

Then there’s the White House’s pathetic response to the disaster – quite different from what the DSCC would have voters believe. The Obama administration has helped BP lie about the scale of its monumental spill. At the beginning the White House claimed that the spill was streaming just 1000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf. They increased the figure to 5000 barrels. We subsequently learned that the real number was much worse – 75,000 barrels a day or more.

The administration let BP use a measuring technique rejected by most geo-scientists for the kind of cataclysm currently underway.  It rebuffed a team of scientists who volunteered to bring and use the appropriate measuring techniques and technologies. It failed to collect enough deep water samples to fully asses the damage. After more than a month into the spill, the federal government had still released no deep water tests.  Independent oceanographers who collected samples confirming worries that the spill was generating giant underwater oil plumes were rebuked by Obama’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And along the way, there was the Bush-like spectacle of Obama attending sports events as record-setting oil plumes spread across the Gulf and headed toward the Atlantic.  As Dickinson notes:

“The president himself was occupied elsewhere. After returning from his vacation, Obama spent Monday, April 26th palling around with Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, congratulating them on their World Series victory. He later took time to chat with the president of Honduras. When he put in a call to Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, it was to talk about tornadoes that had caused damage in that state, with only a brief mention of the oil spill. On Tuesday the 27th, Obama visited a wind-turbine plant in Iowa. Wednesday the 28th, he toured a biofuels refinery in Missouri and talked up financial reform in Quincy, Illinois. He didn’t mention the oil spill or the Gulf.”

“If Oversight Was Lacking”

In a classic example of the establishment’s timeworn conflict-avoiding “blue-ribbon commission trick,” Obama has pretended to engage in serious action by appointing an “independent panel of experts” to investigate the spill.  Last week Obama’s political arm sent out a mass e-mail telling Democratic voters that (a) he is an advocate for the ordinary working people of the Gulf Coast; (b) he is cracking down on big bad BP; and (c) “from the beginning, we have worked to deploy every tool at our disposal to respond to this [BP-Deepwater Horizon-Gulf of Mexico] crisis.”  As “proof” of these assertions Obama announced that “I have appointed a bipartisan commission to look into the causes of this spill. If laws are inadequate, they will be changed. If oversight was lacking, it will be strengthened. And if laws were broken, those responsible will be brought to justice.”  “If?” “If?” and “If” again?

Obama’s six-member Board of Inquiry is fifty percent Coast Guard staffers and the other half is from the infamously industry-captive MMS.  By its very design and composition, it will be forbidden from telling anything close to the whole truth about what really happened.  Obama’s commission should produce an airbrush-job worthy of Dubya and Obama’s old ally Chicago Mayor for Life Richard Kim Il Daley.

Words and Deeds

Right after the Deepwater explosion, Obama proclaimed a moratorium on drilling permits for new offshore wells.  He pledged to quit granting environmental waivers for offshore drilling projects.  “It seems,” Obama said, “as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies [it seemed that way because it was that way P.S.].  That cannot and will not happen anymore…We’re also closing the loophole that has allowed some oil companies to bypass some critical environmental reviews.” According to Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, “no deep-water well in the outer continental shelf was spudded [started] after April 20.”

But so what if Obama and Salazar said all that? Words to soothe an angry and frightened populace are one thing.  Policy in standard service to the ruling class is another. There’s rhetoric and then there’s reality. There are words and then there are deeds. The White House has issued seven new permits and handed out five such waivers for the same types of Deepwater-like projects that were supposed to be forbidden.  Some of these schemes entail digging wells almost double the ocean depth of the one that is currently spewing oil and may continue to do so for a decade or more. And Newfield Exploration Company was granted a federal permit to do what was “banned” last May 11th.  It has initiated drilling, along with other offshore companies.

“I Will Not Tolerate Any More Irresponsibility”

Three days after the initial explosion, the Netherlands offered assistance. It was ready to send ships equipped with oil-skimming booms. It had a plan for building sand barriers to guard vulnerable Gulf Coast marshlands. The White House wasn’t interested. According to Ggert Vissier, Dutch Consul General in Houston, “The embassy got a nice letter from the administration that said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”

It gets worse. After the epic spill that it enabled, the Obama administration let BP undertake a reckless and colossal application of Corexit, an oil dispersant certain to have a massive lethal impact on the marine environment and the food chain. The “progressive” White House pretended to “order” BP to cut back on Corexit and to set a deadline for doing so.  But with Obama’s Coast Guard turning away journalists trying to view the company’s response efforts, the transnational corporation disregarded the order and deadline. They have not been terribly intimidated by the efforts of Obama – the president who performed a great service for the leading Western energy corporations in Copenhagen last December by undermining efforts to impose significant and desperately needed binding carbon emission reductions on the rich nations – to sound angry and environmentally concerned. As the New York Times reported last May:  ”Oil industry experts said they did not take seriously the sporadic threats by the administration that the federal government might have to wrest management of the effort to plug the well from BP. The experts said that the Interior and Energy Departments do not have engineers with more experience in deepwater drilling than those who work for BP and the array of companies that have been brought into the effort to stem the leak.” (“Oil Hits Home,” NYT, May 24, 2010)

Early in the crisis Obama feigned fury when the three top companies involved faulted each other for the catastrophe.  The president called their behavior a “ridiculous spectacle” and claimed to feel anger and surprise at the “cozy relationship” between big oil and big government. “I will not tolerate any more finger-pointing or irresponsibility,” he said. Oh my!

“Drill, Baby Drill”

It didn’t help Obama’s environmental credibility that he jumped on board with the petro-Republicans’ eco-cidal “Drill, baby, drill” chant last March 31st.  That’s when “our [corporate Democratic] president” appeared before a jet fighter on a leading military base with his notoriously corporate-captive Interior Secretary (see below) to announce his decision – an ugly betrayal of his 2008 campaign position – to kill a longstanding federal moratorium on oil exploration along much of the East Coast by opening up huge swaths of the Atlantic coastline, the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of Alaska to drilling,”  As Dickinson notes, “On the campaign trail, Obama had stressed that offshore drilling ‘will not make a real dent in current gas prices or meet the long-term challenge of energy independence.’ But once in office, he bowed to the politics of “drill, baby, drill”….Undeterred, Obama and Salazar appeared together at Andrews Air Force Base on March 31st to introduce the plan. The stagecraft was pure Rove in its technicolor militaristic patriotism. The president’s podium was set up in front of the cockpit of an F-18, flanked by a massive American flag.”  Oil companies and Republican drilling promoters were thrilled. Environmentalists were appalled. It doesn’t get much uglier than that.

Salazar Appointment Says it All

It’s all very consistent with the record and character of Obama’s Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who oversees MMS.  Salazar was a curiously Bush-like appointment to head the environmentally critical Interior Department.  In cold plutocratic defiance of Obama’s greenish campaign oratory, Salazar was and remains strongly connected to the mining and ranching industries.  He was a major backer of his corrupt Bush-appointed predecessor – the abject industry hack Gale Norton. As Dickinson recently noted on the left-liberal television show “Democracy Now!”, “Salazar, in the first year in office, put a record number—a record number of acres up for lease in the Gulf. So, while they were taking, you know, drilling out of view of national parks on land and scaling back the oil shale development, they were throttling up offshore oil drilling to record levels without doing the substantive reform that would have been required to make MMS something other than a candy store for the oil companies.” It was very consistent with Salazar’s earlier record of pushing for increased offshore oil exploration while he was in the U.S. Senate (“Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson on the Inside Story of How the Obama Administration Let the World’s Most Dangerous Oil Company Get Away With Murder,” Democracy Now!, June 11, 2010) at www.democracynow.org/2010/6/11/rolling_stones_tim_dickinson_on_the)

“Thanks for Blaming it on Bush”

A Roxanne Conlin supporter and acquaintance I know – “the ugly American liberal,” I call him – loves a clever poster that you can find on the Internet.  The poster shows George W. Bush with his hand raised in an arrogant pose. At the bottom it reads, “I Fucked You All, But Thanks for Blaming It on the Black Guy.”  There is of course some real justice in the poster’s core message: the right wing loves to unfairly blame Obama for problems that his administration inherited from eight years of disastrous arch-reactionary Republican rule. Still, my Democratic acquaintance is far too naively invested in the childish notion that Obama, Conlin, and the rest of the Democrats represent some sort of meaningful and reasonably progressive alternative to the Republicans and to the rule of big money, corporations, and the military.  The president and his party offer no such thing.  Perhaps some angry lefty should produce an Internet poster showing Obama with his nose in the air and his finger outstretched.  At the bottom we could read, “I’m Screwing You Now, But Thanks for Blaming it On Bush….:* Oh, and thanks for suggesting racism in any and all substantive criticism of me and my administration.

Speech, Speech

No doubt, Obama will seek to address and deflect and confuse many of the concerns and criticisms (hardly mine alone of course) raised in this essay during his prime time television address to the nation this evening (I am writing on the morning of Tuesday, June 15, 2010).  He may well succeed to some degree.  If there’s one thing “Brand Obama” [1] has shown the ability to do quite well on numerous occasions, it is to dull and bamboozle the populace with eloquent oratory. Still, no degree of fancy rhetoric can simply vaporize the real petro-corporatist record of his administration to date.  According o Dickinson on Democracy Now!  “This environmental 9/11 lies at Pres. Obama’s feet and it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to distance himself. His presidency is now oil slicked.” We shall see.

Paul Street

Iowa City, Iowa

June 15, 2010

Paul Street’s next book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2010/ http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410)

Street will speak on racial politics and the Obama presidency at “Socialism 2010,” the annual meetings of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) at The Palmer House Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago on Friday June 18, 2010 at 4 pm (seehttp://www.socialismconference.org/chicago/talks)


1 As Chris Hedges noted two springs ago:  “Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest.…President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising.” Chris Hedges, “Buying Brand Obama,” Truthdig (May 3, 2009), read athttp://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20090503_buying_brand_obama/

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By | 2010-07-20T20:11:59+00:00 June 17th, 2010|Barack Obama|