The Washington Post

Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jun 01, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Hi, everybody. Welcome to our weekly discussion -- on another busy news day. For this morning's column, I wrote about Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's Supreme Allied Commander in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the attorney general is down there surveying the disaster and talking to local  authorities about what seems likely to develop into a criminal probe of the oil spill. Meanwhile, though, there's big international news as fallout continues from the Israelis' deadly raid on those relief ships trying to bring supplies to Gaza. This could get even uglier in the coming days and weeks. And as usual, the floor is open for other topics as well. Let's get started.

What COULD Obama have done that he hasn't? I'm quite amused by those in the "Drill, baby, drill!" crowd who now make no mention of the dangers of drilling, and certainly don't say it should be more restricted, but say the Federal government should be doing more. If, as Sarah Palin says, the magic of the marketplace can take care of our healthcare needs, why can't it take care of this problem? Just let those who depend on the Gulf, for business or pleasure, pay for the clean-up. What could be more equitable?

Short of putting on a wetsuity and scuba gear, grabbing a wrench and diving to the seafloor to fiz the thing himself, there isn't anything President Obama could have done about the leak. I do wonder, however, if there might have been an earlier realization that BP didn't know how to fix the thing -- that nobody knew how to fix it, short of drilling relief wells -- and that therefore the priority had to be deploying all available resources to protect the coast. The administration argues that it did everything it could to keep the oil away from the coastline, and maybe it did. But I think that's a legitimate question.

Obama has promised to be a transformative president. Has the current crisis in the Gulf created both a necessity and an oportunity for such a transformation, and if so, what shape should it take? (And what shape will it take?)

I don't believe the White House sees this as a transformative moment. It's a "plug the damn hole" moment, and a "minimize the damage from the oil moment." It COULD be a moment to galvanize the necessary shift away from fossil fuels, but the administration continues to talk about the need for offshore drilling and the wonders of "clean coal," whatever that is.

Hi Gene, Thanks for your column on Adm. Allen, who is, to me, a hero. You mentioned he's not too crazy about the "little islands on the shoreline" idea. Do you know where he stands on having supertankers vacuum up the oil? Many people, including me, can't understand why this isn't happening.

I didn't get to ask him that question directly, but what I gather from his answers to other questions is that this may not be as easy as it sounds. I need to look further into the idea, because on its face it seems to make a good deal of sense. BP officials have said the oil is too dispersed to deal with it this way, but at this point I think the idea has to be to get as much oil out of the Gulf waters as possible, knowing that it's impossible to get it all.

I was wondering, Mr. Robinson. Everyone agrees the oil spill is a disaster of epic proportions. Many suggest that the technology to stop it is in BP's hands. But where are Exxon/Mobil, Shell, Citgo? Why not convene all the major oil companies to put their heads together? If it is antitrust, the Justice Department can deal with those fears. If it is liability, I am sure some way around that can be developed. Or is it just that these other companies, BP's competitors, are sitting aside gloating at BP's misfortune?

My understanding is that the brains and, if needed, the resources of the other oil companies are available. I don't know why we haven't seen this capability in action.

In lieu of the fact that BP does have to be the one to stop the oil spill in the gulf, why haven't we heard more about efforts to minimize it's damage to the gulf and the States that are affected? Shouldn't FEMA be involved or some other government agency that can help organize and implement a PLAN to contain and clean up the spill?

Good question. The cleanup, under law, is BP's responsibility. But this is clearly much bigger than BP's capacity -- not so much in terms of equipment, but in terms of scope. Where's the EPA? Why does BP just get to ignore the EPA's warning about using so much dispersant, with potential long-term damage to the environment?

Given all the deep water oil rigs in the world, why was there no research done into solutions for a possible blow out. I'm sure given time and money there is in enough scientific knowledge to at least have had plans for such an event.

As best I can tell -- and this is hard for me to believe, but here it is -- there doesn't seem to have been a viable plan for handling a deepwater blowout. I'm told that some nations require that a relief well be drilled at the same time as the main well, and that sounds like a good idea to me. But the blowout preventer was thought to be "failsafe." Famous last words.

There's nothing as depressing as the news from the Gulf. That said, it's aggravating as heckfire that opponents of the administration are determined to pin the blame for the spill effects on Obama. Since when is it the government's job to cap oil wells? Since when is the Coast Guard supposed to maintain 1000s of miles of oil booms and boats to deliver them?

What the government can do is freeze business assets as a guarantee against present and future costs. Sure, they can scramble to support the Gulf coast states in plenty of ways, but overall, wouldn't conservatives be appalled if a new government agency was created to oversee and respond to oil company disasters?

If they were consistent, they'd hate the idea. Conservatives? What say you?

Gene, I've seen a lot of media types speak about how the President needs to be more emotional in his response to the oil spill crisis. Is this what we should be focused on, the optics, rather than what actually can be done by the Government? It seems pretty clear that they're focused on the issue and that they just don't have the capability to solve it. If this was something that the Government built and maintained, then I would understand, but this is private industry. What are your thoughts?

It's ridiculous to expect the president to pretend to be someone he's not. But I disagree with some in the administration in this regard: I believe there is a "performance" aspect to the presidency that can greatly enhance a president's effectiveness. I don't think President Obama or his aides particularly enjoy or value all the stuff about "optics." But I think a president should use every arrow in his or her quiver, and this one isn't being used as well as it could be.

"Short of putting on a wetsuity and scuba gear, grabbing a wrench and diving to the seafloor to fiz the thing himself, there isn't anything President Obama could have done about the leak."

That seems different than your rhetoric about Bush and Katrina- biased much?

I was in New Orleans for the Katrina aftermath, and there was plenty that the administration could have and should have done. The disorganization was incredible. What I wrote then wasn't rhetoric, it was description.

One take away I hope Obama has from this would be to apply the same level of safety scrutiny and worse case scenario planning that the new commission on the Deepwater Horizon is going to do to nuclear power BEFORE we have an equivalent disaster there, since I believe he is still planning on expanding nuclear energy production.

Agreed. And the same for carbon capture and sequestration -- the so-called "clean coal" initiative -- which had better be tested for safety and environmental impact before being implemented.

On the supposition that Obama is trying to re-balance the US/Israeli relationship, have the Israelis handed him a much bigger lever with the attack on the Gaza aid convoy? If so, can Obama use it with all the other domestic problems facing him?

The attack on the Gaza-bound convoy isn't good for anybody. Arguably, it does give Obama a bit of room to maneuver -- he can be pretty harshly critical and still keep the U.S. positioned as Israel's best friend, since other nations will be even more critical. But now the Turks are outraged, public opinion in much of the world is inflamed, and Israel is either going to have to ease the blockade or find itself even further isolated. I don't see an upside.

Hi Eugene -- Thanks for taking questions today. Have we ever seen a president between a rock and a hard place more than this one? If Obama acts too empathetic, he risks looking weak. If he stays cool and calm, he's, well, too calm and doesn't feel people's pain. Unless we stop this incessant, minute by minute, and constant Monday morning quarterbacking he will never be the transformative president that we so desperately need. This oil spill was a disaster waiting to happen -- and while it's happening on his watch, why can't we just step back and give the man a little breathing space? What do you think?

As I said, I wish the administration had more appreciation for the performance aspect of the presidency. But the worst thing of all would be for Obama to pretend to be something he's not.

So you support Obama appointing recognized experts, not political hacks for these commissions? Expert = someone who is licensed to practice in the field. Not a Democrat or Republican looking for another public policy job. We've too many of these kind of people running the show as it is. Agree?

Not entirely. I want the scientific experts on the case, yes. But politics can't be removed from the equation, and so I want people who understand politics to be involved, too.

I'm about as liberal as it gets, but I am enormously frustrated with the level of service my Government sometimes provides. SEC, MMS, torture, etc. I understand the conservative fringe's gripes. Government asks for money and authority and then seemingly squanders both. I don't buy into the 'it's all a socialist ploy' nonsense, or the 'you can't trust anyone but big business,' but from Nixon to today there have been series after series of failures. Hell, even welfare got to be a double-edged sword. I appreciate the President and support him, but I would like to see a return to a high level of competency at more than prosecuting wars. Any chance the President starts tearing down incompetent bureaucracy instead of working within it?

Not all bureaucracy is incompetent, just some of it. People I know who worked in the Interior Department, for example, say that MMS has long been known for being overly cozy with the oil companies and insufficiently protective of the public interest. We don't seem to be able to identify and fix problems like this until it's too late.

Not allowed to comment on this potentially impeachable offense?

I wondered if someone would bring up l'affaire Sestak. There's no offense there, impeachable or otherwise. What it does, though, is give Republicans a way to attack President Obama for not "changing the way Washington works" as he promised to do. This is not the first time a White House has offered some little (unpaid) bonbon to keep a politician out of a race. It's not the hundredth time. If I were a GOP strategist, that would be my point -- not that it's criminal (because it's not), but that it's business as usual.

How many solutions are they currently working on? Are they waiting for one thing to fail before they begin to put the pieces together for the next possible course of action? It seems that if they had planned from the beginning that they might need to drill a relief well that they could be ready with that option already.

They started the relief well pretty quickly after the blowout -- before they tried all this other Rube Goldberg stuff. It's just that drilling a relief well takes time.

All of us will be paying for this in the price of higher oil (on top of the environmental damage, apparently this was a real gusher! think of all the oil supply that is now flushed down the toilet...) and higher food, etc. Will BP pay for all of these externalities or just clean it up and wash its hands of it all? I thought I read somewhere that after the Exxon Valdex there was a 75 million dollar cap on liabilities put in place. Of some sort... no idea why a cap would even be entertained, frankly.

There is indeed a $75 million cap, athough BP says it will not observe the cap and Congress is trying to raise it retroactively. BP says it will pay all "reasonable" claims, but those mega-impacts you mention will surely be seen as unreasonable by BP lawyers. Still, between the compensation it will pay to the fishermen etc. and the fines it will pay to the government, BP will be out billions of dollars. Then again, the company makes, what, about $25 billion in profit a year?

How much advance warning did Obama have that the BP well might blow out? How much warning did Bush have that Katrina might hit New Orleans? What were the qualifications of Bush's FEMA head? What are the qualifications of Obama's Guard Commandant? I'm waiting to hear the answer from those saying the BP spill is Obama's Katrina.

And I think we know those answers.


Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks for tuning in. I'll be away next week, so I'll see you again in a fortnight.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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