Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

Covering the oil disaster

As President Obama struggled to assert control over what is clearly an uncontrollable situation, I had the chance to assess the unspooling oil disaster dilemma this week by talking to folks living with it, and folks watching from afar.

If White House officials listened to either conversation, they will detect that their greatest enemy may be the uncapped well, but the second greatest is despair.

On Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour, John Young, the Chairman of the Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Council told me how local fishermen are now spending their days fighting oil instead of harvesting shrimp.

“Today, we were out there all day,” said Young, who arrived fresh off a boat to talk with me from a New Orleans studio. “And we saw thick, black crude in Bay Jimmy, in -- in our marshes. And we had -- a little Cajun engineering, we had actually vacuum trucks strapped on top of barges, vacuum trucks that you would see cleaning out portalets that were sucking up the oil.”

Grover Robinson, the chairman of Florida’s Escambia County Commission described how he spends his days -- waiting in dread for waves of the same oil to arrive on Pensacola Beach.

“It is local government that is bearing the brunt of this,” he said. “It is local government that knows and understands better these bayous in each particular one and these beaches.”

The next evening – after the President delivered a somber Oval Office address promising to fix the problem – a group of analysts were on the Newshour to pick over the President’s predicament. We carefully chose a panel that would provide historical perspective, a traditionally sympathetic voice and a normally critical voice.

No one had much good to say. Michael Gerson, as President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, often crafted Presidential addresses while sitting in coffee shops near the White House, writing in longhand on yellow legal pads.

“The president seemed much more passive, much more input-oriented,” Gerson said of Mr. Obama’s first Oval Office address. “He announced a czar. He announced a commission. When I was in the White House, we viewed these things as fairly weak policy inputs. You always want to push back, do something more active, do something more executive-oriented as far as actions are concerned.”

Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is normally much more supportive of the President. Not this night.

“I think the very idea of a speech was a bad idea,” she told me. “I think the timing was bad. I think the setting was bad.”

All agreed that the President is in a corner. If there is a Superman’s cape in the Oval Office closet, Michelle would have pulled it out for him by now.

“Presidents can’t fabricate solutions out of thin air,” Mr. Obama told Politico’s Roger Simon in an interview last week. “Technologically, the federal government didn’t have capacity to close this well that was any better than what the oil companies had.”

Ellen Fitzpatrick, the University of New Hampshire historian, noted that Presidents have often been required to fabricate solutions out of thin air to calm public discontent.

In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration to create $8.5 million jobs and rescue the plains states from the decades-long ravages of the Dust Bowl. George H.W. Bush resisted public demands that he federalize the Exxon Valdez cleanup (he eventually got more muscular). A 1969 oil spill off California’s coast was among the things that led President Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency.

“They face the limits of the presidency, and they do their best, for the most part, within that to try to address the long-term consequences,” Fitzpatrick told me.

But as the Washington hue and cry builds – members of Congress are taking turns excoriating BP this week – the frustrations on the Gulf Coast itself resonate especially loudly.

“We didn't cause this,” said Grover Robinson, the Escambia County Chairman. “They didn't cause this. Local governments didn't cause this. This was caused by corporate negligence. And, again, it needs to be -- it needs to be fixed.”

“(It’s) two months after the well blowout, and we are trying everything we can,” said Louisiana’s John Young. “We have plans. We know the inlands and the waterways better than anyone. And we just want BP to put up the money in escrow, and we will take care of it ourselves.”