BP Oil Spill: The Media, the President, and the Blame Game

by Matthew Freeman

June 15, 2010

It’s fascinating to listen to the media, with lots of encouragement from the right wing, inch its way toward blaming the BP Oil Spill on President Obama. Apparently the President’s job description includes a previously unknown provision about deep-sea plumbing expertise. 

Let’s follow the media’s path for a moment here. First we heard media whining that the President was insufficiently engaged in the crisis, on the strength of no evidence whatsoever. Then the press went through a "false equivalency" phase, with a wave of speculation over whether this was, “Obama’s Katrina.” Then we heard howls from FOX commentator Sarah Palin (she of “drill, baby, drill” fame) that he hadn’t cozied up personally to BP CEO Tony Hayward. Now former American Enterprise Institute Fellow and current Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum complains that he’s bending too far in the opposite direction, engaging so visibly in managing the crisis that he’s raising false hopes that the government can indeed apply some sort of fix to the leak, which, of course, makes him look weak to the rest of the world.

President Obama’s in a horrible spot. Neither the oil industry nor the federal government has the technology to fix the leak anytime soon – that much is painfully clear. BP will surely have its chance to explain to Congress and to a judge why it represented repeatedly that it had such technology when it didn't. And the Minerals Management Service will get its chance to explain why it took those assertions at face value. But in the meantime, the sheer enormity of the problem creates a huge appetite for blame-laying. And the President is all too inviting and visible a figure to escape some share of it. 

But I feel about this the same way I did about the argument over whether President Clinton’s deregulatory policies or President Bush’s deregulatory policies were responsible for the banking crisis that plunged us into recession. I don’t care so much who the media decides to blame, so long as we correctly identify the policies that are to blame. In this case, one glaring policy failure is that the federal government is inexcusably lax in its regulation of the oil industry. That’s no accident, of course. Industry likes it that way, and its allies on the Hill are similarly contented. Note, for example, that you haven’t heard a chorus of Republicans calling for stronger regulation of the oil industry, even though the political benefits for staking out such a position would be almost limitless for them.

My hunch is that the American public fundamentally understands that the President isn’t the guy responsible for designing or approving drilling systems. But he is the guy who’s responsible for making sure policies get put in place to correct the problems that left us vulnerable to the BP oil spill, and for making sure the federal government does what it can to make sure the mess gets cleaned up as best as it can be. Those seem like perfectly fair yardsticks to measure him by, and sooner or later, I expect voters will do just that.

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Also from Matthew Freeman

Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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