Some details are coming out now via Richard Wolffe, writing on The Daily Beast, about what President Barack Obama knew about the oil spill, when he knew it — and why the administration is so angry at Democratic strategist and Clinton ally James Carville.
In a nutshell: the administration knew in April that it had a major catastrophe to deal with — which is going to raise a lot of questions about what it communicated and didn’t communicate to the public and how. And Carville seemed to be more interested in his televised lambasting of the administration that actually talking to the administration and didn’t even bother to call a key player back.
Here are the key parts of his piece:
Critics have bashed President Obama for being slow to seize the political initiative in combating the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, now widely believed to be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The White House has battled back, releasing a timeline of events showing that Obama was briefed—and deploying the Coast Guard—within 24 hours of the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
What has not been previously disclosed: The president was not only briefed on the real-time events of the spill, but also on just how bad it would be—and how hard it would be to plug the hole.
Note when you read these segments that during the 2008 campaign Wolffe was then a Newsweek correspondent and he was given unprecedented access to Obama throughout the campaign to write a book, Renegade: The Making of a President which aspired to be a modern day version of the famous Theodore White “The Making” books of the 60s that started with JFK. So his sourcing is SOLID.
Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, told Obama at one of the earliest briefings in late April that the blowout would likely lead to an unprecedented environmental disaster, senior White House aides told The Daily Beast. Browner warned that capping a well at such depths had never been done before, and that they ought to expect an oil spill that would continue until a relief well was drilled in August, the aide said.
That early briefing on the scope of the spill—and enormous technical challenges involved in fixing it—might help explain the sense of fatalism that has infused Obama’s team from the start.
Little that has happened since has changed their mind-set. Now six weeks later, the president’s top advisers expect the oil spill—and the negative stories—to continue through August.
The fact that Team Obama was warned of the extent of the disaster so early on suggests that White House officials were aware of the environmental challenge.
Meanwhile, Carville became a regular media presence — blasting Obama and the administration for seeming to not do enough and Obama in particular for not demonstrating his concern and heading down early to the region. Here’s this tidbit:
That frustration has boiled over in dealing with some of their most high-profile critics—especially the ones on the Democratic side.
Case in point: James Carville, the Democratic strategist, whose TV eruptions have helped focus attention on the president’s response.
Carville recently chanced upon Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen eating dinner with BP CEO Tony Hayward at a New Orleans restaurant, the senior White House aide says. Allen had called Carville after his first TV outburst to talk about the administration’s response, but Carville failed to return the call. When Allen asked why, Carville said he had been busy, the aide says (Carville did not reply to requests for comment). That does not sit well with administration officials who suggest that Carville’s readiness to go public with his criticism is not matched by his private willingness to offer concrete suggestions about what they could do differently.
And the future?
As they plot course, Obama’s team is determined to avoid two scenarios. They’re mindful of BP’s habit of scheduling rounds of TV interviews to tout a new development—only to discover that the news was more disappointing than expected. And they want to avoid the perception that the president is focused exclusively on the oil spill, at a time when both public and private polling shows Americans have greater concerns—and care far more about the economy at this stage than they do about the oil spill.
Again, keep in mind that the old saying is “a reporter is as good as his sources” and Wolffe is a reporter. Most of what you see on weblogs (such as this) is opinion analysis where people read the reportage of others and comment or analyze it. Wolffe is offering the perspective after talking to White House bigwigs plus some new details – which will raise the question about whether the White House if it knew what it did badly bungled the public face it put on the administration’s reaction to the crisis until it had to do catch up.
As Wolffe notes, some polls show some slight improvement for Obama now — but many will ask why if they knew what they did they didn’t act as if they knew what they did in political terms and assembling the panel of experts they assembled later when the issue was pitchforked into the headlines and became a monster one.
The prevailing question is how anyone who saw George Bush’s actual response to Hurricane Katrina and what was said or not said that contributed to the hugely negative public perception of how he and his administration responded could have allowed the issue to play out this way in political terms, in assembling quickly a panel of top experts, and in pull-out-the-stops government efforts.
What is that old saying of George Santayana?
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
HERE’S SOME MORE REACTION FROM WEBLOGS OF VARYING OPINIONS:
This makes all those golf outings, sports-team photo ops, and celebrity jams with Paul McCartney over the past six weeks feel extra special, doesn’t it?
I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, no less than the New York Times op-ed page was ripping Obama for being slow off the mark in dealing with the spill as far back as April 30. On the other hand, if he really is powerless to do anything because the feds simply don’t have the expertise to cap a well the way BP does, what was he supposed to have done after Browner briefed him? He could have given a national address right away leveling with the public about the potential magnitude of the disaster — he was Captain Transparency during the campaign — but why risk that when there was still hope at the time that BP could get things under control relatively quickly? It would have been an invitation for greens to rip on him and other supporters of drilling before there was any confirmation yet that the disaster was unprecedented. He could have skipped all the happy happy joy joy photo ops at the White House Correspondents Dinner and beyond, but those are at least instances of him doing “stuff,” even if it’s really stupid stuff. Sitting around all day looking worried would only heighten the perception of how powerless he is. Weird as it may sound, rocking out to “Hey Jude” is probably better for his re-election chances than pics of him sitting at his desk with his hands folded, waiting for BP to call with an update.
—Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, calls it “shocking” and in his update:
UPDATE: Reader Martha Hearron writes:
I hate to be a cynic, but have you looked at how the affected states have voted? How many of them did Obama carry? Also, at least 3 of the 4 governors are Republicans, although Charlie Crist is questionable.
I bet if it was California it would be all hands on deck from day 1.
Nonsense. If that cynical analysis were correct, we’d have seen Obama ignoring the Nashville flood, Kentucky ice storms, etc.
The depth of a politician’s leadership instincts reveals itself on the ability to step into the breach in a crisis. Putting yourself second takes pushing your ego aside and jumping into a crisis, consequences to the hits you might take for any unknowable error put off the table. It’s not about you at a time of national calamity. That is until it becomes about you, because you failed to provide leadership as soon as it was needed.
To give you an idea of how childish the White House political team is on criticism where it’s due, the ultimate Obama insider Richard Wolffe has an anecdote the proves what has become very apparent, which is that Pres. Obama needs more grownups around him….
…You’d have to be in a bubble made of rubber not to know what was headed your way. Any oil expert could have told the President this. I had veterans of the oil industry saying it was going to be about how Obama ended up managing the crisis, because it was going to be a bad one. So what did he do? The political shop inside the White House advised him to stay quiet, because they were doing all they could below the radar, calculating that they didn’t to alarm the public before you they had to. It’s insufferably naive.
Meanwhile… an entire ecosystem began dying, wildlife and birds were left to fend for their own innocent lives amidst unstoppable flowing oil, while the lives of people were destroyed waiting for federal action.
Did the administration somehow think they could conceal the extent of the catastrophe? In the first place effects of the disaster are visible to people who live near the Gulf. Did they imagine somehow they could prevent the press from covering it by getting BP and the Coast Guard to keep them out? Or did they think they could influence the press coverage to prevent most Americans from understanding the true national and even global effects of BP’s malfeasance? Did they think the oil might not spread to Alabama and Florida beaches where there would it would affect more tourists?
If the administration really did this, they have far outstripped Nixon and Watergate. Did they not understand that everything would eventually come out and the American people would see them as criminally negligent and in the pockets of BP just as much as they are in the pockets of Goldman Sachs? Did they not realize that the media would ultimately rebel against efforts to limit their access to a compelling national story?
Wouldn’t it have been better in the long run to be open with the American people and explain how bad a crisis we were facing? And then they could have mobilized every resource available–government experts, scientists, private businesspeople, as well as experts from other oil companies–to clean up the oil and prevent as much of it from coming ashore as possible. Instead, as Wolffe writes, the administration responded with passive fatalism.
My take: I don’t think President Obama particularly likes being President. I think he liked being elected President. Also, I think he’s been surprised at how much work the job entails. Also, he has a tendency to hide during a crisis. It’s going to be a long couple of years for everyone involved.
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