It's not the triumphs of their administrations that define modern presidents; it's their responses, or lack thereof, to crises. Jimmy Carter's presidency is synonymous with stagflation, a recession, and the Iran hostage crisis. George W. Bush will be remembered for his rush to war in Iraq and his pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina. Now, 19 months into his presidency, Barack Obama is faced with the greatest environmental catastrophe in American history. How well — or how poorly — he responds is how he'll be remembered. It also may determine whether voters give him a second term, as they did Bush, or whether he'll be one-and-done like Carter.
Critics say Obama was slow to react to the crisis, and he certainly has flip-flopped on the issue of offshore drilling. Just weeks before the Deepwater Horizon blew, he expanded deep-water exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. In late May, however, he announced a six-month moratorium on all current and future drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet, a move that canceled some lease sales in the western Gulf and off the East Coast. The move also threatens to send more major deep-water drilling rigs to foreign waters, and there's no telling when they'll return.
The president says he wants to see the conclusions of his study commission on the tragedy before lifting the moratorium. This didn't play well in south Louisiana. With fishing, shrimping and oyster harvesting jobs gone, oil jobs were all that were left. Now they're about to go as well. Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet said the economic effect of banning deep-water drilling would be "catastrophic." Billy Nungesser and Charlotte Randolph, the presidents of Plaquemines and Lafourche parishes, told Obama the same thing on his most recent visit to the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, the White House didn't seem open to compromise.
Ironically, Obama had an unlikely early champion on the Gulf Coast: Nungesser, who has emerged as the anguished, angry, public face of Louisianans affected by the disaster. Nungesser, a Republican, has publicly lashed out at BP and its CEO Tony Hayward, as well as Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard's commander on the scene — but when he butted heads with Obama, he came away with praise for the federal response. "I think he cares and he's a hands-on guy," Nungesser said of the president. "I was real impressed."
Obama isn't the only politician whose career is at stake here. Gov. Bobby Jindal also has a tricky needle to thread. Jindal's famous rejection of "big government" has already been mocked by those who noted how quickly he demanded help from the feds. His objection to Obama's moratorium on deep-water drilling will play well in a state dependent on oil revenues, but he still has to prove his mettle by leading a substantive — and successful — state response to the catastrophe. So far, he has proved himself adept at photo ops.
And then there are our Congressional representatives. U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Charlie Melancon, who's seeking Vitter's seat in November, have been quick to say how much they've been looking out for Louisiana — while sniping at each other. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao has an election of his own coming up, and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, one of the Senate's major beneficiaries of oil industry contributions, has a particularly thin tightrope to walk when it comes to calling for sanctions against BP.
Meanwhile, BP's Hayward is scheduled to appear this Thursday, June 17, before an investigative House Energy and Commerce subcommittee chaired by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), where he'll have to defend BP's actions in the continuing disaster. Hayward has already proven he cannot be believed or trusted on anything related to the spill — but citizens shouldn't just be listening to him that day. They also should be listening to what their lawmakers intend to do about all this.
Obviously stung by criticism that he wasn't showing sufficient outrage, Obama went on the Today show June 8 and said his trips to the Gulf Coast were, in part, so he could "know whose ass to kick." It was a calculated move by "No-Drama Obama," but he and others should remember: The people of the Gulf Coast don't want drama. They want action — because, come November and beyond, they already know whose asses to kick.