His Own Standard: Why We on the Left Must Hold Obama Accountable

Since September, the Obama administration has been under fire from a Republican weapon that seems to reload with aggravating perpetuity. Weathering attacks on the specific responses to the tragedy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, President Obama sought to mute a chorus of commentators in the presidential debate at Hofstra University last October. Speaking about the American diplomatic corps, Obama absolved others of ultimate wrongdoing:

“They’re my representatives. I send them there – oftentimes into harm’s way…Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible.”

The Obama of national security is accountable, responsible, and when necessary, culpable.

That approach is historically sound. When the Deepwater Horizon turned the Gulf of Mexico black in 2010, BP CEO Tony Hayward couldn’t shrug, hold up his palms, and point the rig’s mechanics. (We know this because that’s exactly what he tried to do.) In the wake of Benghazi, Obama expressed without reservation that – even in the minutia of these national security issues – he had been responsible for prevention and must be liable upon disaster.

But when last week told a tale of two scandals – both underscored by the Libya barrage that will not cease – that air of accountability emptied out of the Obama administration. It became evident that Obama’s feelings of direct responsibility were isolated to the realm of national security.

What happened in Libya was deplorable because that which could have been prevented wasn’t prevented. Where security personnel should have been proactive, they were shoved into a corner and forced to be rushed and reactive. It all happened more than five thousand miles from the White House, but Obama took the fall. He held himself to a higher standard.

But last week’s IRS case laid bare an imbalance in Obama’s priorities. Though his appointees – or bureaucrats hired by people who fit that bill – engaged in something steeped in moral and legal turpitude, their transgressions were minor in the scheme of things; the scandal concerned quotidian domestic financial issues. No death, no carnage – just taxes. The agency’s office is just five blocks from the White House. And what’s been the White House response?

Obama is “concerned by every report he sees on this,” Jay Carney told reporters last Tuesday, “and that is why he looks forward to finding out what the IG report says.” In short: the president will take no responsibility before someone of consequence pins it on him.

Not proactive, reactive. Not accountable, evasive. Obama shrugs, hold up his palms, and point to the rig’s mechanics. Suddenly, he’s Tony Hayward at the Resolute Desk. An incongruence in governing.

The virtually simultaneous revelation that the Department of Justice seized hundreds of phone records prompted a similarly aloof response from team Obama. AP White House reporter Jim Kuhnhenn asked the first question at the May 14 press conference, immediately following the disclosure. His query can be boiled down to its premise. “In every instance,” Kuhnhenn scolded Carney, “either the president or you have placed the burden of responsibility someplace else.” A far cry from the buck-stops-here Obama of October fame.

The first chunk of Carney’s response amounted to a surface defense of the president’s record on First Amendment issues. Then he shifted the scope of his answer to White House jurisdiction over Justice cases. “We are not involved…with any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations,” he said, adding that “those matters are handled, appropriately, by the Justice Department independently.”

Again, Obama is innocent until proven guilty. His head bobs above the waters of responsibility until he’s drowning in them. The question arises: who’s in charge during the perennial White House side-step?

Perhaps the answer is the president’s surrogates – the people who run the departments being investigated. But when Attorney General Eric Holder was initially asked about the seizure of AP phone records, he told a media pool at the DOJ that it was “getting into matters that are beyond my knowledge.” His recusal from the matter left him uninformed as to “what the circumstances were here…and I frankly don’t have knowledge of those facts.”

I’m a self-declared political liberal and voted for Barack Obama last November. That seemed a clear indication that I wanted him running the country, fully informed and profoundly engaged. The more than 51% of eligible voters that opted for him reflects a similar sentiment. The de facto administration policy can’t be precautionary ignorance and retrospective hand-wringing.

The political left mustn’t echo the absent-minded rhetorical gunfire of the right; but it should make President Obama the subject of real targeted criticism until his “buck-stops-here” mentality takes the form of a coherent, comprehensive policy that encompasses his administration’s involvement in tax and law questions as much as it does issues of national security.

We don’t yet know if the IRS and DOJ allegations will grow into convictions, but regardless of circumstance, Obama’s policy should be one of continuity in accountability, not of strategic ignorance that leaves him blindsided and irreproachable. “I’m always responsible,” he said in October. I voted for that Barack Obama.

Talking Points

The following are– in my opinion– the most important points and quotations from President Obama’s Oval Office Speech on the Gulf Spill:

“Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced…we have to recognize that despite our best efforts, oil has already caused damage to our coastline and its wildlife.”
  • One vital aspect of cleaning up this spill– and moving forward with suitable policies– is admitting that something has gone wrong and that not everything is in the hands of the federal government.
  • In short, instead of setting an unreasonably high standard which he and his proxies cannot uphold, President Obama is being pragmatic and acknowledging the limitations that he suffers from on this issue.
“Tonight, I’d like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward.”
  • Simple and to-the-point. He’s recognized what he can’t do, now he’s telling us what he can and will do.

“These servicemen and women are ready to help stop the oil from coming ashore, they’re ready to help clean the beaches, train response workers, or even help with processing claims — and I urge the governors in the affected states to activate these troops as soon as possible.”

  • Now, Obama is exerting his presidential force. He’s saying that he’s provided the people of the Gulf Coast a source of aid, and it’s not something that they’re paying extra taxes for: it’s the troops.
  • In essence, he’s giving the governors of the Gulf states a gift, and it’s up to them to decide whether or not to use it. He cannot be blamed, he’s saying, for not supplying the states with enough assistance.
“In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.”
  • This is probably the most important step in moving forward. All eyes have turned to the federal government and its lack of regulation of Big Oil. BP abused safety policies before the spill and hid economic facts afterward.
  • So, Obama is saying that BP will be responsible for paying all costs resulting from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, and that, in order to make sure that everyone is compensated appropriately, BP will not be in charge of the monetary distribution.
  • This is important in terms of both Obama’s public image and Gulf Coast citizens’ well-being.
“That’s why we must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment.”
  • Obama’s looking to the future instead of getting caught up in the momentary issue.
  • He’s creating a “long-term Gulf Reservation Plan” to not only clean up the spill, but also looking to get back jobs, a healthy environment, and prevent this from happening again.
(Referring to the moratorium:) “I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue.”
  • This is the responsible and respectable thing to do. He’s acknowledging that in order to move forward, he must look back. He’s avoiding any impetuous behavior.
  • Also, this is a good pushing-off point for a campaign that promotes alternative energy sources and weans this country off of oil from offshore drilling.
“(We need) to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog — not its partner.”
  • He’s acknowledging the importance of government regulation.
  • E.g. Just as a lack of regulation caused the housing market to collapse (the mortgage crisis), so too was a lack of regulation a key ingredient in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon.

Fessing Up

Earlier today, my grandpa was telling me about an incident that his company had once encountered with another company, with whom his company had genial relations. It was clear that one of the companies had made a pretty significant error and money had been lost by the other company. “It’s not about whether or not a company makes mistakes,” my grandpa said to me, “It’s about how they recognize and fix those mistakes to avoid them in the future.”

Yes, there’s been a media outcry for Obama to get “mad”. Yes, offshore drilling has become a more controversial issue than ever. Yes, leaders of both parties have fiercely reprimanded BP. But all those things happened rather quickly and have hardly affected the situation in the gulf in any practical way.

At the first congressional hearing after the explosion, BP America’s President blamed Transocean for the explosion because BP had contracted them. Transocean was at fault, the BP president said, because they were the “owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig,” and they had “responsibility for the safety of the drilling operation.” The CEO of Transocean said that it was Halliburton’s fault, because Halliburton had provided the cement casing for the safeties on the rig. Then, the representative of Halliburton said that no, it wasn’t Halliburton’s fault, because the cement casing would have worked perfectly, had blow-out protector on the rig been intact.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we’re nowhere.

My grandpa was right. When no one takes responsibility or fesses up to their mistakes (which, by the way, all three of these companies made), the process cannot be improved and it becomes impossible for congress or the president to make laws that will prevent the problem in the future. BP, Transocean, and Halliburton have barely expressed publicly what they’ll do in the future to prevent further problems. Does that mean that they won’t do anything to prevent this in the future? Are they only worried about restoring their public image? All three companies have spent their time making sure that it looks like the explosion was not their fault.

In the same way that Obama waited much too long to get to the South, it’s BP has waited much too long to acknowledge its mistakes. (Keep in mind– to emphasize this point– that BP’s first move after the explosion was to force every one of the exhausted, disheveled, confused workers on the rig to sign a contract which exonerated BP of any responsibility. Then, BP scurried through small southern coastal towns and got residents to sign pre-written agreements that capped the amount of money that BP would have to pay for any damage done to the citizens’ environment.)

“It’s not about whether or not a company makes mistakes, it’s about how they recognize and fix those mistakes to avoid them in the future.”

What it Looks Like vs. What it Is

Barack Obama doesn’t have the extraordinary political instincts that his predecessors–presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan– had. At least, he hasn’t honed them yet. He is, dare I say, too focused on solving problems and not focused enough on looking like he’s solving problems. He doesn’t understand that an integral part of solving problems is garnering public support for his solutions, or that an integral part of garnering public support is the superficial stuff: the photo-ops, the meet-and-greets with the citizens, or the burgers from the local diners.

He thrived off of it during the campaign; it kept him going. He kissed every baby, shook every hand, walked through every factory, and asked all the right questions. But the box in which he packed that politic sense of what it means to be a public official got lost during the move from Chicago to Washington. In the wake of low approval ratings and deteriorating public opinion of his policies, it seems that Obama and his advisors would have had to go out of their way not to hop onto Air Force One, and get down to the south ASAP. James Carville said last week, Obama needs to “Get down here and take control…we’re about to die.”

In a case like this, where POTUS isn’t realistically in a position to do very much, the best thing he can do is look like he’s doing something. This is a wasted opportunity. He should have immediately been in small towns up and down the shores of Louisiana and Mississippi, shaking hands with the locals and talking to the heads of the cleanup crews.

Forget the political aspect. Had he been there the day after the spill, or even the week afterward, BP would have felt a heavy weight on its shoulders and been pressured to work at a breakneck speed. Instead, Obama let slip both his political and tangible grasps on the situation.

The Second Coming of Glenn Beck

Ladies and gentlemen, the next junior senator from the great state of Kentucky: Rand Paul. A May 19th Rasmussen poll had the Tea Party candidate twenty five points ahead of his Democratic challenger. Here’s why that’s disconcerting:

  1. His Civil Rights Position: He is against a clause in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forbids private companies from racial discrimination. It’s not because he doesn’t like minorities, though; it’s because he doesn’t “think the government should get involved in banning it.” He says, “that’s just a negative that we have to tolerate in a free society.”
  2. He says things like this: “What happened in Germany, when the Weimar Republic printed up so much money and you carry it around in wheelbarrows? There was a collapse, and they actually voted in a Hitler. You could get something like that in our country if we’re not careful and vigilant.”
  3. He sees things as black-and-white: “I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business,” he said about Obama’s criticism of the BP companies mistakes. The company’s mistakes led to the immediate deaths of eleven people and environmental destruction that will last for generations. It’s okay to be critical of business.

Curb the Addiction

In a previous post, I touched on the notion that President Obama should be engaging in “more talk…less action.” Let me briefly expand on that idea.

America is addicted to foreign oil. We’re excessively dependent on companies overseas. If the BP spill isn’t an indication that offshore activity is hazardous and risky, I don’t know what is.

It’s interesting to pin the Obama administration’s handling of this crisis up against the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina. In contrast to the handling of Katrina, response time to the spill has been fast, methodical, and cost-efficient. But Obama should learn from Bush’s handling that he needs to take action to prevent this from happening again.

There’s an old saying, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Once the Obama administration has cleaned up the mess and dealt with the immediate aftermath of this situation, it needs to use this as a turning point for drilling policy to end offshore drilling and dependence on foreign oil. While this is, indeed, a tragedy, it is important to take advantage of this opportunity. So far, Obama has stayed lukewarm. He said, on April 20, that he “continue(s) to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security.”

Mr. President, it’s time to face the facts, fulfill campaign promises, and do what is morally and fiscally right–not what will gain Republican support.

Whenever You’re Ready

Monday, May 3, 2010. 13 days since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

Dear President Obama,

Now would be a good time to fully withdraw your support of offshore drilling and use this incident as a major argument for curbing America’s addiction to foreign oil. A moratorium on current projects sends the wrong message and is also the wrong choice. You need to carpe the frickin diem before it’s too late.

Less talk, please. More action.