Contrary to what the Constitution says, the president does not run the executive branch of the federal government. It runs itself. Following Newton’s Laws of Motion, it is “a body in motion that tends to remain in motion in the same direction and at the same speed unless acted upon by an outside force.” The bureaucracy keeps doing what it is programmed to do unless someone intervenes.
And that intervention is the proper job of the president. He has to step in, ask the right questions, get inside and outside advice, and decide how to intervene to move the bureaucracy one way or the other. President Clinton had an excellent sense of how to do this and when to get involved. President Obama does not.
When the spill started, he and his campaign staff – now transplanted to the White House – reacted the way a Senator or a candidate would, blaming British Petroleum, framing an issue against the oil company, and holding it accountable. But what he needed to do was to review the plans for coping with the disaster and intervene to move the bureaucracy in untraditional but more appropriate directions. Instead, he let business as usual and inertia move the process.
The president’s tardy requests for international assistance and his government’s bureaucratic response to their offers demonstrates his lack of command and control. The Washington Post reports that the Obama Administration initially “saw no need to accept offers of state-of-the-art skimmers, miles of boom or technical assistance from nations around the globe with experience fighting oil spills.” Arrogantly, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters on May 19th “we’ll let BP decide what expertise they do need.”
Two weeks after the spill started, the State Department and the Coast Guard sought to figure out what aid they could use from abroad. On May 5th, the Department reported that thirteen international offers of aid had been tendered and the government would decide which to accept “in the next two days.” Two weeks later, it said that it did not need any of them.
Now, when it is too late, the U.S. has finally accepted Canada’s offer of 10,000 feet of boom. In late May it took 14,000 feet from Mexico, two skimmers from Mexico, and skimming systems from Norway and the Netherlands. Too little too late.
Why didn’t the Administration act sooner?
Bureaucratic obstacles stopped it and the president was not involved or active enough to sweep them aside.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr Christopher T. O’Neil said that “all qualifying offers of assistance have been accepted.” But this bureaucratic-speak did not mention that the Jones Act – an isolationist law passed in the 1920s that requires vessels working in American waters to be built and crewed by Americans – disqualified many of the offers of assistance. But Obama could have waived the Jones Act whenever he wanted to.
A Norwegian offer of a chemical dispersant was rejected by the EPA – more bureaucracy.
When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal sought to create sand berms to keep oil away from the coastline, the Washington Post reported that he reached out to “the marine contractor Van Oord and the research institute Deltares…BP pledged $360 million for the plan, but U.S. dredging companies – which have less than one-fifth the capacity of Dutch dredging firms — objected to foreign companies’ participation.”
An activist, involved chief executive would have swept aside these impediments and demanded immediate action. He would have ridden roughshod over bureaucratic and political objections and gotten the cleanup underway.
But this president is no executive. He is a legislator – he is now pushing new environmental legislation. He is a lawyer – his Attorney General is investigating criminal charges against BP. He is a populist – he is quick to blame BP. He is a big spender – he wants a fund to pay the spill’s victims. He is all of these things. But he is no chief executive and that, unfortunately, is the job he was elected to do.