Week In Politics: Oil Spill, Sestak

Melissa Block speaks with regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times, about efforts to clean up the Gulf oil spill and the administration's attempt to persuade Democrat Joe Sestak to stay out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary race.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today, President Obama made his second trip to Louisiana since the oil spill. He picked up a few tar balls that have washed up on Fourchon Beach. After meeting with local officials, he stressed that BP is the responsible party for the disaster and will be held accountable. But he added...

President BARACK OBAMA: I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis. I am the president, and the buck stops with me.

BLOCK: As the president drove through Grand Isle, his motorcade passed people holding signs saying: I'd rather be fishing, and help us, Obama.

Well, here to talk about the president's response and public expectations are columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Hi.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): How are you doing?

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, New York Times): Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And, David, let's start with you. You hear that plea there - help us. And yesterday, the president held a rare, hour-long news conference to try to convince Americans that his administration is, in fact, on top of this crisis and doing just that. Is that message getting through, do you think?

Mr. BROOKS: No. And people like it when people say the buck stops here, and I'm glad he said that. But the fact is, there's not all that much he can do to stop, say, the oil flow - unless he has a degree in underwater engineering that we're not really aware of. The fact is, it's sort of been revealed over the past couple weeks, we sort of had an adolescent view of government that we expect can solve all our problems and we get really angry when it can't. And neither is true.

We saw that in Katrina in multitudes, and we're seeing it here. There are certain things that government just can't do, and one of them is plug a hole a mile down the ocean.

BLOCK: He did today, E.J., talk about tripling the number of responders, federal responders in oiled areas. This whole question, though, of who is in charge -BP, the government's role as a regulator and overseeing the cleanup - it continues to percolate.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, there are a lot of issues about government's role, one of which is why the regulation was so weak and so bad. And this goes back pre-Obama, the question to President Obama is, why didn't you fix it quicker? And then there's also the issue that we now learn, that basically most of the power to fix this is in the hands of BP.

But I was struck at the news conference by what the president was saying subliminally. I like to think of this whole Woody Allen technique, English under English. English subtitles under English what are they saying, what are they really saying? I heard him saying, God, I wish I had had this news conference about two weeks ago. He had a sense that even if the expectations we have of a president and of government are not always realistic, we want them there on the scene, solving a problem. And I think they know they let this go too long.

I did, however, like it today when he took a nice, little jab at the media. He said the media may get tired of the story, but we will not. We will be on your side, and we will see this through. Take that, you media who've been bashing me.

BLOCK: David, you mentioned something in your column this week, which we've been talking about here on the program, which is the question of whether technology - in this case, deepwater or offshore drilling - has outpaced regulation and people's ability outside the industry to understand it, which leaves industry solely in charge, able to call the shots.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I'd say it outpaces our ability to understand it for anybody. I mean, if you take the NASA - the Challenger explosion, you take Three Mile Island, you take what happened here, you've got people operating extremely complicated systems they can't understand, trying to evaluate risk. And they're just guessing. And so I think we have to have better choice architecture to make them guess a little better and a little less arrogantly.

As for the regulation, if you go down the list of decisions that were made that led to this disaster - the interpreting of the tests, whether to recycle the cement, how to recycle the mud, how to set the cement - none of these things, it's clear to me, would be solved by different regulations. There are certain decisions that have to be made on the spot, on a case-by-case basis, and they were made, in this case, by people under extreme duress and in extreme ignorance. I'm not sure a regulator 3,000 miles away could really have done a better job.

BLOCK: You said - just one more question to David, though - you said they didn't understand the risk. Could you say, though, based on some of the reporting that's come out, they did understand the risk. Maybe they eliminated redundancies that would've kept this from happening.

Mr. BROOKS: There are some redundancies they clearly did press to bring this thing under budget. But when they proceeded to try to close this hole, they did it under the supposition - which turned out to be false - that it was safe because of various tests, which they misinterpreted. And that's been the case with Challenger and all sorts of other things. People misinterpret tests because simply, they get used to certain risks - nothing bad has happened so far; I guess we're OK.

Mr. DIONNE: What David just said might be true if you had had any kind of tough regulatory regime in place. And after you do a lot of checking, then you say there are some unknowns. But in this case, some of the review was so cursory -the president referred to that in the news conference this was set up to give quick approvals to something. And I think people made assumptions that BP and other drillers had thought things through to a worst-case scenario. And it does not appear that that thinking was taking place.

So between David's view that, yes, in the end there are things that are really complicated, that are hard to regulate and what we were actually doing, there was a lot of room. And there was room for regulators to act more responsibly.

BLOCK: I do want to get to another story that we're following on the program today. The White House acknowledging that it enlisted former President Bill Clinton to try to persuade Democrat Joe Sestak to stay out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary race. The White House wanted Arlen Specter to run unopposed and according to the White House counsel, who released a report today, the idea was that if Sestak agreed not to run, he in exchange would get an unpaid advisory position with the White House.

David Brooks, how bad does this smell to you?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, it's potentially illegal. You're not allowed to do that. You're not allowed to give people jobs; whether an unpaid job really counts is another case. In Colorado, a candidate named Romanoff, who was also maybe offered a job. It certainly is a sign that the Obama administration may be promising a new style of politics, but this is probably pretty standard old style. So I just wish they wouldn't pretend they're practicing something new when they're not.

BLOCK: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: The original sin here was Joe Sestak bragging over and over again that he had been offered a job and then turned it down, and it was his way of showing he was independent of the Obama administration. Suddenly, this came back to bite him. If we convicted everyone who offered someone a government job for political reasons, we'd probably need a new prison here in Washington. But it is against the law. I think the story that they have put out, which we hope is true, gets them around these problems in the law. I think the Republicans will keep pushing it. If I were they, I'd probably keep pushing it. But I think it eventually peters out.

BLOCK: OK, thanks to you both.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times.

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