Examining Obama's Performance In The Gulf

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As oil continues to leak out into the Gulf of Mexico, criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the spill threatens to boil over. As part of Tell Me More's Loyal Opposition series, host Michel Martin discusses the politics of the spill and the clean up effort with Glen Ford, executive editor of the online publication Black Agenda Report, and Vin Weber, a former Republican Congressman from Minnesota, now a Washington lobbyist and public relations strategist. The critics are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We have a lot of ground to cover, once again, this Friday, starting with anger from the left and the right toward President Obama's Gulf oil spill response. We have a Faith Matters conversation with a disgraced mega-church founder looking to start over. And later, of course, we check in with the Barbershop guys and we get their take on the latest news in sports and politics, including the umpire who handled that historic screw-up with uncommon grace.

But, first, our political chat. And we'll focus on President Obama, who is back visiting the Gulf region today. He's put off a planned trip to Indonesia and Australia again to tend to that oil still gushing from a mile deep in the Gulf. His attorney general announced civil and criminal investigations might be coming related to the spill, but that has not kept critics at bay.

Here's the president on last night's "Larry King" on CNN. He's responding to critics, including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Larry King Live")

President BARACK OBAMA: Look, we've just seen an environmental disaster that's come about because these oil companies said they had a plan to deal with a worst case scenario and obviously it wasn't a very good plan because it's not working, Larry. And nobody's being impacted more than the citizens of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal's state.

MARTIN: Now, for perspective from time to time, we check in with critics from both ends of the political spectrum, members of our loyal opposition roundtables to give us their take. So today we called Glen Ford. He's the executive editor of the progressive online publication The Black Agenda Report, and Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. He's now Washington lobbyist and public relations strategist.

Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

Mr. GLEN FORD (Executive Editor, The Black Agenda Report): Great to be here with you.

Mr. VIN WEBER (Former Republican Congressman, Minnesota): Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Vin Weber, I'm going to - I don't know that we can set aside the politics of this, I don't know that we can.

Mr. WEBER: Pretty tough. Pretty tough.

MARTIN: But being as objective as you can, what, if anything, could the president and his administration have done differently so far?

Mr. WEBER: Well, I - first of all, I agree with you, let's try to be objective about it, it's a human and ecological disaster down there. And it certainly is not the president's fault or anybody else's fault that it happened, except the companies' fault. But I do think it's possible that the administration could've intervened more directly earlier and deployed the Coast Guard and maybe other aspects of the military more directly and been responsive to Governor Jindal's requests more rapidly than that.

I want to make clear, though, I'm not myself in the mode of saying they've made big mistakes here, they've mismanaged it. And, you know, that's not what I'm trying to say. But there are probably things they could've done to get on top of it quicker.

What the president's mainly being criticized for, however, is his demeanor. And I don't - that's really not helpful to say that the president should show more passion about this. No, the president should show competence and that he's on top of the job and that he's trying to solve this ecological problem. He shouldn't be criticized because he doesn't get more angry in public.

MARTIN: Well, you come from the land of Minnesota nice, so maybe that's kind of fueling your perspective.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But, you know, but what about that whole anger thing? What is that about?

Mr. WEBER: Well, I just think, you know, everybody's a different person. I mean, this is a president that is known as no-drama Obama. That's the kind of appeal that he has to many people is that he seems to be relatively cool under pressure and I think that can be an asset. It might be coming back to bite him a little bit now because cool can become cold. And unfortunately he kind of looks that way a little bit.

But I really think everybody needs to focus on trying to solve the problem, responding as we can to Governor Jindal's requests to the extent that they make sense and putting the pressure on BP to solve this problem.

MARTIN: Well, I would mention, though, that a lot of Democrats faulted, or not just Democrats, but a lot of people faulted President Bush for not being -seeming to be emotionally engaged enough in Hurricane Katrina. There, of course, was a loss of life...

Mr. WEBER: Right. I - as long as you brought it up, I thought that the level of criticism aimed at George Bush was unfair at that time, too. It was, after all, a natural disaster. We had laws that said that the state of Louisiana had primary responsibility, not the federal government. Were there mistakes made? Yes. And could they have responded better to Katrina? Yes.

But we kind of have to realize, maybe this will help us all realize, when you have a natural ecological disaster, the federal government, the state government, nobody can wave a magic wand and solve the problem.

MARTIN: Now, Glen Ford, you've been critical of President Obama. In a column this week, you put your displeasure this way. You say the man in charge of the government that both permitted and abetted the heinous corporate crime should by all rights be in terminal disgrace.

Mr. FORD: Yeah, the issue here is really quite simple and we shouldn't be diverted by the complexities of technology or by some focus on Obama's demeanor. The facts are very simple. Big oil was empowered to drill at depths a mile down where it could not fix a mistake without irreparable harm being caused beforehand to the environment. That, I believe, is depraved indifference on the part of BP, but also on the part of the government that is supposed to be overseeing BP.

Now, Obama had a lot of time to think about this. He has no right to be furious, as he said on "Larry King Live," because somebody didn't think through the consequences of their actions. That somebody was also him. He had 14 months as president to think through the consequences of drilling, of expanding drilling offshore. And of the consequences of the drilling that was already going on. Clearly he did not do his due diligence.

MARTIN: You're saying he should've suspended deep well drilling immediately upon taking office. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. FORD: I'm saying that a government that allows a corporation to drill a mile down when the technology does not exist for correcting mistakes made a mile down before irreparable harm can be done to the environment is at best an inept government, but I think it's depraved indifference. He is expanding the offshore drilling without, apparently, adequately assessing what is occurring with that drilling which is already going on. He is the one who didn't think through the consequences of these actions.

MARTIN: And what about his demeanor? That whole question of he should be angrier. What do you think about that? Vin Weber said it's a distraction. What do you say?

Mr. FORD: No. The public should be angry. The public should be furious. The demeanor of the defendant really doesn't - I'm not that concerned about.

MARTIN: The defendant?

Mr. FORD: Oh yeah, he must defend his self, his actions and his inactions.

MARTIN: Okay. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly political chat and we've called in two members of our loyal opposition roundtables. We've got Glen Ford. He's the executive editor of the progressive online publication The Black Agenda Report. And Vin Weber, he's a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. He's now Washington lobbyist and public relations strategist.

So, Vin, what about Glen Ford's perspective on this? He says that he should've suspended this kind of drilling from the beginning. This should've been one of the first acts of his administration because that there is just no evidence to support the fact that this could be done safely. What do you think about that?

Mr. WEBER: I'm very worried here, Michel. I'm going to lose my Republican Party membership if I'm easier on Obama than Glen Ford is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBER: And Glen was very tough. The question seems to me is do we have the capability to do this kind of drilling? I don't believe we can meet our energy needs as a country, as a planet, without offshore drilling. Glen and I may disagree on that. But I also would very much agree the companies are responsible for conducting it in a safe way. And if they gave us assurances that weren't true, they should pay a very, very heavy penalty.

I think that the company said that they had a backup plan. That it's not as if the Obama administration simply ignored the fact that there was no way to do this safe. They took the company's word for it that they had plans to do this safely. And they - the company turned out to be lying to us about that.

But I mean, the basic issue going forward for me is, as offensive as this is, as horrible as it is, I don't think we can meet our country's energy future, at least in the near term, without offshore drilling, and we have to figure out a way to make it safe.

MARTIN: Now, again, Vin, you may be jeopardizing your Republican credentials here, but is this a regulatory failure? Is this a failure of government oversight of a corporate, of a major corporate entity?

Mr. WEBER: I think that you have to say there's an element of that. We're going to find out more. There's going to be hearings and investigations and we will find out the extent of the regulatory failure. I think from what I've been able to see that there was some regulatory failure involved. But that doesn't - that sort of begs the larger question of whether - which Glen has sort of put in front of us - which is: Can this drilling be done safely at all?

MARTIN: Glen, I'm going to take us back to where - a question I asked Vin Weber at the beginning, which is, I don't know if you can take the politics out of it, but just, I do want to ask you the same question as Vin, I asked Vin to begin with. Objectively speaking - now, I understand, you're saying that he should've suspended this kind of drilling from the get-go, perhaps from day one, because it cannot be done safely. Could he - politically, could he have done that?

Mr. FORD: Well, politics, of course, is absolutely germane to this discussion. It should be at the heart of the discussion. It's the politics of power.

MARTIN: I guess what I'm asking is, could he have done that in the absence of this kind of disaster, which at that point had not occurred - had not yet occurred?

Mr. FORD: You know, it's not just that he didn't do anything, although that is misfeasance. It is that he expanded offshore drilling without even doing an assessment of the drilling that was occurring at that time. So it's not - he's not an innocent party here who just failed to take some affirmative step. This is elementary. I'm going to expand what we're doing now without figuring out what we are doing now.


Mr. FORD: And it's about the power of the oil companies, of course.

MARTIN: But I think...

Mr. FORD: I don't think that the public would - I don't think the public would object to a president using all due diligence to protect them.

MARTIN: Hmm. Okay. Well, what do you think he should do now? Glen?

Mr. FORD: What he should do now?

MARTIN: Yeah. What should the president do now?

Mr. FORD: Well, certainly BP...

MARTIN: I understand it's not your job to advise him, but since we have you.

Mr. FORD: That is true. But certainly BP, who are the main malefactors here, should have a federal official, somewhat like in Iraq in the early stages, there should be a federal official at the side of every BP official to make sure, to ensure that BP is not engaged in a cover-up of its previous crimes.

Now, that's a very big demand to make on the government, because the government, I believe, is also culpable because of its depraved indifference to BP's actions.

MARTIN: Okay. We have to leave it there for now. Vin Weber, just 30 seconds left. You know, one of the - the dean of the Washington political press corps, David Broder, said this could be Barack Obama's Jimmy Carter moment. Pretty tough words, saying that this could - his presidency could become like Jimmy Carter's, just seen as utterly inept. Do you think that's fair?

Mr. WEBER: It's not quite there yet, but it is certainly having a corrosive effect on him, it's having a corrosive effect on people's confidence in the ability of government to do much of anything at all. And now the president has for the second time cancelled a foreign trip. I think he probably did the right thing. But you can't do that indefinitely. He is the leader of the free world. The president has to be able to get out of the Rose Garden and conduct the business of the country. So he's in a very tough shape.

MARTIN: Vin Weber is a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. He is now working as a lobbyist and public relations strategist. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Glen Ford is the executive editor of the progressive online publication, The Black Agenda Report. He joined us from NPR member station WBGO in Newark. They're both part of our loyal opposition roundtable. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. FORD: Thank you.

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