Week In Politics: Oil Spill, Barton's Apologies

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This week, President Obama called out BP in an Oval Office address, and a GOP congressman apologized for the government's "shakedown" of the oil company. Melissa Block speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times, about the week in politics.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And recovery summer is also shadowed by gusher summer, as the BP oil well continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Those live images from the seafloor -a constant reminder of the ongoing spill, and the economic and environmental consequences.

This week, President Obama rolled out military imagery as he made his first address from the Oval Office. He talked about the battle we are waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens. So the week in oil and politics is where we're heading with our regular Friday commentators: columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome to you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be here.

BLOCK: And, David, let's start with you. The president giving that Oval Office address on Tuesday night, then summoning the BP executives to the White House on Wednesday. What do you make of these latest turns in how the administration is handling this?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, there's been a lot of military Churchillian talk, but not enough logistics. When you actually looked at what's actually happening on the gulf, you've got a whole bunch of local leaders who are just enraged by mixed communications, by crossed lines of authority. They can't tell who is charge. They're sending plans to protect their towns up the chain of command; they never hear back.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is outraged after one thing after another, most recently these vacuum barges that aren't allowed to operate - or weren't allowed to operate in the gulf. So you've got a whole series of administrative problems that need ironing out, and I don't think the president has been focused enough on those. He's been more energized by thinking about the energy bill, which is a good bill, but we've got a problem right now. And so there hasn't there's been a lack of execution and a lack of administration.

BLOCK: And E.J., David calls this - in his column today - a federalism problem. Do you see it as a federalism problem?

Mr. DIONNE: Actually, I think David provides us with a lot of interesting data points. But I reach a completely different conclusion. He's right that local officials down there are frustrated. But the paradox is that the problem is not there's too much federal expertise. The problem is that you actually need more centralized decision-making at the federal authority. Too many agencies with fractured expertise are being asked for answers. The local officials can't do it on their own. They need federal help, but they can't get decisions as quickly as they want to.

The speech was interesting because it was really the first Obama speech that didn't get uniformly good reviews. It got a lot of critical reviews not only from conservatives, but also from some on the left. I thought it was a good speech that was not a home run. He talked about he was right about regulation. He was right on the energy bill, although he was almost painfully short on specifics because he doesn't know what he can get through Congress.

I'm just not sure, on these practical issues, if he had talked a whole lot more about more boom or skimmers or people, I'm not sure that would've helped him much. In the end, he's got a few weeks to get this really moving so the complaints stop.

Mr. BROOKS: Could I just comment on that?

BLOCK: Briefly. Briefly.

Mr. BROOKS: This is the core issue of the Obama presidency. He has tremendous faith in experts and gathering smart people around the room. But I think a century's worth of developmental work has shown us that you can get a lot of great experts. But people on the ground, with local knowledge, are just going to be more reliable in the long run. I think that's a central tension in the Obama presidency.

Mr. DIONNE: Could I make one other point on this?

BLOCK: Boy, we have so much we want to get to, but go ahead, E.J.

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah, just very quickly. One of Obama's hidden problems on this is the three states most impacted by this, are three of the most Republican states in the union: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. And so I think you're going to hear a lot of negative stuff from down there from a lot of officials, even when things start going better.

BLOCK: Speaking of negative stuff, there were jaws dropping all over Washington yesterday when congressman Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, apologized to BP's CEO Tony Hayward at a hearing. He said he was ashamed of what he called the White House shakedown - getting the company to pay $20 billion into this escrow fund to compensate victims of the oil spill. And by the end of the hearing, he backed off a bit. And then after a huge outcry, Joe Barton issued an apology for his apology - David, apparently under a great bit of duress from the Republican leadership. What are you hearing?

Mr. BROOKS: First, I thought Hayward did terribly in the briefing. It's like he never was briefed about what happened and couldn't tell anybody. Now, as for Barton, what he said was transparently stupid and over the top. But deep down, I do think there is a kernel of truth in what he said. We are a nation of laws. Laws are there to protect the unpopular and sometimes, laws are there to protect people who've done bad things.

And we have a claims process when people do something negligent, to make them pay. I think in really leaning in a very strong-armed way to BP to set up this escrow, the Obama administration went around that claims process. And I'd hate to see Dick Cheney do something like that - say to people he doesn't like, you know, maybe you should set some money aside, or else the power of the federal government is going to come down on you.

That is just a scary prospect. And so I do think there's a kernel to the larger stupidity of what Barton said.

BLOCK: E.J., does this, though, give the Democrats just a big, fat, hanging curveball right over the plate?

Mr. DIONNE: I think the Democrats are going to establish some kind of award to give to Joe Barton at the end of all this. This was a godsend. And what it showed is how a certain kind of right-wing libertarianism, where when you're given a choice between a federal government that uses some of its pressure on behalf of creating a fund for ordinary people, small businesses, shrimpers, to get some money to compensate them, that somehow, Joe Barton and the Republican Study Committee - a group of about 115 House members - and some folks in the Tea Party movement would pick BP over our own federal government. So this has been a godsend.

And I don't know, David talks about, you know, heavy hand of the federal government. This is basically saying to BP, we don't really trust you, and we want you to put some money away so these people are going to get their money. I don't think that's an unreasonable role for the federal government to play.

BLOCK: I want to save just a little bit of time here to talk about the World Cup. You guys are both, I understand, watching avidly. Can we just say right now the U.S. was robbed today? David...

Mr. BROOKS: We have to remember, football, soccer, is about agony. I spent 45 minutes in agony as the U.S. played terribly in the first half. Then I had like, five minutes of joy as they pulled equal and then more - and a full day of agony as the referee just cheated us out of this win. So soccer, unlike American games, is about agony and pain.

BLOCK: We're talking about a goal in the last few minutes of the game by the U.S. that was declared not a goal because of a foul. E.J., you were watching?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, no, I wasn't watching today, but I have been listening a lot and it's on I listen to my radio. First, I've got to say, my mind has been was much more on my dear Boston Celtics (unintelligible) number two. But for one quarter would've pulled off one of the great upsets recent upsets in history. But I think it's fascinating, a lot of Americans are getting into soccer in a way they never were before. And some of it has to do with how many of their kids are playing it.

BLOCK: OK, thanks to you both: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

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