Why Napolitano must go
The Obama administration's response to the Gulf oil spill has been almost as confusing as the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The events are very different in both origin and threat, but they both produced fumbling nonetheless.
No president could ever match the Bush administration's cavalier approach to Katrina, but the Obama administration is so distracted by other catastrophes that the emerging environmental crisis seems like a rounding error. His super-sized agenda appears to be getting the best of him as the world spins through crisis after crisis.
For its part, the Obama administration apparently underestimated the spill's potential danger, was distracted by the ongoing fight over banking reform, and did little to mobilize federal agencies until the oil slick revealed its true size. Even then, the administration waited more than a week to describe the incident as a spill of national significance.
There is still much to be learned about what happened in the days following the initial alerts, and some will argue that the Obama administration was appropriately reserved. Although 20/20 hindsight suggests that the Obama administration should have taken a more proactive stance, there was plenty of calm in Washington during the early days of the catastrophe, including on Capitol Hill where three committees are now preparing investigations of the spill.
Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano may have to take the fall for the confusion. Just as she declared that the system list had worked in the Christmas Day bombing attempt, she has been making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows reassuring viewers that the federal government has moved as fast as possible to address the crisis. Her words do not ring true.
Napolitano could have played a much more aggressive role in the response as Homeland Security chief. As secretary, she was at the top of the disaster reporting chain and had full authority to unleash federal agencies to act. The White House clearly contributed to the confusion, but she could have resolved it with a firm hand. She showed little strength in doing so.
Instead, she seemed out of touch during the first days after the accident and uninformed about her leadership role in coordinating the response. She seemed more concerned about Arizona's new immigration law the day after the Coast Guard reported the leak, and admitted that she did not know how the Defense Department could help on the day before she made her "national incident" announcement.
Technically, however, Napolitano was not responsible for the federal government's initial response. The Coast Guard has that job under federal law. If the buck stops anywhere, it is with the Coast Guard's on-scene coordinator who is free to ask for any help at any time.
But technicalities have never been a good defense for public leaders. After all, the Coast Guard reports to Napolitano, not vice versa. She was at the fulcrum of the decisions and should have asked harder questions about the potential scope of the disaster. Instead of hedging against the real potential that the spill would become an environmental nightmare, she waited for further information.
Napolitano's job as secretary was not to simply echo the president's promise to keep his foot on the throat of British Petroleum. She was also responsible for creating a clear forecast of the crisis and leading the federal response. Given her department's sorry history during Katrina, she should have set up a tent on the Gulf Coast and taken charge as the administration's lead responder. She could have been a reassuring presence in a storm of emerging panic, but instead was mostly invisible.
It is not clear whether Napolitano can survive this latest test. Although her department responded quickly to the Times Square bombing attempt only days after the oil spill, it is still suffering from persistent concerns that it cannot move fast enough when crisis hits. The department is one of the best at "table-top" exercises involving hypothetical events, but seems unable to bring its full capacity to bear on actual catastrophes, in no small part because it remains a behemoth of loosely connected agencies.
Napolitano's options are now limited. She has been mostly pushed aside as the Obama White House works to contain the political damage from its sluggish response and has been diminished within her department. She may want to stay on longer as secretary, but it might be best if she spent the next few months thinking about her next posting.
Like leaders in any sector, Napolitano has been tested by the uncertainties embedded in real events. Unfortunately, she has been found wanting.
May 5, 2010; 2:13 PM ET |
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