On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Light on Leadership

Obama's oil-spill opportunity

President Barack Obama was exactly right last week to emphasize his personal engagement in resolving the disastrous Gulf oil spill. Americans expect their presidents to take charge during tough times, and Obama emphatically did so.

It is not yet clear what more Obama can do to take charge, however. Even now, many in Washington are whispering that the administration has entered a long siege that will test the public's patience. The longer the spill continues -- and according to CNN, today is day 45 -- the more the public will demand action.

Obama must do much more than continuing hammering BP, which misled the country from the very moment of the crisis. He must do more than celebrate the fearless leadership of now-retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who seemed to be the only hand-on-deck at the start of the spill who knew port from starboard.

What he needs to do is offer, in a national address, three basic proposals -- and then demand action from Congress before the August recess.

First, Obama should start twisting arms on the climate bill. Congress has dithered on climate reform for too long, and, as we know, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Although it will take time to wean the U.S. from oil, it is time to start moving in that direction. He has the moral high ground on the issue, which he finally began to exploit yesterday in demanding action on climate change.

Second, Obama should undertake a government-wide assessment of the federal bureaucracy's ability to faithfully execute our laws. The oil spill is only the latest in a cascade of similar regulatory failures. Just substitute "Gulf oil spill" for Toyota recall, Christmas Day bombing plot, aircraft groundings and the Buffalo crash, counterfeit Heparin, and poisoned peppers. The Minerals Management Service is not the only conflicted agency in the federal bureaucracy, nor is it the only regulatory body that is under-staffed.

This is the perfect moment to reinvigorate the bureaucracy's ability to faithfully execute the laws, which involves a broad mix of reorganization, streamlining, and personnel reform. The public wants a government that works. Comprehensive reform is the only way to get it. Obama can easily put the Minerals Management Service at the heart of his proposal, but he must make the case for hiring enough inspectors to faithfully execute the laws across government. There are plenty of cozy relationships that need to be broken, and plenty of broken regulatory agencies that need repair.

Third, Obama should propose a new Hazards Advanced Research Project Agency. Modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and given enough funding to stimulate innovative research, HARPA could take the lead in anticipating technological failures such as the oil spill, while providing an inventory of responses when accidents happen. Obama cannot plug the hole in the Gulf, but he most certainly can plug the hole in the federal government's capacity to take charge.

This Oil Spill Response Act could become one of Obama's great legislative achievements. Instead of folding into the same defensive crouch that led to Jimmy Carter's defeat in the 1980 election, he should take the offense. The oil spill need not be the end of his presidency. It could be the beginning of long-overdue action to make government work.

By Paul Light

 |  June 3, 2010; 6:00 AM ET |  Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Nuclear option for the Recruiter-in-Chief | Next: Peter Orszag: Putting the 'M' back in OMB


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Hi Paul,

This is an excellent article and I agree with everything you have recommended. This is the perfect opportunity for Obama to take control of the situation and advocate for a sustainable energy policy for the United States. Unfortunately, the Republican Party ruined the economy, destroyed the Federal Government's ability to operate effectively and wrote a blank check to the oil companies...the next 3-4 years will be about fixing these problems. It is a massive challenge. I know Obama is up to it.

Posted by: Severus | June 4, 2010 4:46 PM

Paul Light, you are deranged. To think that using this spill to push "Climate-Gate" legislation is what Obama should do is insane! In this weak economy, (and the spill is going to make it worse), you DON'T pile on new energy expenses. Why don't you liberals go build your own country elsewhere and we'll see how long you survive?

Posted by: rachelrwelch | June 4, 2010 1:36 PM

obama is all about his image, and not about the interests of this country -- as he proves daily. You name the issue -- the economy, healthcare, immigration, terrorism, this Gulf disaster -- and his concern is indeed making political hay. His name (or for accuracy's sake, his *names*) will become synonymous with shameless self-promotion and dishonesty, and that will be his legacy.

Posted by: wmpowellfan | June 4, 2010 2:37 AM

Making political hay out of a disaster is morally about the worst thing that a political leader can do, which is why that is exactly what Obama WILL do. Of course, all issues are political to him, so why would we expect any different in this case?

Posted by: firstvarty1979 | June 4, 2010 2:00 AM

Cap and trade has little to do with oil drilling. Half the population doesn't believe in man-made climate change. Obama and Thad Allen have been about as useful as milk glands on a bull for the last 45 days.

Obama is testing the waters to see if it will play in Peoria. He should concentrate on improving the Interior Department. They are the ones that gave BP approval to dismiss doing an environmental impact study.

Salazar is the Czar of Interior. He failed his responsibilities to insure honest inspections and failed to perform environmental impact studies on Deep Oil Drilling. If he was awake this spill wouldn't have happened.

Posted by: alance | June 3, 2010 4:30 PM

Absolutely, we need regulators that regulate, and to stop this nonsense that the free market can do everything.

I notice you didn't mention securing our borders and enforcing laws against illegally interloping into our country. It shouldn't be solely up to the affected states to enforce federal laws.

Posted by: WmarkW | June 3, 2010 1:21 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company