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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

Those who have labeled the BP oil spill as "Obama's Katrina" are wildly off base. The two disasters, and the government's ability to react to them, are radically different. But the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico does reflect perhaps the most glaring weakness of the Obama presidency--and it's one we've been writing about for months.

We are talking about the White House's failure to launch an aggressive effort to clean up the mess it inherited in government agencies from George W. Bush. We have focused primarily on the U.S. Department of Justice. But recent pieces by Joe Klein in Time magazine and Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone show the Obama administration deserves some blame for allowing governmental dysfunction to help lead to environmental disaster in the Gulf Coast.

We have pointed to the Middle District of Alabama, where the wretched Bush appointee Leura Canary remains in the U.S. attorney post, as an example of Obama's slow actions in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Klein says Obama has been similarly slowto clean up the mess in the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is charged with overseeing offshore drilling. Writes Klein:

Obama is not blameless. A month before the spill, he insinuated himself into the "Drill, baby, drill" camp by agreeing to a deal, first proposed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, in which offshore drilling and nuclear power would be added to legislation taxing carbon fuels and promoting alternative energy. There was a certain logic to that. All three forms of energy—fossil, nuclear and alternative—are necessary as the transition to a greener, more efficient economy takes place. But drilling can be defended only if it is closely managed and regulated, and Obama's Interior Department allowed the MMS to marinate in its own stink for 15 months without overhauling it before disaster struck. It was another bit of evidence that Obama, the candidate of change, had overlooked the most important, if least dramatic, change needed after the Bush Administration's wall-to-wall neglect—a renewed commitment to actual governance after an era when the slick and grease of marketing slogans and political posturing had polluted our national life.

Let's ponder this: Obama's Interior Department "allowed the MMS to marinate in its own stink for 15 months without overhauling it before disaster struck." Those are powerful words. And Klein is not the only one firing such charges at the White House.

The headline on Dickinson's story, just out in Rolling Stone, speaks volumes:

The Spill, The Scandal and the President

The inside story of how Obama failed to crack down on the corruption of the Bush years--and let the world's most dangerous oil company get away with murder

The headline is rough, and the story is rougher. Dickinson compares the Obama response to Bush's failure to heed warnings about the 9/11 attacks:

Like the attacks by Al Qaeda, the disaster in the Gulf was preceded by ample warnings--yet the administration had ignored them. Instead of cracking down on MMS, as he had vowed to do even before taking office, Obama left in place many of the top officials who oversaw the agency's culture of corruption. He permitted it to rubber-stamp dangerous drilling operations by BP--a firm with the worst safety record of any oil company--with virtually no environmental safeguards, using industry-friendly regulations drafted during the Bush years. He calibrated his response to the Gulf spill based on flawed and misleading estimates from BP--and then deployed his top aides to lowball the flow rate at a laughable 5,000 barrels a day, long after the best science made clear this catastrophe would eclipse the Exxon Valdez.

Dickinson writes that an even bigger problem could be looming on the horizon. And Ken Salazar, Obama's Interior secretary, doesn't seem to get it:

Most troubling of all, the government has allowed BP to continue deep-sea production at its Atlantis rig--one of the world's largest oil platforms. Capable of drawing 200,000 barrels a day from the seafloor, Atlantis is located only 150 miles off the coast of Louisiana, in waters nearly 2,000 feet deeper than BP drilled at Deepwater Horizon. According to congressional documents, the platform lacks required engineering certification for as much as 90 percent of its subsea components--a flaw that internal BP documents reveal could lead to "catastrophic" errors. In a May 19th letter to Salazar, 26 congressmen called for the rig to be shut down immediately. "We are very concerned," they wrote, "that the tragedy at Deepwater Horizon could foreshadow an accident at BP Atlantis."

Dickinson does not let Salazar, or Obama, off the hook. After all, BP submitted its application for the Deepwater Horizon under Obama, not Bush. In fact, the application came only two months after Obama had taken office. And approval came on April 6, 2009, less than a month after the application had been submitted:

It's tempting to believe that the Gulf spill, like so many disasters inherited by Obama, was the fault of the Texas oilman who preceded him in office. But, though George W. Bush paved the way for the catastrophe, it was Obama who gave BP the green light to drill. "Bush owns eight years of the mess," says Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California. "But after more than a year on the job, Salazar owns it too."

While Bush created a corrupt, criminal mess at MMS, the Obama administration deserves to take its lumps in the blame game, Dickinson writes:

Salazar himself has worked hard to foster the impression that the "prior administration" is to blame for the catastrophe. In reality, though, the Obama administration was fully aware from the outset of the need to correct the lapses at MMS that led directly to the disaster in the Gulf. In fact, Obama specifically nominated Salazar--his "great" and "dear" friend--to force the department to "clean up its act." For too long, Obama declared, Interior has been "seen as an appendage of commercial interests" rather than serving the people. "That's going to change under Ken Salazar."

Salazar claimed that his crackdown at MMS went beyond "codes of ethics." Except that it didn't. Writes Dickinson:

Salazar did little to tamp down on the lawlessness at MMS, beyond referring a few employees for criminal prosecution and ending a Bush-era program that allowed oil companies to make their "royalty" payments--the amount they owe taxpayers for extracting a scarce public resource--not in cash but in crude. And instead of putting the brakes on new offshore drilling, Salazar immediately throttled it up to record levels. Even though he had scrapped the Bush plan, Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease in the Gulf in his first year alone --an all-time high. The aggressive leasing came as no surprise, given Salazar's track record. "This guy has a long, long history of promoting offshore oil drilling--that's his thing," says Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "He's got a highly specific soft spot for offshore oil drilling." As a senator, Salazar not only steered passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened 8 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, he even criticized President Bush for not forcing oil companies to develop existing leases faster.

Attorney General Eric Holder seems to be taking a similar approach in the Justice Department. Just yesterday, we reported that Holder's DOJ is stonewalling on turning over documents related to the political prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. This is almost 17months after Obama took office.

It's possible that Obama inherited a worse mess from his predecessor than any president in American history. Because of that, many of his supporters--including me--tend to cut him some slack. But Klein and Dickinson indicate it is well past time to get a raggedy ship into shape.

Will the Gulf disaster prompt Obama to move aggressively to repair dysfunctional government agencies? Perhaps. But for now, the outlook does not look promising. Writes Dickinson:

"Employees describe being in Interior-–not just MMS, but the other agencies–-as the third Bush term," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. "They're working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?"

Originally posted to RogerShuler on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 08:47 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  He's not God (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marabout40

    Apparently, that's a problem.

    Things are often more difficult in practice than they seem when you're writing about them on the Internet.

    by Orbital Mind Control Lasers on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 08:51:52 AM PDT

    •  but hold him accountable as a man (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tbetz, IL clb, Sunspots

      "Employees describe being in Interior-–not just MMS, but the other agencies–-as the third Bush term," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. "They're working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?

      Obama is a god is a strawman argument.

      Obama promised reform that was not an actual priority in his administration... that's the argument we should be having.

      If cats could blog, they wouldn't.

      by crystal eyes on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:00:38 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm not surprised it seems like Bush's (2+ / 0-)

        3rd term. He made sure his legacy of Big-oil butt-kissing would last well beyond his two terms:

        Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts.

        The transfer of political appointees into permanent federal positions, called "burrowing" by career officials, creates security for those employees, and at least initially will deprive the incoming Obama administration of the chance to install its preferred appointees in some key jobs.

        "John McCain has rounded up and deported his principles." --- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek.

        by marabout40 on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:09:28 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  But who did Obama appoint to manage MMS? (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          JuliaAnn, Sunspots

          certainly not someone equipped to understand and clean up an agency encrusted with toxic Bushies.

          Defending Obama in domains where he needs to change is not doing him any favors.

          Someone who ran on change needs to show more competence in bringing it.

          If cats could blog, they wouldn't.

          by crystal eyes on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:15:18 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  in your "crystal eyes" who would be (0+ / 0-)

            the perfect appointee to manage MMS?

            I remember that while Obama promised us "change," he also said it wasn't going to be easy, it was gonna take time, he would make mistakes, and he would need our help.

            Did you miss those portions of his speech?

            "John McCain has rounded up and deported his principles." --- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek.

            by marabout40 on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:39:24 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  Marabout40: (0+ / 0-)

          Thanks for bringing this up.

          That kind of last-minute "burrowing" almost sounds like criminal activity to me. Perhaps someone with more legal knowledge than me could elaborate.

          But to use the machinery of government to hide incompetent people in key positions . . . well, that almost sounds like a form of honest-services fraud or something.

          I doubt that the Obama DOJ would prosecute it. But what a waste of government funds.

    •  No, the problem is the campaign is over ......... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tbetz, shaharazade, Sunspots

      .... and Obama is the president.  He has to deliver and he can't.  He's a dealmaker surrounded by dealmakers and they can't cut a deal to get them out of this mess.  

    •  But he is the president (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JuliaAnn, tbetz, Sunspots

      and he won the election by a large majority because he offered change, audacity and was going to take on the fierce urgency of now. He is not powerless, he is using his considerable power to fight for the same policies and agenda that the bushies implemented. From the illegal immoral wars, habeaus corpus, to the banksters and the rest of the crisis capitalists who own our government, he is moving forward and not looking back. In fact he has expanded the damage he fights for the unitary presidential power via the courts and preaches the gospel of free market wealth creation at a time when we need regulation. He has not used his power, the bottom up power we the people voted and supported for anything but codifying and expanding the 'squid on humanities face'. The one that 'owns the place'.    

  •  Obama Appointed A Political Hack To Head MMS (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    crystal eyes

    An Enviro lobbyist and former Congressional staffer with ZERO experience in this field.

    At some point, you just can't blame Bush for this crap any longer. Yes, it's a mess, but Obama has done ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to change the culture in DC.

    •  care to provide some evidence of this (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      soms

      statement:

      Obama has done ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to change the culture in DC.

      Seriously. Show us something to back that statement up. Let's have a debate about it.

      Barack Obama has done ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to change the culture in DC. You say that with such ABSOLUTE certainty that I'm sure you'll have no problem backing that up with some fact-based evidence.

      "John McCain has rounded up and deported his principles." --- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek.

      by marabout40 on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 08:58:34 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  BTW, when did an environmental lobbyist (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      soms, Sunspots

      become a "political hack"? One would think that "progressives" would rejoice to see an environmental advocate appointed to be the watchdog of MMS, but no.  I'm beginning to think all these "criticisms" of Obama and his actions thus far have nothing to do with Obama or his actions. I think it says everything about "progressives," though, and I'm beginning to think I want nothing to do with them.

      "John McCain has rounded up and deported his principles." --- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek.

      by marabout40 on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:02:14 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hahaha! Oh Klein and Dickerson (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fumie, webranding, coffejoe

    think 16 months is enough time to clean up at least 10 years of shit, do they? Is that because they have experience doing it? Is that because they've seen it done before? How exactly do they come to this conclusion other than pulling it out of their asses?

    "John McCain has rounded up and deported his principles." --- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek.

    by marabout40 on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 08:54:22 AM PDT

    •  I Think To A Large Extent Bush Is To Blame (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      coffejoe

      for this. I also think Obama should have been on top of this more then it appears he was.

      But with that said James Clyburn had a great comment the other night on MSNBC when a Republican told him to stop blaming Bush. He said, and everybody in our party should use this line:

      I'll stop blaming Bush when you stop pushing his failed policies.

      Ouch ....

      "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

      by webranding on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:15:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  oooh! another quippy comment. that (0+ / 0-)

        just puts everything in perspective doesn't it?

        Perhaps Mr. Clyburn should look at what he's doing - or not doing - "push [bush's] failed policies." and while he's at it, perhaps he would enlighten us as to what specific policies he's referring to.

        "John McCain has rounded up and deported his principles." --- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek.

        by marabout40 on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:47:32 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Poltical backscratching gone amok.... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tbetz, yoduuuh do or do not, Sunspots

    Except it only goes in one direction.

    The GOP are more into backstabbing.

    The Prez has tried to be so amiable, but it is to the detriment of our country.

    "The Public Option = Peace of Mind for all Citizens."      -- R.L.

    by Canaryinthecoalmine on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:03:58 AM PDT

  •  Seriously I do think it's a problem. (4+ / 0-)

    One of Bush's daddy's weak spots was FEMA.

    When Clinton came in he reformed FEMA and all kinds of people talked about how much better it worked.

    We had Al Gore's reinventing gov't thing that seemed to streamline things and make things run better.

    Then we had 8 years of Bush gutting agencies and staffing them with incompetants.

    Obama has not been in office that long and reform takes time but I think he's making a big mistake in his hands off approach to gov't agencies.

    Right now we are at a pivotal time in politics. People rejected the GOP hands off approach in the last election but most of them are still skeptical of the ability of gov't agencies to work.

    I personally don't expect Obama to enact a liberal wish list of issues while in office but if he does not roll up his sleeves and get in there and show the public that gov't agencies CAN protect public health, worker rights and safety, and our enviroment then that makes it much easier for the GOP to tweak their no gov't line a touch and pick up the swing voters.

    •  I Could Talk For Hours About Gore's (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tbetz, yoduuuh do or do not

      Reinventing government. IMHO maybe one of the most positive things that has happened in the last 50 years. It totally changed the way the government bought stuff. Changes in very good ways. Something I don't think 99.9% of the public even is aware of.

      But of course Bush went around it 24/7 with sole source contracts to Haliburton and Brown & Root. And what did that get us, dead American soldiers and billions in over billings.

      "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

      by webranding on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:12:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  You Said What I Think (5+ / 0-)

    I've pondered many of the topic you covered each day when I go for my run. I've thought about it for weeks, but not written a Diary about it for several reasons.

    My take is this. Obama knew when he took the White House that Bush left him any number of problems, but also a few "ticking time bomb" just waiting to go off.

    I've spent a lot of time working in and/or around the Federal government. It is so large it is hard to even grasp. To think that Obama could change everything overnight isn't remotely possible.

    I mean there is some problem waiting to explode at a government agency Obama doesn't even realize is in fact a government agency. The Federal government is that massive.

    But you got to rank order shit.

    It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize maybe the first place you need to look are Departments/Agencies that deal with oil, cause Bush was an oil guy. Maybe MMS since you got a report they were having coke/group sex parties with industry executives.

    I get trying to get the Federal government to change course is like trying to change direction on an Aircraft carrier with a wooden paddle.

    But shouldn't MMS been at the top of the list?

    "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

    by webranding on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 09:06:47 AM PDT

    •  Webbranding (0+ / 0-)

      Thanks for valuable insights from an insider's view.

      I can't even imagine what it must be like to change the culture of something so vast as the federal government.

      But as you state, the MMS might have been a logical place to start, given the Bush/Cheney ties to oil.

      I like to think that Justice would have been another good starting point because of all the attention focused on the USA firings, the Siegelman case, etc.

      An Obama insider probably would make a strong argument that, "Hey, we had to stave off a financial implosion, we were dealing with two wars, and health-care was our No. 1 domestic item."

      I can understand that, but these agencies apparently are in real trouble. From a PR perspective, it can't be good for the White House when Joe Klein and Rolling Stone do pieces like these.

    •  A lot of reform of agencies (0+ / 0-)

      is something that can be done without congresses help, but it is something that would greatly restore the publics trust in Gov't.

      Seriously hearing on the news about the FDA recalling stuff BEFORE people get sick??

      About shutting down a mine BEFORE people die in an explosion??

      About making polluters comply BEFORE residents in their communities get sick??

      Catching financial criminals BEFORE the public gets fleeced?

      I really think it would do a huge service to the liberal cause and toward changing the public mindset about electing democrats.

      •  Here's a Mistake I think (0+ / 0-)

        A renewed congressional effort to build a nationwide, wireless phone and data network for first responders could put lawmakers on a collision course with the same public safety groups they are trying to help.

        An early draft of the Democrats’ new authorization bill, first circulated on Monday, confirms some police and firefighter associations’ greatest fears: that it would be up to a private bidder to construct and manage the interoperable communications channel, with the help of $2 billion in new federal money.

        While supporters say that arrangement would be cheaper and more effective than any alternative, public safety groups are still likely to slam it as a technological tether, while continuing to lobby for the ability to construct and oversee a wireless network of their own.

  •  Lawrence Wilkerson on Cheney (4+ / 0-)

    A more accurate assessment...

    WILKERSON: A book by a political scientist at Gettysburg College, Shirley Anne Warshaw, called The Co-Presidency of Bush and Cheney, documents a lot of what Cheney did to destroy about a half-century or more's regulatory work with regard to oversight of fisheries, forestry, oil, gas, minerals in general. You name it. If it was supervised, if it was overseen, if it was regulated by the federal government, Cheney with his marvellous bureaucratic talent moved in and essentially replaced the people who were in the positions that were central to this regulation, this oversight, with people who were either lobbyists for the industry being regulated or executives from that industry.

    Q: SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] is one of the examples of it.

    WILKERSON: He destroyed the regulatory mechanisms in America.

    Q: Give us some examples.

    WILKERSON: Well, he put—as I recall, he put a 20-year veteran of lobbying for the oil industry into the position overseeing, essentially, the regulation of offshore drilling and that sort of thing, the MMS [Minerals Management Service]. You name it, there's a Cheneyite there. And here's the further genius of the man. Every president since World War II, and before that, too, in different ways, has left his mark on the administration that a incoming president really can't erase very easily. Cheney did this par excellence. I mean, Cheney left, I'm told, somewhere around 1,600-plus people in the administration whom he had converted from being political or he had recruited as civil service. He converted them to civil service if they were political and left them in these positions that are very key to regulation and oversight. And those people will take a year or a year and a half, maybe even two years, for the Obama administration to root out and get rid of. First they've got to identify them, and second they've got to go through the civil service procedures to fire them, which are onerous, arduous, and difficult. So eighteen months to two years to get rid of some of them.

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