JONATHAN CHAIT JUNE 3, 2010
Ridiculous as it may be that the press corps is going to spend every day demanding why President Obama hasn't plugged the oil spill in the Gulf, or demanding evidence that he is actually angry, that is the reality the White House faces. The only way out of the trap is to move the debate to a place where he can actually do something. Yesterday, Obama reiterated his call to eliminate tax breaks for oil companies, and to divert that money into clean energy. And now it looks like the Democrats really plan to bring an energy bill up:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) alerted Senate committee chairmen Thursday that he plans to move comprehensive energy legislation in July.
Reid asked the chairmen to recommend legislation to deal with the Gulf oil spill before July 4 so that leaders can include those ideas in the comprehensive energy package....
“Among the actions I think we need to explore are ensuring that the oil companies’ are held accountable for their actions and the damages caused by their operations,” Reid wrote.
Reid suggested changing the law to “ensure swift and fair compensation of people and communities for their oil pollution-related losses.”
The law now limits oil companies’ liability for spills to $75 million. Reid has voiced support for eliminating the cap altogether, noting the damage caused by Deepwater Horizon accident was estimated last month to reach $14 billion.
Reid has proposed that his chairmen consider changes in “criminal and civil penalty structures.”
He also urged his chairmen to “make sure that effective federal safety standards are in place and effectively enforced.”
The BP issue is a microcosm of Obama's political challenge. If the debate is framed as, here are problems in the world, what has Obama done to solve them?, then he's going to lose. He doesn't have that kind of power. But if the issue is framed as a debate between Obama and the Republicans, where he has a proposal to help matters and they oppose it, then he can win. (He can also win if Republicans endorse his plans.)
In many ways, the issue resembles the financial regulation debate. Republicans were hammering Obama for being too close to Wall Street, when the reality was that he supported much tougher regulations on Wall Street than they did. The same thing has happened on oil. Obama has been taking a beating for failing to be tough on an oil company. But Obama is happy to eliminate special tax breaks for oil, and to toughen regulations on offshore drilling. It's Republicans who oppose that stuff. So why not force them to either vote to protect big oil or hand Obama a policy win?