The Magazine

Arrogance in the Executive

What the oil spill has revealed about the Obama presidency.

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By ANDREW B. WILSON
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Real leadership means never having to say you’re the boss. There is no surer sign of weakness and insecurity than the repeated assertion of your own power and authority. This truth has somehow eluded Barack Obama. Hence the unending (and off-putting) self-puffery in his recent presidential press conference.

Again and again, the president felt obliged to remind us of the centrality of his own position in responding to the Gulf oil spill, as if this would counteract the horrible pictures of thousands of gallons of oil gushing out of the ocean floor. Quoth the president:

The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort. .  .  .

Make no mistake: BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance. .  .  .

There has never been a point during this crisis in which this administration, up and down the line, in all these agencies, hasn’t understood that this was my top priority. .  .  .

It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down.

All of this is wildly over the top. No one blames Barack Obama for the Gulf oil spill. No one is asking him to swim down and plug the hole. Nevertheless, his response to the crisis is revealing. It points to several deeply troubling aspects of the Obama presidency. 

Most striking is his unbounded faith in government—and an equally unbounded faith in his own abilities as a self-proclaimed transformational leader. Then there is his contempt (not too strong a word, in my judgment) for the private sector. Government, he seems to think, is a supermagnet for supersmart idealists from academia, while the business world is populated by dullards motivated by a crass and shortsighted desire for profit.

Obama apparently believes that government should be able to stop all man-made disasters before they happen. “As we continue our response effort,” he said, “we’re also moving quickly on steps to ensure that a catastrophe like this never happens again.” In fact, neither he nor anyone else can “ensure” any such outcome, unless he proposes to call an end to all of the progress that has been made since the beginning of the industrial revolution, if not before.

There is no way to guarantee that accidents will not happen as long as people are people, and as long as some of the most creative and imaginative among us continue to push the envelope in engineering and scientific disciplines—whether it is human flight, the exploration of space, hunting for oil in deep water, the development of new forms of energy, or the construction of awe-inspiring bridges or buildings.

My favorite observation on engineering comes from Frank E. Mosier, formerly a top executive at Standard Oil, because it recognizes both the possibility of greatness and the impossibility of perfection. In a commencement address at the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering in 1989, Mosier said, “All engineering is glorified failure analysis, and great feats of engineering are nothing more than successful bets that your ideas will be more economical or efficient or beautiful without being disastrous.”

It is a pity the same kind of failure analysis—subjecting every assumption to rigorous testing and scrutinizing all the ways in which a grand design might fail to deliver the desired result—is rarely if ever applied to major social legislation. The passage of the hastily conceived and sloppily written health care bill ranks as an obvious example.

The blowout in the Gulf occurred in “ultra deep water.” Drilling for oil at a depth of a mile or so below the surface became economically feasible about a decade ago, when the price of oil shot up above $20 a barrel. Still, it was a considerable technical challenge to go from deepwater drilling (depths of about 1,000 feet) to ultra deep (5,000 feet).

Until the explosion on April 20 that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig, oil companies had experienced only one significant spill in drilling hundreds of wells in the Gulf over a period of more than 60 years, including many in ultra deep water. It has taken just one disaster to call an exceptionally good safety record into question. After the eventual postmortem, we may decide that wisdom dictates a long moratorium on ultra deep water drilling. Or not. It may be possible to learn quickly from whatever mistakes were made in this instance and move on.

In his analysis of the situation, Obama has been quick to blame this disaster on the supposed sins of free enterprise and private companies seeking private gain, the public be damned. Without citing any evidence of wrongdoing, he talked about the “oil industry’s cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship with government regulators” and how that has meant “little or no regulation at all.” Clearly, it does not occur to him that the oil companies have a powerful motive to self-regulate—in light of the physical threat to their own workers and the huge potential damage to the long-term viability of their companies that awaits anything less than an exceptional safety performance.

In thinking so poorly of business and business people, it may be only natural for Obama to look upon himself and his friends from academia as being​—well—a cut above the ordinary (and quite possibly corrupt) people doing actuarial work for insurance companies, or toiling in the engineering departments of companies like BP. This holier-than-thou, smarter-than-everyone-else ivory tower elitism has unfortunately become a defining element of the Obama presidency.

Perhaps because it was so far-fetched—so bizarre even—few of the reporters covering the May 27 press conference picked up on the fact that Obama seemed to favor the idea of the federal government going into the business of marshalling the technology needed to fix the oil industry’s mistakes. “For now,” he disconsolately noted, “BP has the best technology, along with the other oil companies, when it comes to actually capping the well down there.” But in the future, he said, it might make sense for the government to take direct charge of such operations. 

Twice he lauded the contribution that Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, could make to recovery efforts in the Gulf. Never mind that Chu is known for his research in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. These are the president’s exact words: Chu “brought together a team, basically a brain trust, of some of the smartest folks we have at the National Labs and in academia to essentially serve as an oversight board with BP engineers and scientists in making calculations about how much mud could you pour down, how fast, without risking potentially the whole thing blowing.”

In the mind of this president, there seems to be nothing that government cannot do.

Andrew B. Wilson is a writer and business consultant.


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