My fellow Americans: Events of the past 55 days have taught me some valuable lessons about leadership, and I’d like to share those with you tonight.
When the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up and spawned a terrible oil spill on April 20, my administration’s response was conditioned by decades of liberal and leftist thinking about business and government.
My background in academia and community activism had never exposed me to the basics of making business decisions or to the fundamentals of a market economy. To the contrary, my friends on the left and I tended to see businessmen, doctors, bankers – pretty much anyone who made a profit – as selfish creeps. “There comes a point when you’ve made enough money,” I scolded, when urging passage of a financial reform bill.
So when the oil spill became a national story, our instinct was to bash the company. “I am angry and frustrated that BP has been unable to stop the leak,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar complained. “We’re 33 days in … and deadline after deadline has been missed.” Salazar seemed to believe that BP, which was losing millions of dollars a day, had lost half its market capitalization since April, and was potentially facing ruin if the spill could not be contained, somehow lacked a sense of urgency. “We’re keeping our boot on the neck of BP,” Salazar assured members of Congress.
Going beyond rhetorical overkill, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department had opened a criminal probe into the oil spill – though without offering a shred of evidence that any laws had been broken.
I piled on, offering that I would have fired Tony Hayward if he had been working for me, and allowing as how I was studying whose derriere to kick. And this leads me to the other problem with our approach.
Because my party and I have a quasi-religious belief in the power of government, I rushed to position myself as the responsible party in this crisis. “I’m the president and the buck stops with me,” I intoned. “It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down. I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis.”
That was foolish. Just as Jimmy Carter permitted the Iranian regime to take his presidency hostage by making the release of our diplomats his overriding, even obsessive concern, I have permitted this oil spill to swallow my presidency. In truth, I have no idea how to stop the oil spill (as I mentioned to Gulf coast residents) and I should have been more humble about what government can and cannot do.
We certainly can make a terrible situation worse – and I’ve become convinced that the arbitrary six-month moratorium on new deep-water drilling will further damage the already reeling economies of the Gulf states and could result in the loss of 20,000 oil industry jobs in addition to the losses being suffered in the fishing and tourism industries.
By demonizing BP and searching for scalps to display in this crisis, I’ve shown poor leadership. I regret that now. Here is the truth: Our economy cannot function without fossil fuels – not now and not for the near future (wind, solar, and geothermal fantasies notwithstanding). There is nothing immoral about companies that extract the coal, oil and gas from the earth – no more than those of us who enjoy air conditioning, computers, cars and airplanes are immoral for using those fuels. Perhaps we’ve all learned now that we must take another look at ANWR and shallower waters. Environmentalists did us no favors by agitating for bans on drilling in more accessible sites. At least if a spill happens there, it can be dealt with.
But most of all, we must, as grown-ups, recognize that sometimes terrible things happen and there is no one to blame. The search for villains is unbecoming a mature people. My administration will drop the criminal probe. We will abandon the paradoxical posture of saying that we are responsible for the response to the spill yet at the same time hurling thunderbolts at BP. Every government asset that can be mobilized to help with this mess will be made available. Our job is ensuring that the more than 12 government agencies cooperating to mitigate the damage (including OSHA, the Coast Guard, EPA, FEMA, NOAA, Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey) will not impede one another or BP.
I won the confidence of many voters by showing that I didn’t lose my head in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008. In response to the Gulf spill, I forgot that. I’ve tried bullying, boasting, threatening and emoting. I now understand that the best course is one I’ve never considered for myself or my political philosophy: modesty.