Political Theater, Melodrama, and the BP Investigation

Stephen Blackwell :: Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010 12:45 pm

By the time Barack Obama was sworn in in January 2009, he had already introduced several initiatives that would define his presidency, namely the public healthcare option, the shuttering of Guantanamo Bay, and an economic stimulus package powerful enough to galvanize our wilting economy.

The public healthcare option proved to be a political non-starter, closing Guantanamo Bay proved to be a political non-starter, rampant fear of a double-dip recession has persisted alongside a 9.9% unemployment rate, and while campaigning, he accidentally created the Tea Party. (Hey, he’s the one who said, “It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” — Glenn Beck just gave them a body.)

One thing that wasn’t on the president’s mind in January 2009 was an apocalyptic oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico, the result of lax regulation coupled with the general incompetence of a foreign corporation. The crisis will endure as one of his great presidential-defining moments, certainly the greatest of his second year, if not his first term. This totally sucks for Barack Obama. And the BP prosecutions won’t curry public favor for him, especially if no one goes to jail.

As reported in Politico’s aptly titled “BP Execs Probably Won’t See Slammer”, the brass at BP won’t see any jail time from their disastrous mistakes. It’s a gambit designed to make Obama seem tough on Big Oil, even though he, as a policy, encouraged off-shore drilling. Drilling policy should be as simple as Bob Herbert’s statement in his op-ed piece yesterday: “If an oil well is too far beneath the sea to be plugged when something goes wrong, it’s too deep to be drilled in the first place.” Fat chance. Furthermore, if the crisis occurred under a McCain/Palin administration, Dems would be calling for McCain’s impeachment.

BP is no stranger to fines. But the company had $230 billion in operating revenue in 2009. Sure, after the criminal investigation began, the company lost $75 billion in market value, which is probably the largest hit they’ll take. Whatever fine the U.S. presents BP will be paid in a single wire transfer, while plumes of oil will continue to navigate the sea or lap up on shores for who knows how long.

The criminal investigation is Nixon-esque macho posturing. I can’t think of a better example of “politics as usual,” which, last I checked, was one of the big bogeymen Obama had promised to rid us of.