It took President Obama 16 days after the arrest of Henry Louis Gates to sit down with him and Sergeant Crowley -- the arresting cop -- for their famous beer summit. But it's taken 55 days since the oil spill for him to sit down with the American people.
That moment is happening tonight, and we pretty much know what we're going to get. A carefully constructed demonstration of presidential strength and leadership. A demand that BP escrow $20 billion oil-soaked clams, the largest security deposit in the history of capitalism. A tightly calibrated mix of compassion and anger - and of course, Hope.
After all, the president has been resoundingly criticized for being too passionless, too remote, too Spockian. He knows what the stakes are.
But if that's all we get that's not enough. This - is first address from the Oval Office - is an occasion for the president to talk with the American people about a problem that's even deeper than the Deepwater Horizon well. He should seize the tragedy and speak firmly and clearly about the systemic failure of government to keep up with the speed, complexity and deviousness of the sectors it's supposed to regulate.
So while we mourn the destruction of the Gulf's fragile ecosystem, as we recognize the interdependencies of all the different life forms that inhabit the environment, it's also time to focus on the ravaged ecosystem that's responsible for the catastrophe.
A prosperous and just 21st century capitalism requires a healthy ecosystem that nurtures the interdependence of the government and the private sector. It's a push/pull that can be (and should be) messy and contentious, but at its best arrives at balance that enables the economy to grow, while citizens remain protected from the depredations of uninhibited greed.
But far from that system operating at its best, we've seen it at its worst. Rather than a healthy interdependence between the public and private worlds, we've lived through an abject surrender of government's obligations. We've let the fox not only guard the chicken-coop, but write the regulations governing coop security. The situation is so desperately out-of-balance that the government has to rely totally on BP for something as fundamental as measuring the extent of the spill.
There are, as usual, a clutch of reasons for this. Regulatory laxness and coziness between regulators and the industries they are supposed to police is a massive problem, one that NGOs and watchdog groups have been screaming about for years. Always a problem, that slack regulatory apparatus has become far more dangerous because of the extraordinary explosion of complexity that underlies so much private sector activity.
Whether oil drilling or financial leveraging, these are fantastically involved superstructures that are beyond the current penetrative ability of regulators. What makes us even more vulnerable is that the heavily regulated companies are masters of spin, always assuring us that they have everything under control, that there are capable, redundant systems in place and the government should keep its mitts off them and let the free market work. Even President Obama conceded he was "wrong" and shouldn't have accepted the notion that "the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst case scenarios."
But the failure of the Minerals Management Agency in the Gulf Disaster is only the most recent example - and an extraordinarily destructive and painful object lesson - in the breakdown of the public/private ecosystem. We're still paying the price for the SEC's breathless blindness at the risk levels that the major financial services companies were exposed to - and their failure to recognize the Madoff scam despite being pointed by the scene of the crime by Harry Markopolos.
We've witnessed the Defense Department surrendering its authority to Blackwater, and then leaving them unsupervised, letting them act as a government unto themselves. And just this week, L-3 the giant Defense Contractor, was benched by the Defense Department because their employees were reading government emails. How could this have happened? Because we've outsourced so much that we even allow contractors to government databases.
This regulatory surrender and the collapse of the public/private ecosystem is a serious national crisis. The second half of Obama's speech - once he demonstrates how much he cares and that he's going to drive BP to the wall - should be dedicated to recognizing the problem and setting forward a path to re-righting the regulatory balance.
We've allowed ourselves to be focused on gestural issues like Obama's emotional state of connectedness, whether he's angry enough. It's true that he's not successfully communicated a spirit of engaged passion. It's also true that as a reaction he's displayed the wrong kind of anger - anger at the media, which makes him seem petulant and selfish as Maureen Dowd has pointed out. What we don't need is an Obama who turns inward and self-pitying.
Lately, Obama seems to have lost his voice. His speeches have decayed into cliché and platitudes, he talks about the "folks" in the Gulf with faux populism that actually makes him seem more elitist and out-of-touch. Obama surged into office as a man who could both inspire and deal on a conceptual and structural level with the problems we face as a nation. Tonight is an opportunity for him to do both. The Gulf crisis reminds us that we need government in our lives; we need President Obama to show us how to bring government back into our lives with sensitivity and balance. It's doable. In fact, it will be easier to restore the ecosystem in Washington than in Louisiana.
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