06/17/2010 12:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Gulf as President Barack Obama's Bay of Pigs Moment

On the issue of offshore deep water oil drilling, President Barack Obama trusted the oil executives, lobbyists and technical experts who assured him that these drilling activities were safe. He believed that the technology of drilling and spill response was so advanced that deep sea drilling posed little or no risk to the environment. While many pundits have blasted Obama's recent Oval Office speech on the Gulf as vague and weak, I thought it was an excellent speech. It demonstrated the President's commitment to environmental protection and his growing mistrust of special interests. I found it noteworthy that his first crisis speech from the Oval Office focused on an environmental catastrophe. I hope that he also learned a critical lesson about the role of experts in public policy making. It's a lesson that all presidents must learn.

In April 1961, President John F. Kennedy permitted his government to support the doomed invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs, trusting his military experts at the very moment they were manipulating him. His experts assured him that the invasion would not require the active use of American air power, while assuming that if they needed it they could talk JFK into unleashing the big guns. Kennedy refused to bail out the failed mission and accepted the public humiliation associated with that failure. But he also learned a key lesson about the role of experts in complex decision making. A year and a half later during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy demonstrated that he learned his lesson well. If he hadn't, we might not have been around to worry about the recent Gulf oil leak.

During the thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy set in motion a decision making process characterized by the diverse voices of competing experts and mediated by the trusted voice of his own brother Bobby. In addition to learning to mistrust experts, JFK also learned about the power of bureaucracy to dominate routine decision making. As documented by Graham Allison in his classic, The Essence of Decision, Kennedy learned that his directions for setting up the naval blockade were routinely disregarded by naval officers, who insisted on conducting the blockade by the book--according to standard naval procedures. JFK found that he had to be in direct communication with the ships carrying out the blockade in order to ensure that his orders were followed.

I found evidence in President Obama's Oval Office address that he clearly understands the causes and impacts of the Gulf Oil Crisis. He knows he has been misled by experts:

"A few months ago, I approved a proposal to consider new, limited offshore drilling under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe, that the proper technology would be in place and the necessary precautions would be taken. That obviously was not the case in the Deepwater Horizon rig, and I want to know why... And so I've established a national commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place. Already I've issued a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling."

The president also knows that the Minerals Management Service, the agency that was supposed to assure that this technology was adequate, has been hopelessly compromised:

"Over the last decade, this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility, a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves. At this agency, industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Oil companies showered regulators with gifts and favors and were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections and write their own regulations."

However, as he acknowledged in his talk, it is not just the industry that is to blame. Our political leaders have lacked the courage to focus on the transition away from fossil fuels, and the public has found it easier to ignore this issue than face it. Looking back at the nearly four decades of on-and-off American energy "crises" the president concluded that:

"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked, not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."

While the pundits and media have declared it open season on President Obama, I think the public has a clear sense of how tough the president's job has been. He inherited two wars, the Great Recession, the urgent need for health care reform, and now he faces the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Presidencies are formed in great crises, and presidents become great when they learn from the mistakes they make at the start of their presidencies. Since there is no job quite like President of the United States, all presidencies require a lot of on the job training. Obama, who entered office without much national and managerial experience, is no exception to this rule. However, unlike his predecessor, he is a very quick study. Now he's had his "Bay of Pigs moment." Let's see how he does during the "missile crisis" still to come.