05/31/2010 12:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama's 1979

History helps us study the past so we can improve on the future. For the last couple of weeks Thomas Friedman in the NYT's has been writing about Obama's handling of the BP Spill. In Friedman's May 18th article "Obama and the Oil Spill," he describes the BP Spill as President Obama's 9/11. Friedman's point is that like 9/11, the BP Spill is an opportunity to define national policy.

While this may be true, it is also true that Bush was front and center at the 9/11 site with the firemen. My takeaway is simple: People trump ecology. The ultimate remediation program will take at least 30 years. Think I'm overestimating? The Valdez Spill is still not solved after 21 years! The President needs to do something NOW for the victims of the BP Spill. My two best actions are:

We need a Fund for the Gulf. We need to start now to compensate and help the fishermen of the Gulf retrain and recover their lives. If we don't compensate first and answer liability later, the people of the Gulf will lose; big time.

Medical Monitoring Now. Just like 9/11, the exposed citizens and rescue workers are having health problems. The Public Health Service needs to increase medical monitoring and health services for the area (e.g., clinics, special services). The number of people sick from the oil spill will only increase.

Both of these actions are based on what we learned from 9/11. Neither interferes with any remediation efforts BP has underway and both quickly demonstrate that President Obama and Congress understand the real plight of the victims. While this may be The President's 9/11, I think there is a more appropriate historical reference: The year 1979 (see Table). Carter was President. The country was in economic turmoil with excessive interest rates and long oil lines. Reagan conservatism was around the corner and Three Mile Island (TMI) occurred. Carter addressed the Nation with what Bob Bennett (R-UT) and others called Carter's "malaise" speech. The speech temporarily bumped up Carter's polls but was savaged in the press and ultimately led to his defeat.


In 1979, President Carter intellectualized our pain and talked, correctly, about the importance of energy conservation and gave his grand "malaise" speech. President Obama needs to wear his anger on his shirt, if not for himself, for the rest of the country. FDR's fireside chats were not about solving the problem; they were about letting the public know he understood.

Remediation, new regulations, new enforcement, and even a new energy policy are for the future. The President needs to demonstrate action NOW that focuses on people or else inaction will be the "malaise" speech.