The BP Nightmare: What Can Obama Do?

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In the wake of BP’s hugely disappointing “top kill” failure in the Gulf, the Obama administration is jacking up the tough talk. Speaking in the Rose Garden today, the president himself vowed to support an independent commission’s effort “to follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favor.” And Attorney General Eric Holder is visiting the region to meet with top federal prosecutors. As the WSJ notes, this puts the Obama administration in the rather awkward position of trying to work with BP to contain the spill at the same time it seemingly explores criminal charges against the company.

But given the enormous and arcane technical challenges of solving this problem, it’s also probably the best Obama can offer us. The demands that he “do more” to stop the spill are increasing, but generally with few specifics. Many complaints seem to be asking for more symbolic demonstrations of outrage by Obama. (He needs to be more angry! He needs to spend more time in Louisiana! What is he doing sleeping and eating while this is happening!)

But, really, what’s the point? A president’s leadership power is valuable in the service of rallying the public around a difficult cause or sacrifice–or even lifting national morale in an intangible way to help, say, lift consumer confidence and boost the economy. It doesn’t make much sense for a president to serve as a vessel for our nonspecific national frustrations about a terrible situation that defies easy solutions.

And anyway, with public opinion trending like this, it’s a safe bet that the White House is doing everything it can to make sure that gusher gets plugged. As if Malia wasn’t enough.

Update: Greg Sargent makes a similar point, and helpfully links to some of the worst offenders.