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Flowing with the tide

I agree with virtually everyone out there who’s complaining on camera and in print that our response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been just terrible. Except that by “our” I don’t mean the government’s or the country’s but ours — the media’s. Fareed Zakaria writes.

india Updated: Jun 14, 2010 22:48 IST

I agree with virtually everyone out there who’s complaining on camera and in print that our response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been just terrible. Except that by “our” I don’t mean the government’s or the country’s but ours — the media’s. Reporting on a massive technological breakdown that is having huge environmental consequences, our focus over the last week has been on whether the president is offering enough public display of emotion?

This demand for a show of presidential fury is not coming from a few obscure people. The New York Times columnists want to see Obama angry; the filmmaker Spike Lee is demanding that the president “go off”; Democratic strategist James Carville wants “rage.” Whole cable shows have been devoted to the question. One Fox anchorwoman complained about what Obama was wearing when he visited the Gulf Coast. Reflecting the media frenzy, The Today show’s Matt Lauer informed the president that his critics were saying, “This is not the time to meet with experts and advisers, this is the time to…kick some butt.”

Have we gone mad? We face monumental engineering challenges: to plug a hole in the deep sea, separate oil from water, clean up the coastline, and restore the gulf. But let’s forget about talking to experts and seeking technical solutions. That’s for nerds. Let’s put on battle fatigues and kick some butt. Commentators have been begging for some symbol of Obama’s resolve, as when George W. Bush stood at the World Trade Center site after 9/11 and promised revenge for the attacks. If the president were to invade another country, would that show he cared?

The fact is that the federal government has a limited capacity to “plug the damn hole,” as Obama reportedly said in his best effort to muster up some anger. When Admiral Thad Allen was urged at a press conference to push BP, the oil company responsible for the spill, out of the way, he responded with a question: “[And] replace them with what?... To work down there you need remotely operated vehicles; you need to do very technical work at 5,000 feet. You need equipment and expertise that’s not generally within the… federal government in terms of competency, capability, or capacity.”

The government can help protect and clean the coastline and coastal waters. And it has deployed people in force — 17,500 National Guardsmen, plus 20,000 other people and 1,900 boats that are helping in the effort. It’s laid out 4.3 million feet of boom to protect the coastline, all of which adds up to the largest response to an environmental disaster in American history. What else should the government do? Calls for more government action are coming from the most unlikely quarters. Carville’s wife, Mary Matalin, argues that the cleanup is very much the federal government’s responsibility. Yet in response to the only comparable US oil disaster in recent history, the Exxon Valdez spill, the George H.W. Bush administration, for which she worked, specifically denied that the federal government bore any responsibility for the cleanup. In fact, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner declared that government involvement would be “counterproductive.” Conservatives who have long urged limits on the federal government are now suddenly discovering their inner FDRs.

To read and watch the coverage of the Exxon Valdez is to be transported back to a different time. There was no effort to implicate Bush in the accident, few calls for him to emote more, no great clamour that he magically “do something” to get the awful images off the television screen. In fact, he never travelled to see the oil spill. This time the president has cancelled a trip to Asia, has held more meetings on this topic than on any other since the Af-Pak review, and speaks almost exclusively about this tragedy. Government officials hold briefings on the topic daily, even when these are simply designed to convey the impression of action. It is government as theatre.

Meanwhile, the unemployment numbers are looking grim, the prospect of contagion from the European debt crisis grows, our allies in Asia are disheartened, the Taliban remains on the offensive, and tensions with Iran and North Korea loom. These are issues on which the federal government has specific and unique responsibilities. But what the hell. The president of the United States has now trash-talked against the CEO of BP, is wearing more casual clothes, and has announced that he intends to “kick ass.” Thank goodness for the free press!

Fareed Zakaria is the Editor of Newsweek and the author of The Post-American World. The views expressed by the author are personal.