Late to the Party: Obama, like Bush, Stays Away from Trouble

From: Unsilent Generation

During the blitz of World War II, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill went into the streets of London to stand with his people against the Nazis. But nowadays, our leaders are mostly absent in times of travail. After 9/11, George W. Bush took three full days to make it to New York, waiting until the coast was clear before claiming his photo-op with the firefighters and cops and rescue workers at Ground Zero. And when Katrina devastated New Orleans, Bush opted for his famous flyover, viewing the suffering from the comfort of Airforce One at 2,500 feet. 

  When it came to the Louisiana oil spill,Obama didn’t do any better, waiting nearly two weeks before making a literally meaningless photo op to the Louisiana waterfront,where he  stood on a dock in front of a Coast Guard boat.

As we now know, the federal government did not monitor,let alone regulate, its own leases in the Gulf. It let BP run out one horror show after another–with leaks,fires,improper and dangerous industrial behavior. while it literally twiddled its thumbs. (The Obama administration even let BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig start drilling without requiring any emergency plan in the event of a spill.)

BP's Deepwater Horizon burnsBP's Deepwater Horizon burns

And even now,with the situation in the Gulf completely out of control, all the liberals can do is vent their spleen against Glenn Beck and the other right wing talk show hosts, whilst waiting for a shift in the wind.

 You might have thought Obama would have learned something after the Appalachian coal disaster, just weeks earlier. There, it seemed  the president just couldn’t find the time to take a puddle jumper down to Massey Coal’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia  to comfort the families of those who were still down underground suffering an unknown fate in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years. Nor did Michelle Obama or even Joe Biden, who is touted as the the administration’s liaison to working-class whites, make that trip out of D.C.

The governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, was on hand as several dangerous but futile rescue attempts were undertaken, but his state is such a pawn in the hands of the coal industry that it was hard to take him seriously. At least he did take the step of appointing Davitt McAteer, a longtime reformer who headed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration under Clinton, to oversee an independent investigation into the disaster. As I wrote earlier, McAteer, who headed a similar investigation after the 2006 Sago disaster killed 12 miners, is without question the best man for this job. But his work will only have meaning if the government implements–and enforces–the safety improvements he recommends.

Obama, too, has promised launch an investigation into the causes of the mine explosion. But there already have been investigations into Massey Energy’s violation of federal safety laws. This was an especially dreadful disaster because the U.S. government, which had been equipped with mine safety laws at the insistance of  reformers, wouldn’t adequately enforce them, allowing Massey to drag its feet

and rack up violations until the inevitable happened. That mine was just waiting to blow up, and the feds effectively stood by and permitted a greedy company to put profits ahead of its workers’ lives.

Instead of an investigation, Obama ought to call a federal grand jury to weigh criminal penalties against the owners and top officers of the company. And instead of just going to their collective funeral, he ought to have taken the time to personally visit the place where 29 men died when it mattered, when there were still desperate rescue efforts underway, because the government-–including his own administration, as well as his predecessor’s-–had clearly failed to do its job.

Obama, like Bush before him, should take a lesson from what Lyndon Johnson did in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Betsy back in 1965–as described in this brief passage from the Louisiana Weekly:

On September 10, 1965, the day after Hurricane Betsy plowed through southeastern Louisiana, President Lyndon Johnson flew to New Orleans.  He went to the people, to shelters where evacuees were gathered, to neighborhoods all over the city.  There was no electricity and, so that people could see and hear him at one shelter, he took a flashlight,  shined it into his face and said into a megaphone, “My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson.  I am your president.  I am here to make sure you have the help you need.”

ThisCantBeHappening guest columnist James Ridgeway is Senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones. For 30 years he was Washington correspondent for the Village Voice.