Obama discovers foxes in the henhouse

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; 10:33 AM

President Obama now says the federal government is part of the problem.

Trying to insulate himself from the political effects of the gulf oil spill, Obama said there has been "a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill."

And, uh, who was in charge of that agency for the 15 months before the disaster?

It's a constructive move for the president to acknowledge that lax federal regulation contributed to the BP debacle. But like the press, he didn't react until after the offshore explosion that now threatens America's coastline.

Now he decides there's such an inherent conflict of interest in the Minerals Management Agency that it has to be split in two? Better late than never, but it's not like the problem wasn't glaringly obvious.

The New York Times reported the other day that the MMS allowed BP and other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without getting required permits from another agency. And how did the Obama administration deal with this report? The spokeswoman wouldn't comment! This, from the guy who promised the most transparent administration in history?

The Times also quoted current and former MMS scientists as saying they were regularly overruled by managers or pressured to change their findings on the safety and environmental impact of drilling. The no-comment spokeswoman's response was to blame the Bush administration and say the Obamaites have been trying to change that.

Suppressing dissident scientists was a recurring issue in the Bush years, but if Obama is talking about a cozy relationship, it seems the problem didn't end on Jan. 20, 2009.

It almost never fails that when a disaster occurs -- environmental, workplace, financial, you name it -- we learn that there were honest civil servants calling attention to the problem but ignored or marginalized by their bosses.

Is there a single Washington agency that was found to have done its job well in recent years? The SEC was asleep at the switch during the Bernie Madoff swindle and other financial scams (perhaps because some staffers were busy watching porn). The banking agencies let the big Wall Street firms flood the market with junk loans, shaky derivatives and other useless paper. NHTSA was horribly slow in cracking down on Toyota acceleration problems. The Mine Safety and Health Administration couldn't enforce its own citations before the explosion that killed more than two dozen at Massey Energy's West Virginia mine. And we all remember FEMA in New Orleans.

As Casey Stengel famously said in 1962, can't anybody here play this game?

Democrats in particular love to pass laws to regulate misconduct. Republicans tend to name industry-friendly types who came from the companies they are charged with regulating. But neither party has done a good job of managing the bureaucracy. And Obama, like the press corps that too often ignores this important turf, now recognizes he is late to the game.

To wit: "The federal agency responsible for ensuring that the Deepwater Horizon was operating safely before it exploded last month fell well short of its own policy that the rig be inspected at least once per month, an Associated Press investigation shows. In fact, the agency's inspection frequency on the Deepwater Horizon fell dramatically over the past five years."

And -- hey, look at this, first broken by The Washington Post:

"The top Interior Department official who oversees offshore oil and gas drilling for the Minerals Management Service will retire on May 31.

"Chris Oynes, who oversaw oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico for 12 years before being promoted in 2007 to associate director for offshore energy and minerals management, informed colleagues in an e-mail that he will step down. He has come under fire from former MMS officials for being too close to the industry he regulated."

Doesn't sound voluntary to me.

Ross Douthat makes a striking observation:

"If a government conspicuously fails to prevent a terrorist attack or a real estate bubble, then obviously it needs to be given more powers to prevent the next one, or the one after that.

"The C.I.A. and F.B.I. didn't stop 9/11, so now we have the Department of Homeland Security. Decades of government subsidies for homebuyers helped create the housing crash, so now the government is subsidizing the auto industry, the green-energy industry, the health care sector. . . .

"Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn't matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it."

Case in point: "President Obama will establish an independent commission to investigate the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."

A bigger energy regulatory agency can't be far behind -- though the history of lax oversight would suggest the need for a far more aggressive agency.

Bipartisan breakout?

What happens when the two parties, however briefly, actually cooperate? It's not good news for the Dems, says Slate's John Dickerson:

"There was a time when administration officials made great effort to show that they were working on a bipartisan basis. His commitment to bipartisanship was part of what voters liked about Obama. Even when Republicans said they would not vote for legislation, White House officials worked hard to show that Republican ideas had been incorporated into it. In the original stimulus package, for example, the administration agreed to a $70 billion adjustment to the Alternative Minimum Tax that did little to stimulate the economy but which was favored by Republicans.

"Now it appears there will be actual bipartisanship. On financial regulatory reform, several Republicans have been working with Democrats to shape the bill. Republicans will almost certainly vote for the bill, and it will pass. Meanwhile, Kagan has only been through her preliminary meetings with senators, but some Republicans (Susan Collins and Scott Brown, to name two) already sound favorably disposed to her.

"This does not suggest a new era in Washington or a thaw, but the timing of these new blips of bipartisanship is a bit inconvenient politically for Democrats. Limiting the expected losses in the 2010 elections requires painting Republicans as blindly obstructionist. Depicting them as merely meddlesome with bad ideas won't do. It doesn't inspire people enough to get out to vote."

On the other hand, it might help the country, no?

2012 Watch

It's no secret that former Bush and McCain adviser Mark McKinnon isn't wild about the current GOP presidential field. Now he seems to be falling for South Dakota Sen. Jon Thune and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels:

"Let's face it, Romney is old news. Been there, done that and passed already. He's going to have a hell of time explaining to the GOP base how his Massachusetts health care plan is different than Obama's. And Pawlenty just isn't getting any firm footing. His candidacy, at this stage, is not seen as viable. He tacked rightward out of the chute and made himself look like this cycle's Mitt Romney flip-flopper, prostrating himself before the right wing of the party -- even though it was his independent, reform-minded approach that made him an interesting prospect in the first place.

"Enter Thune and Daniels. They are the fresh faces. The new GOP 'It Boys' who, despite long odds, are starting to attract the smart money."

But one non-boy could be standing in their way, and at the Atlantic, conservative Tony Lee makes the case for her genius:

"I went to Palin's speech in Washington, D.C. on Friday, where she spoke at a breakfast hosted by The Susan B. Anthony List, an extremely influential pro-life organization.

"Nowhere did I see a caricature of a bumbling dolt just going through the motions. What I did hear was substance. Warmth. Humor. Unapologetic feistiness. And an optimistic belief in conservative values and principles. And what I saw was the makings of a potentially transcendent and transformational figure not only for the conservative movement but for American politics.

"I don't know if Palin wants to or intends to run for president. And though her speech was delivered to those who would most likely comprise her base if she chose to run, this speech - perhaps more than any of her others - showcased some themes for a potential campaign against Democrats, liberals, and President Obama that would be more than formidable and could possibly attract a fair number of independent voters as well. It definitely struck me as a rough draft of something larger down the road. . . .

"Palin finds glee in attacking liberals. Their lifestyles. The cars they drive. Their highbrow ways. And she finds joy when describing herself as an Annie Oakley or a redneck. This is when she often seems to be most on top of her game."

But stirring rhetoric has never been Palin's problem; demonstrating a mastery of the issues has been her Achilles' heel.

Harsh review

A controversy is escalating over WP critic Tom Shales and his negative review last week of the new PBS program "Need to Know":

"The show's at best semi-competent anchors were Jon Meacham and NPR veteran Alison Stewart. He looked forlorn, as if having been left out in the rain, and she looked as though she would have been much more comfortable in Clinton's lap."

Why go there? He hated the show, fine. It was a super-soft interview with Bill Clinton. But why impugn her with a sexual reference?

Alison Stewart responded on TV Newser:

"Since you posted Tom Shales' crude, crass and sexist comment about me that I'd be 'more at home in President Clinton's lap'-- I feel I should respond, for myself and for other hard working female journalists. Mr. Shales is certainly entitled to his own views about our program but in most work places it would be simply unacceptable to make this kind of public suggestive insinuation about a colleague."

Mediaite's Steve Krakauer took on the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic: "Stewart is absolutely right -- Shales is way over the line with this criticism."

Late last week, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann made Shales one of his Worst Persons in the World and said he should be fired. Olbermann said he was defending his "friend" Stewart, who was once a regular fill-in anchor for him on "Countdown":

"The sexist and offensive imagery about Alison Stewart is one thing. Dragging a former president into it is another."

The argument moved over the weekend to the New York Post, where Shales noted that Stewart is married to MSNBC executive Bill Wolff:

"While he's attacking people's ethics, he himself is guilty of a huge oversight," Shales said of Olbermann. "He's intentionally misleading viewers. Stewart is more than a colleague. She's his boss' wife. It's a deliberate deception."

But Olbermann says -- and MSNBC confirms -- that Wolff has no oversight over "Countdown." While he retains the title of vice president for prime-time programming, his real job is as executive producer of Rachel Maddow's show.

Laura's lament

The former first lady is a bit miffed at the media, as Politics Daily reports:

Laura Bush "was interviewed on Fox News Sunday where moderator Chris Wallace read a quote to her from a British tabloid that described her as a 'a cookie-baking homemaker, dull, mumsy and old-fashioned' and asked why she thought she was seen that way.

" 'I think there are a lot of reasons,' she said. 'I think because I had had. . . . women's traditional jobs, I'd been a teacher and a librarian, and then also because I was married to a conservative president. It's sad, really, and sort of frustrating that . . . the press in general typecasts every woman that lives in the White House, the other first ladies, because always our first ladies have been a lot more interesting, a lot more complicated, than their box that they're sort of put in,' she said."

Of course, by keeping a low profile and taking on few issues, Laura Bush didn't give journalists much to work with. She also said the press gives Michelle Obama the benefit of the doubt. Hard to argue with that.

What a beaut

You have thought a beauty pageant might be outside the realm of international debate, but no. Daniel Pipes writes:

"News that Rima Fakih, 24, of Dearborn, Michigan, won the Miss USA beauty pageant prompts me to recall some prior instances of Muslim women winning beauty contests in Western countries. They are all attractive, but this surprising frequency of Muslims winning beauty pageants makes me suspect an odd form of affirmative action."

Prompting this Washington Monthly retort from Steve Benen:

"Who knew political conservatives cared so deeply about a beauty pageant? Last week, organizers of the Miss USA pageant published promotional photos recently of contestants wearing lingerie. Fox News' Sean Hannity and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) were outraged, and Gohmert suggested the promotional shots can be linked to 'economic chaos,' which in turn leads to Americans being 'willing to give up liberty.'

"Now that the pageant has come and gone, we can move on to more meaningful matters, right? Wrong -- the right is outraged again, because conservatives disapprove of the winning contestant. Indeed, it's apparently the single most important story of the day on far-right blogs."

Nothing but traffic.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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