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Bring on the Barack and Tony Show

By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; A11

The big question about President Obama's sit-down Wednesday with BP's Tony Hayward is, "Why didn't this happen six weeks ago?"

You'll pardon my breaking from the media pack on this one, but I really don't give a damn how much anger Barack Obama can muster about the BP spill, or how empathetic he might be on the plight of gulf fishermen.

What matters to us -- and what will matter on Election Day 2012 -- is how effective the government is in getting that hole plugged and the oil cleaned up. And there's no way for the government to achieve those goals without collaborating and coordinating with the one company that has the resources, the know-how and the money to do it.

From the moment when it became clear that the blowout preventer had failed and a major spill was inevitable, it should have been clear to both Obama and Hayward that they were in this mess together. Rather than calling for Hayward's removal, the president's attitude should have been, "Your guys screwed up, my guys screwed up, so we better both roll up our sleeves and fix this thing before we're both out of a job."

That doesn't mean the president needs to go easy on Hayward. But if he had done it in private rather than playing to the stands, there's no reason to think that Hayward would have refused to accommodate him -- not only because Hayward fancies himself as a responsible corporate citizen, but also because he's in no position, legally or financially, to do otherwise.

This needs to be the Barack and Tony Show, not the Barack and Tony Showdown. Barack and Tony on the phone with each other debating options, hashing through conflicting priorities and filling in each other's to-do lists. Barack and Tony surveying the oil slick from the air. Barack and Tony huddling with local politicians, briefing congressional leaders, holding joint news conferences. Barack and Tony together asking local fishermen to get back in their boats and patrol the coastline, tracking the slick, laying booms and rescuing wildlife. Barack and Tony in TV ads urging Americans and Brits to vacation in the gulf -- with free nights courtesy of BP. And Tony and Barack asking the BP board to suspend dividend payments and set up a compensation fund administered jointly by the government and the oil company.

Why together? Because it is important to demonstrate that the adults are in charge and that they're not wasting time, attention or energy pointing fingers or covering their political or corporate backsides.

Once the well is capped and a credible cleanup plan in place, there will be plenty of time to figure out what happened, punish those who are responsible and take steps to reduce the chance that it happens again. Trying to sort through all that now, in the heat of the crisis, is proving to be a lousy approach.

In recent days, for example, the oil industry, eager to take advantage of the public anger at BP, has tried to divert attention from its own culpability.

At a House hearing Tuesday, top executives of Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron came together to suggest that BP was the bad apple in the barrel, so to speak, and that what happened to BP's well could never, ever -- not in a million years -- happen to one of theirs.

Unfortunately for them, however, committee staff had dug up the contingency plans these same companies had filed with the Interior Department outlining how they would handle a spill of similar magnitude. The plans turn out to have been prepared by the same outside consultant and used much of the same meaningless boilerplate as the now-discredited BP plan, including the same references to deceased experts and marine life not found in the region.

The oil men also were not eager to acknowledge that the BP disaster might have been avoided if government regulators had been around to properly monitor BP's drilling activities. To do so, however, would have put the spotlight on the decades of relentless industry lobbying that had blocked imposition of tougher drilling standards and led to the appointment of industry-friendly regulators.

By putting the blame on BP, the industry's aim is to persuade Congress and the administration to lift the six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling even before the causes and consequences of the Gulf Coast spill are fully known. At the same time, industry workers are demanding that, since the moratorium was imposed in the wake of BP's disaster, BP should be required to compensate them for lost wages.

This is a rather odd notion of justice -- that a company should be held liable for exposing the dangers of industry practices or the inadequacy of government regulation. Should the same punitive liability be applied to an airline if the crash of one of its planes resulted in the temporary closure of the airport or the grounding of similar planes flown by all the other airlines? Or a whistleblower whose exposure of the dangers of a widely used drug leads to the closure of several pharmaceutical plants?

It is perfectly understandable that people are hopping mad at BP -- the company has plenty to answer for. But anger isn't going to plug the leak or clean up the marshes or compensate those who suffered as a result of its mistakes. For that, alas, we need BP -- a BP that is focused, closely supervised and profitable.

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