Obama’s “anger and frustration” at the BP oil spill

The US media informed the public Thursday night that President Barack Obama was going to express his “anger and frustration” over the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico during a statement to reporters at noon Friday in the White House Rose Garden. White House officials described him as “beyond livid” about the spill and BP’s inability to stop it.

Right on schedule, in the second paragraph of his prepared comments on Friday, Obama explained that he had seen firsthand “the anger and frustration” of the population in the Gulf, “And let me tell you, it is an anger and frustration that I share as President.”

This has become Obama’s standard operating procedure. In late January 2010, at a press briefing, Obama “furiously slammed Wall Street titans who raked in billions in bonuses” (Associated Press). His press secretary Robert Gibbs let it be known that “the president shares the American people’s outrage on this.” Of course, the bonuses were paid anyway, and a Wall Street analyst understandingly remarked, “It’s good politics for him to say that.”

In March 2009 Obama came forward in public to express “dismay and anger” over the massive bonuses for executives at AIG, which had received $173 billion in US government bailouts in the previous six months. “I don’t want to quell anger—I think people are right to be angry. I am angry.”

And so forth.

One cynical commentator noted Friday that a news item headlined “Angry Obama Expected Tomorrow” reminded him of “a weather forecast.” Yes, only the weather is far less predictable.

The Obama White House represents the interests of American big business as directly, or more directly, as any administration in history. It has helped Wall Street to vast sums from the public treasury, intervened to destroy the living standards of auto workers, escalated the brutal war in Afghanistan and continued the Bush government’s wholesale assault on democratic rights.

The instinctive response of the president to social disasters affecting large numbers of people, befitting the class character of his administration and his own history and personality, is a decided lack of interest.

At an April 30 press briefing, for example, ten days after the oilrig explosion off the coast of Louisiana, by which time the monumental dimensions of the disaster were obvious to anyone paying attention, Obama issued a perfunctory statement. He made not a single reference to the 11 workers who had died, nor to the potentially devastating ecological and economic impact of the giant oil spill.

On the contrary, he devoted the final portion of his brief comment April 30 to defending, by implication, his government’s support for offshore drilling and making clear that he continued “to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security.” As far as concern for human life and the environment went, the remarks could not even be called going through the motions.

However, as a river of oil continued to flow out of the sea bottom, threatening to become one of the worst environmental disasters in history, and as public outrage against BP swelled, it became necessary once again for the “angry Obama” to make an appearance.

Despite his weak attempt at populist bluster, Obama’s statement on Friday was a dishonest exercise in damage control, on behalf of his administration—and BP. He sowed confusion about the size of the leak, now estimated at up to 10 times what BP had claimed, claiming “since no one can get down there in person, we know there is a level of uncertainty.”

The president insisted that “our mobilization and response efforts have always been geared toward the possibility of a catastrophic event,” which is patently untrue. Mobilization and response efforts, to the extent that they are not directly under BP’s control, are principally geared toward protecting the profits and “proprietary interests” of the oil giant.

The federal agency supposed to regulate oil-drilling operations, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), under Obama as under previous administrations, is nothing more than an adjunct of the energy companies. The Center for Biological Diversity pointed out May 7 that the MMS had approved 27 new offshore projects, under the same environmental review exemption used to approve the “disastrous BP drilling” since the Deepwater Horizon explosion April 20. This exposes Obama’s lie Friday that he is ending the “cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill.”

Everything about Obama’s Rose Garden appearance had a false and ritualistic quality. The population now knows what to expect when the president wants to be seen as upset by, and sharing their feelings about the latest outrage committed by America’s corporate elite. He puts on a somber face, lowers his voice, speaks deliberately, and pretends, briefly, to care about the public welfare.

Harsh reality has a way of making itself felt, and this act is wearing thin. A small army of liberal and left-liberal apologists is on hand, however, to try and shore up illusions in the Democratic Party and Obama.

After each of the administration’s reactionary policy decisions or abject capitulations to the extreme right, the Nation magazine, for example, tells its readers that a defining moment has now arrived, when the Obama administration must make up its mind, once and for all, whether it stands with the American people or the corporate elite.

Typically, in regard to the present crisis, the Nation’s editors write: “The BP disaster … represents not just an ecological nightmare but a moral crisis—and an opportunity for all who care about the environment to regain the offensive, to put all politicians, including President Obama, on the spot and to demand that we move in a fundamentally new direction.” As though the character of the Obama administration were an open question and susceptible to change under popular pressure.

Decades of privatization, deregulation, propaganda about the wonders of the free market, as well as the accumulated greed and recklessness of the ruling elite that has emerged out of the socioeconomic and ideological conditions of the whole past period, made the BP oil spill, or something similar, inevitable. As far as the American financial aristocracy is concerned, the global population and the physical resources of the planet are nothing but the ingredients out of which its enormous wealth is made.

Obama and his entourage appear to think they have a magical power to allay popular discontent with the public relations equivalent of a wave of a wand. All the president has to do, according to their conception, is assume the proper persona, offer a convincing rationalization, tell the suitable lie, and the American people will fall in line.

To the extent that the ruling elite mistakes the lack of organized opposition to its atrocities—due to the worthlessness of the trade unions and official liberalism—for a lack of popular opposition, it makes a serious miscalculation. The population seethes with anger; it can’t wait for something to happen. A great deal of confusion, of course, exists as to what that should be.

It is the job of socialists to patiently explain the implications of the present social and economic crisis and spell out the alternative. The working population faces one catastrophe after another—industrial, financial, military or ecological—until it puts an end to the anarchic, outdated, irrational profit system.

David Walsh