James Carville, former Clinton strategist, Louisiana native and a talking head not known for understatement, told Rolling Stone magazine that “if FDR had been president, he would have jumped out of his wheel chair and run to Louisiana.”
Movie director Spike Lee told the president that it was time for him to “go off” on BP.
So it was with more than a little disappointment that Gulf Coast residents listened to the president’s speech Tuesday night. They were happy to hear him talk about the “recklessness” of BP and vow that he would make the oil giant pay, but his lack of specifics left them unsure of what the future held.
At best, the speech was boring. At worst, it indicated that the president still, as one resident said, “didn’t get it.” Coast residents did not want a lot of talk about forging a new energy policy for the nation; they wanted to know what the president was going to do for them.
When the doors opened after a closed-door meeting the following day, BP executives emerged with a very different image of the president.
According to the agreement hammered out — some have said forced down BP’s throat — the company will put $20 billion in an independently managed escrow fund to compensate people and businesses for their losses and restore the damaged environment. But $20 billion is not the cap; if the cost of compensation, cleanup and restoration is more, BP will have to pay it.
Not all Republicans, however, are satisfied. During Thursday’s congressional hearing featuring BP CEO Tony Hayward, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, was wringing his hands over what he called a “$20 billion shakedown.” Barton is a longtime friend to Big Oil, and has collected more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies since January 2009.
We can imagine the White House is thanking its lucky stars for Barton’s giant tears on behalf of BP.
Along with the compensation fund, BP will suspend dividend payments — $7.5 billion over the next three quarters. When first introduced, this idea caused uproar in Britain, where politicians complained that the Obama administration was unfairly targeting our longtime ally. Nevertheless, the president forced the company to put Gulf Coast residents ahead of its stockholders. What that says about the priorities of this administration is more important than the amount of money it is costing BP.
The task before fund manager Kenneth Feinberg, who handled the 9/11 victim’s compensation fund, and the president is daunting. There will be many claims and conflicts, and not everyone will be happy with the speed with which claims are settled. This is a decent start to compensation, though we wish the administration had put more consistent and emphatic pressure on BP from the start.
Those responsible for this disaster must pay the cost for the economic and environmental havoc they have wrought. They also must be prosecuted for the violations of the Clean Water Act.
The Obama administration must settle for no less. That is the minimum acceptable to the American people.