"Play the hand that history has dealt": Obama and the tale of two crises

Just last week I was talking with one of my Planet Forward colleagues about the similarities I observed between the BP oil spill and recent financial crisis. Having spent the better part of the past year researching the financial crisis for my thesis, I was struck by the recurrent themes in both crises. In a typical fit of procrastination, I shrugged off the conversation and my observations rather than write about them. So as I read the Huffington Post this morning, I couldn't help but think as I read "BP and the Bankers" not "why didn't I think of that?" but "why didn't I write that?"

Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, answers the question, "what do the oil catastrophe and the Wall street collapse have in common?" He cites three main similarities: too little understanding of the implications of complex technologies, lax regulation and enforcement, and short-run political capture of government by powerful industries/corporations. While he has many astute observations in the article, I think the most compelling is that President Obama and other progressive policy makers seem not to be taking advantage of either crisis to advance any sort of compelling counter-narrative much less a meaningful reform agenda.

He writes: "Both [the BP and financial] crises are teachable moments that our president could be using to transform public opinion. Yet despite these gifts from the progressive gods, President Obama seems congentially unable to rise to the occasion." Kuttner explains that the "gradual, insiduous, ineluctable, [and] contested" concept of global climate change is so seldom vividly symbolized that the "immediate, tangible, and terrifying" BP blowout is a prime opportunity to reshape the national conversation. Further, he wonders, "will we ever have a better, more graphic villian than BP? Will we ever have the public more on our side?"

Kuttner is ultimately a skeptic about the ability of progressives to shape the crisis narrative in their favor. He observes a messaging vaccum that the administration has been reluctant to fill, going on to assert that without more decisive messaging the "Tea Party Right" will make the Gulf catastrophe Obama's fault, just as they have made the slow pace of recovery and bank bailouts Obama's fault. He argues that Obama needs to return to the decisive rhetoric he exhibited on the campaign trail in order to inspire the political will to pass meaningful reform.

He concludes that all crisis-presidents face obstacles but the great turn them into opportunities: "The other day, one of the president's enthusiasts told me that Obama
has been very successful in terms of the agenda that he set out to achieve. Sorry, but that doesn't cut it. A president has to play the hand history dealt him."

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