Neither the executive branch of the U.S. government nor BP PLC can be proud of the way they have handled the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Barack Obama's escalating tough talk against BP, in particular, is a weak political manoeuvre that only magnifies his administration's inaction on the big questions that have arisen from the oil spill.
Things are going badly - oil is still gushing and washing ashore, birds are dying and an entire fishery and way of life is at risk - so the public is looking for someone to blame. In a television interview, Mr. Obama said he wanted to know "whose ass to kick" - better it be someone else's than his own - and directed his foot at BP CEO Tony Hayward, saying he "wouldn't be working for me."
Mr. Obama's rhetoric is unbecoming and ineffective. His apparent anger is rising in direct proportion to demands that he must appear angry. That Mr. Obama has yet to even pick up the phone to speak to Mr. Hayward shows the extent to which the comments are damage control, albeit not of an environmental kind.
The U.S. government deserves some praise for being immersed in the clean-up efforts, and for initiating a criminal investigation into the incident. But overall, its response has been confused. It is supposed to be a backstop when major disaster strikes, but despite this fiduciary role, and the the might of its scientific and military infrastructure, it has been a bystander rather than a leader in directing the containment and clean-up.
With regard to the conditions that allowed the spill to happen, and what should happen to ensure a spill of such magnitude never happens again, Mr. Obama has also deferred: to a commission that will report in six months. A full investigation is welcome, but it does nothing to reduce the risk of further disaster now.
Mr. Obama's energy policy has been similarly rudderless, with major pivots on off-shore drilling on March 31st (expanding it), May 27th (forbidding it for six months), and just yesterday (moving to permit it for shallow water wells).
BP deserves little credit - it has over-promised and under-delivered . But for all of its shortcomings, the U.S. administration has failed to plot a course that shows leadership. To a public that sees a private company out of its depth and desperate for solutions, Mr. Obama's schoolyard threats provide little comfort.