Four ways Obama can stop oil spill from consuming his presidency

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Right before our eyes, Barack Obama appears to be morphing into his fellow Harvard alum, George W. Bush. The dramatic oil spill that is threatening to destroy the Gulf of Mexico has surely become Obama’s Katrina. There’s still time for the president to handle his Katrina better than Bush handled his own, but this disaster could be a more devastating and complex challenge.

Now that Obama is stuck with this mess and trying to find his way out of it, perhaps some simple advice might help him navigate a disaster of unprecedented magnitude. The goal of the Obama administration should not be to emerge from this situation looking good, that’s simply not possible. It’s really a matter of minimizing the massive political damage that the administration is going to endure. Without pride or prejudice, I’ll lay out four ways that President Obama can handle this crisis. I must forewarn you – Some of these solutions are tacky and controversial, but necessary:

1) Find a fall guy (as many as possible): Right now, the American people have two organizations they can choose to blame for this crisis – BP or the Obama administration. Obama must weed out the bad apples to give the perception of a competent administration going forward. Obama made the right decision to fire the head of the Minerals Management Service, but that’s not going to be enough. He also needs to fire someone else and make systemic changes to the entire Department of the Interior. Ken Salazar anyone?

2) Become a certified tree-hugger: Obama needs to show those on his left that he is truly committed to protecting the environment. By tap dancing with those who are determined to destroy our shores, Obama is disappointing the people who got him into office. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of Americans favor protecting the environment, even if it means that we have less access to energy. A sickly, oil-soaked pelican on Anderson Cooper 360 doesn’t look good to anyone, no matter how much they love going to the gas station. Obama would do well to heed the results of this poll.

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3) Hog up the headlines: Obama has got to engage in every dramatic act short of fish juggling to take the headlines away from the can of Crisco that has come to ruin the gulf. He needs to hold regular press conferences about the spill to control the message and continue pushing forward with other elements of his agenda.

Not to say that Obama should cause World War III in order to avoid an embarrassment, but that little situation in North Korea might be a prime opportunity for Houdini-like misdirection. No matter how bad the tragedy, Americans eventually grow bored with seeing the same news stories over and over again. The only thing that can keep the spill in the news all summer is if it continues to grow, since a higher spill count is a natural extension of the news cycle. So, Obama would be wise to misdirect our attention until the leak can be stopped.

4) Put the smack down on BP: America, right now, has almost no appetite for corporate fat cats who are getting over on the rest of us. We just saw Wall Street walk away with our tax dollars and any reports of our government footing the bill for this spill would send some citizens over the top.

Obama should take advantage of this sentiment by laying down a penalty on BP that puts them in the economic hospital. A spill of this size is tantamount to malpractice on the largest scale imaginable: BP underestimated the risk of a spill and overestimated their ability to respond to a spill quickly. I am sure there was prosecutable misconduct in there somewhere, which says that a fine of $20 – $30 billion dollars is not out of the question. A fine of this magnitude would let the world know who’s really in control of this situation and also send a clear signal that such corporate irresponsibility is not going to be tolerated.

This is a time for strong leadership. Obama has shown the capacity to be strong, but he has also shown moments of troubling weakness. This oil spill has already gone down in history, due to the sheer size of the disaster. Obama’s decisions will also be evaluated by history, so it is critical that he seizes this moment.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit>

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