Lost in the furor over the insulting “small people” characterization by BP’s hapless Chairman was a seriously unethical statement by President Obama. If the President is lucky, nobody will remember it. He hasn’t been very lucky lately, however.
As with Hurricane Katrina and President Bush, the Gulf oil spill has subjected President Obama to some unfair public expectations, some of which stem from a basic misunderstanding of Presidential power. (There have also been his genuine failures to meet reasonable expectations based on correct assumptions about Presidential leadership—but that is another topic.) Unfortunately, President Obama brings this upon himself by habitually over-stating his influence over people and events that he can not really control. He did this again, when he announced BP’s agreement to establish a 20 billion dollar fund to address the leaking oil’s damage to the Gulf region, its businesses and its inhabitants:
“It is important to note that this [the 20 billion dollars] is not a cap,” Obama said. “The people in the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them.”
This statement is either intentionally dishonest, cruel, or stunningly naive. It is definitely irresponsible. The President of the United States simply does not have the power to guarantee the conduct of a private business. Who will decide what BP’s “obligations” are? Not Obama. If the corporation and the various aggrieved interests in the Gulf disagree about those obligations, and they almost certainly will, the dispute will have to be adjudicated by a judge or a jury. Obama can’t influence the decision; indeed, it would be a violation of the limits of his office if he even attempted to do so. Nor can he order BP to have the same view of what its obligations are as he does. The President does not have dictatorial power over private persons or entities.
Obama knows this, of course. What is he doing by stating otherwise? Any president has wide latitude in the use of hyperbole and and soothing words in a crisis: F.D.R. knew that there was a lot to fear besides fear itself. Obama’s statement recklessly goes farther however: he makes a commitment to achieve a result that he cannot make occur by his own efforts, and he misrepresents the power of the Presidency by doing so.
I think we can fairly eliminate naiveté as the cause of this statement. That leaves dishonest, which, as a promise that he cannot keep, it clearly is; cruel, as it gives a guarantee to desperate people that should not be made because there can be no such guarantee; and it is definitely irresponsible, because the public should not be given misinformation about how their own government works.
All together, these add up to a significant ethics foul by President Obama, and a foolish one at that.