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From Wall Street To The Gulf Coast: When Will Obama Get In The Ring And Fight For Real Reforms?

Imagine how much more reform we could get if Obama clearly weighed in on behalf of David rather than Goliath.

Question of the Day: What do the oil catastrophe and the Wall Street collapse have in common?

Three big things, I'd say.

In both cases, a powerful, politically protected industry invented something that could not easily be repaired when it broke. We seem to be entering an age when complex technologies, whether financial or physical, sometimes literally have no solutions when they go haywire in unanticipated ways. We thought this might happen with nuclear power (and it still could); but for now deepwater drilling is the bigger menace.

Secondly, in both cases the proverbial ounce of prevention was not applied. Had existing laws been enforced, and had the political process not corrupted the regulatory process, these man-made calamities didn't need to happen.

In the case of the oil disaster, which is fast becoming the worst single environmental catastrophe ever, America's long-term failure to move away from dependence on carbon fuels combined with pure short-run political capture. By now, we should have been at the point of energy conversion where high risk, mile-deep undersea wells were not used at all. But even so, this blowout would have been averted had existing laws been enforced.

It's the same story with the financial collapse. We didn't need these exotic, doomsday financial instruments. And had the regulators not been in bed with the industry, the crisis would have been headed off at any of several earlier stages.

But the worst common element is this: both 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 congenitally unable to rise to the occasion.

It appeared, in the end game of the health reform effort and at moments in the financial reform fight, that we were seeing sparks of the Obama whom we so admired on the campaign trail. But Obama's performance in the oil disaster seems a case of one step forward, two steps backward.

If ever there were a moment to make clear that our energy future cannot be left to the energy industry, and to rally the public on behalf of a long term shift away from carbon fuels to renewable sources, it is now. Will we ever have a better, more graphic villain than BP? Will we ever have the public more on our side? Will we ever have Republicans with dirtier hands?

In the late sixties and early 1970s, the environmental movement burst on the national stage because the environmental assaults of that era were immediate and undeniable -- from oil spills to smog to the Cuyahoga River catching fire. Thanks to the victories of that era, environmental damage has become less palpable and pyrotechnic.

Global climate change, the ultimate menace, is gradual, insidious, ineluctable, contested, and seldom vividly symbolized. By contrast the BP blowout is immediate, tangible, and terrifying. Even the Limbaughs and the Becks cannot deny what is dominating TV week after week, and the right is making a fool of itself by lurching from attacking the president's daughter to blurting out that "accidents happen."

There is more than a germ of truth, however, in the right's argument that Obama was slow off the mark to get on top of this crisis, just as he was pitifully slow to clean house at the Minerals Management Service he inherited from Bush. And if the administration does not pick up its game, the Tea Party right will make the Gulf catastrophe Obama's fault, just as it has made the slow pace of recovery and the bank bailouts Obama's fault.