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Obama Making BP Pay Is Good Government, and That's Why Republicans and the Corporate Media Are Freaking Out

Obama's hardline move on BP is exactly what government is supposed to do; whatever it can, within the limits of the law, to protect its citizens’ interests.

Last week, the nation witnessed an act of good governance when the Obama administration put the full-court press on oil giant BP to set aside $20 billion in assets to compensate the thousands of Americans whose livelihoods -- and in some cases, lives -- are being devastated by the  Deepwater Horizon  catastrophe. It was an example of exactly what government is supposed to do; whatever it can, within the limits of the law, to protect its citizens’ interests. 

Team Obama was shrewd to get a fund set up now, with the nation’s outrage focused on the calamity, rather than allow the company’s army of lawyers to drag a settlement through the courts for years. The agreement, entered into voluntarily by BP, ensures that the firm can’t escape legal judgments by paying out all of its current profits as shareholder dividends and then claiming insolvency. 

The fund is about the equivalent of a year of BP’s profits -- the Associated Press called the sum “a drop in a very large bucket” for the company, and reported that BP could raise the cash “without batting an eye.” It will be administered by an independent third party -- the same administrator who handled billions of dollars worth of claims stemming from the attacks of 9/11. And President Obama secured it using little more than his bully pulpit and the pressure it allowed him to put on BP execs.  

Reactions from the Right have been predictable and typically absurd. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, famously apologized to BP for all the inconvenience the company had endured (he was later forced to apologize for his apology), Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., warned that the fund was a covert plan to “redistribute wealth,” and Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul  called Obama’s tough talk about BP “un-American.” 

But much of the “neutral” corporate media also embraced a similar, if less extreme narrative. David Sanger, a highly respected feature reporter for the supposedly liberal  New York Times, called the move a “display of raw arm-twisting”  in a front-page article that might have been drafted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Sanger wrote that the fund had “reinvigorated a debate about the renewed reach of government power, or, alternatively, the power of government overreach,” which he characterized as “an argument that has come to define Mr. Obama’s first 18 months in office.” 

The fact that applying pressure to a corporation whose risky cost-cutting resulted in what may prove to be the worst man-made disaster in history is seen as an act of government overreach says a lot about how deep down the rabbit hole of corporate propaganda we’ve gone since the Reagan/Thatcher “revolution.” Whereas at one time analysts warned of governments nationalizing firms or distorting the market with rigid price controls, we’ve now come to a point where a strongly worded letter or a few harsh words are enough to elicit mainstream hand-wringing on behalf of delicate multinational corporations like BP.  

If that narrative goes unchallenged, we can forget about holding any companies accountable, in even modest ways, regardless of what havoc they wreak.  

Why Putting the Squeeze on BP Was the Right Thing To Do 

In 1989, soon after the  Exxon Valdez  ran aground, devastating the Alaskan coastline, a jury awarded those impacted by the spill $5 billion in punitive damages. But they didn’t see a dime for 20 years while Exxon appealed the ruling again and again. Finally, decades after the incident had disappeared from the front pages, the Supreme Court reduced the damages to just $500 million, a 10th of what the jury had originally deemed appropriate.  

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