Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Passive Voice

Once again Tim Rutten has written a noteworthy column. Today's essay explores the manner in which President Obama and his administration are addressing the latest disasters to strike the country: BP's Gulf oil spill and Arizona's anti-immigration law. Mr. Rutten quite correctly notes the point at which a devotion to process melds into impotent passivity.

President Obama and his administration currently face two pollution problems — a physical one in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil continues to spew unchecked from a damaged well, and a political one involving immigration policy and originating in Arizona.

In both instances an exaggerated deference to process bordering on passivity risks creating an impression that the White House is running behind critical domestic events and, worse, detached — even indifferent — to the human toll of inaction.

With regard to the gulf oil well blowout, it's true that Obama inherited from previous administrations a vestigial regulatory system and an utter lack of contingency planning for such an emergency. It's also true that the federal government has to rely on the oil industry for technical expertise in these cases. At the same time, the White House has been exceptionally slow about demonstrating that it's using its legal authority to effectively monitor the pace and intensity of that technology's application. ...

In Arizona, meanwhile, the consequences of the president's failure to push for comprehensive immigration reform, as he promised in his campaign, have been compounded by the Justice Department's sloth in challenging that state's recently enacted anti-immigrant legislation. ...

Given the fact that federal preemption of immigration regulations is an established legal principle and that the statute runs only 10 pages, how long can that take? Last week, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. admitted to a congressional committee that he still hadn't read SB 1070.

As a consequence, Arizona's legislative jihad against immigrants continues apace. The state has banned ethnic studies from its secondary schools and, now, state Sen. Russell Pearce, SB 1070's author, says he'll push to deny U.S. citizenship to children born in Arizona to immigrant parents without papers. That's just one more insult to the Constitution. After all, the language of the 14th Amendment is explicit: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside."

What is so amazing about this hand-wringing inaction is that Mr. Obama inherited the expanded powers of the Bush "unitary executive" presidency as well as the problems hidden in the downgraded regulatory agencies, yet he continues to move slowly, tentatively, as if he truly believed that one man can do little in the face of such momentous events. If he does hold such a belief, then he truly is the wrong man for the job and we were misled.

There is plenty the President of the United States can do and should be doing in each of these disasters. With respect to the oil spill, Mr. Obama could declare a national emergency and commence fining the oil company, the rig owner, and the contractor who did shoddy work on the cement which most experts believe set off the tragic chain of events. He could stop deferring to the CEO of BP as the only source of expertise in the event. He could convene a real commission of experts called from the universities of this country and the rest of the world who know what should be done and has to be done to stop the leak and to clean up the mess and then empower them to do what it takes.

With respect to the anti-immigrant law in Arizona, Mr. Obama could honor not only his campaign promise to push for immigration reform which regulates the flow of immigrants to this country and which deals fairly and compassionately with the millions already here, but also the oath he took on January 20, 2009 to protect and defend the Constitution by asserting the federal preemption of the issue. The suit against Arizona's law should have been filed the minute after Governor Brewer signed the state bill into law.

Instead, Mr. Obama sits back, uttering a few civilized growls when pushed, and waits for both scenarios to play out. Either he is unwilling to anger those he perceives as the real powers, or he is stupid. Neither stance is appropriate for the leader of a nation.



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