As many commentators have noted, the Gulf oil spill may pose a serious threat to one of the most important aspects of Obama's presidency: his effort to restore public confidence in government as competent, as a trustworthy agent of genuine and lasting reform.Being a liberal, Sargent clearly believes that the state is a trustworthy and competent "agent of genuine and lasting reform," and that anything that undermines public faith in that notion would be A Very Bad Thing. The BP oil spill, then, is accordingly cast primarily as a problem of public relations -- how, in the disaster's aftermath, will President Obama restore faith in government and his agenda? -- rather than as a damning repudiation of the state's claim to be an effective guardian against corporate power.
In light of the regulatory "failures" that led up to the Gulf disaster, though, including the decision by the Obama administration -- which we are told believes in using state power for progressive ends -- to exempt the BP rig that caused the spill from environmental review, the evidence suggests regulators, rather than failing to act, were acting exactly as they were expected: in such a way as to provide the guise of oversight absent the risk of impacting corporate profits. Indeed, the BP spill is a vivid, oil-stained testament to the fact that the state is neither trustworthy nor competent -- that it makes decisions with the interests of capital in mind, not the public -- something progressives seemed to grasp under George W. Bush but which many appear to be busily unlearning since he left office.
As Jonathan Schwarz observes, the earnest liberal faith in politicians and the government as effective agents of reform is based on a terribly misguided, naive conception of who it is the state really exists to serve (hint: unless you're part of the political and/or corporate elite, it's probably not you):
The first axiom of Nice Liberalism is that the U.S. government (and in fact all sectors of U.S. elites) are striving to do the very best thing for all Americans. With this as your starting point, you're forced to come up with all kinds of weird interpretations of reality in order to "understand" why the U.S. political system functions as it does.
But in fact, as the Iron Law of Institutions tells us, the people at the top of the U.S. political system are striving to expand their own power at the expense of everyone else, even if that does horrendous damage to everyone else and the U.S. as whole.Power: it's a helluva drug. But do not despair: "Once you discard the mentality that the people in charge care whether we live or die," notes Schwarz, "you no longer have to twist yourself into bizarre conceptual knots in order to make sense of what they're up to."