Obama and the politicization of a moral panic

Following the tragic explosion and oil spill that rocked the Gulf coast on April 20, President Obama responded to the crisis by announcing a six-month moratorium on offshore oil drilling in the region. This impetuous response was comparable to that offered by the president and his Democratic colleagues following the mortgage crisis and subsequent credit crunch that struck the American economy and ushered in a phalanx of legislation designed to address its root causes. Each incident evoked a strong reaction from the public, nearing what sociologists refer to as a “moral panic,” and each incident equally saw the president attempt to advance his own legislative priorities throughout the crises.

A moral panic occurs when an incident, or series of incidents, evokes a strong, and often-alarmed response from a large segment of the public. Within the hysteria, public outcry often demands that action be taken to avoid future calamities. Legislators commonly capitalize upon this public outcry by creating broad, far reaching legislation designed to address the crisis at hand. Unfortunately, the rushed nature of these legislative endeavors often result in poorly thought out and hastily implemented policy changes; the likes of which frequently produce unintended consequences more damaging than those they sought to address.

In each of the aforementioned incidents, Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress sought to wrap their agenda around the moral panic that ensued. Rather than provide a measured response to the respective crises, the president capitalized upon the inflamed sentiments of the public to advance questionable policy of unforeseen consequence. The resurrection of “cap and trade” and the equivocation on offshore drilling provide a stark example of this tendency.

The president has flip-flopped on the issue of offshore oil drilling twice now. First, sensing the outrage felt by the American people at their government’s inability to address its own domestic energy needs, President Obama reversed a decades-long ban on oil and gas drilling along much of the Atlantic coast, his campaign rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. At the time, Obama suggested that his reversal was “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

Less than two months later the president sang a different tune. Following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil leak, the president again reversed himself. He extended a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the region and postponed or cancelled a number of lease sales in the Western Gulf region, Virginia, and Alaska. Obama’s opinions on domestic energy exploration appeared to drift with as much discontinuity as the oil slick itself.