Obama and the politicization of a moral panic

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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.

This dithering evoked less a sense of leadership than it did a willingness to use external events and public emotions to pursue a preferred agenda; the consequences of which were often ill considered. Obama’s reflexive decision to halt much of the domestic energy industry only compounded the suffering felt by those in the region who were largely dependent upon it. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) echoed the fears felt by many of her constituents when she implored the president not to overreact. “We can’t overreact to this. I hope the president will separate deepwater drilling from shallow-water drilling and let the industry go forward where we know we can do it safely and the technology is proven and mature. We’ve got to be careful that we don’t just shut down this industry.”

Extending moratoriums on energy exploration and attempting to cram through a dubious “cap and trade” policy while the nation deals with a crisis are not examples of thoughtful legislation; rather, they represent an inclination toward the legislative expediency often found in the politicization of a moral panic.

In his address from the oval office on Tuesday, President Obama used his pulpit not to assuage the concerns of those suffering in the Gulf region but instead to take advantage of the situation and make the case for his own policy agenda. By attempting to capitalize on the public emotion that has resulted from the Gulf oil spill rather than provide a coherent plan by which the crisis will be dealt, the president placed politics before leadership at a moment when he could have provided a much needed boost to national morale.

Scott G. Erickson has worked in the field of law enforcement for the past decade and holds both his B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice Studies. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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