It is not possible to imagine a better symbol of the miserable condition of the United States today than an oil company destroying a huge swath of the American ecosystem, society and economy, while the President sits by helplessly, saying that he is meeting with experts in order to find out “whose ass to kick.” Obviously, Obama should have seized all the equipment that BP had available to plug the leak, deputized their engineers, brought in the US navy and coast guard, and spent as necessary to deal with the problem within days, or even hours of the original spill, when it became clear that BP was in over its head.
That is what Lincoln did in 1861 when he took control of the railroads and telegraph lines around Washington DC, what Wilson did in 1916 when he nationalized the defense industries, what Roosevelt did in 1941 when he seized an aviation plant, and again in 1944 when he seized Montgomery Ward, it is what Truman did in 1947 when the government took control of the steel industry, in a sense it is what Reagan did in 1980 when the government fired the air controllers. These acts were all controversial but that is what strong Presidents did when facing threats no less severe than those in the Gulf today.
Why hasn’t Obama done anything like that? Ultimately the answer depends on understanding his individual character, but there are at least four large conditioning factors that will help us understand, if not the man, then the event.