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Gulf oil spill: Obama faces getting stuck by Morton's Fork

May 3, 2010 | 12:30 pm

Even as the oil continues its course to the shores along the Gulf of Mexico, the political questions about the disaster continue to grow. 

Perhaps the most important question -- certainly as far as the Obama administration is concerned -- is what is the difference between the role of the federal government and that of oil company BP?

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs took a stab at explaining it again at his briefing Monday.

“They’re responsible, we have oversight,” Gibbs insisted to reporters. He again quoted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s colorful description that the federal government’s “job is to keep the boot on the neck of” BP to ensure that it meets its obligations.

That may sound simple, but the devil is in the details. Who exactly is doing what, reporters repeatedly questioned. The answers could help determine who gets covered in voter outrage in this midterm election year.

The short answer is that BP is responsible, financially and practically, for dealing with capping the spewing oil well that's 5,000 feet underwater. It also is responsible for dealing with the millions of gallons of oil on the water's surface and for the damage the spill has caused.

BP on Monday acknowledged its responsibility for the cleanup, though it blamed another company for the original accident, which occurred April 20, on a deep-water rig that started the chain of events leading to what is expected to become the nation’s worst oil disaster.

But with BP in charge of its on-the-water efforts, the Obama administration still faces a problem, the  political version of the classic Morton’s Fork, named for the Lord Chancellor of England in 1487. Morton argued that everyone should be able to give the king money. The rich could obviously afford it and the poor were probably hiding their wealth and should be able to afford it.

The damned-if-you-do, damned-if you-don’t attitude was very popular with the king, Henry VII. Not so much with taxpayers.

The Obama administration faces somewhat of the same problem. If the damage from the leak is as bad as many environmentalists already believe, the Obama administration could be blamed even though it argues that BP may be at fault. Even if the damage is minimal, the administration could be blamed for not acting soon enough and BP could get the credit for acting responsibly.

In the face of complaints that the federal government has not done enough, the Obama administration has repeatedly stressed that it has been involved in the incident since the deep-water rig sank April 22 after it exploded and caught fire two days earlier.  Early on, federal officials praised the company for being “forward leaning” in dealing with the leak, which they said was light.

The federal response has been steadily growing as has Obama’s personal visibility on the subject.

-- Michael Muskal