woody_zimmerman_118_2007Flash:

President Obama shuts down all domestic oil production and stops oil imports to protect the country from further oil-spillage damage. Climate protection concerns cited. Private cars are outlawed.

American commerce and manufacturing severely curtailed. Electricity blackouts increase. Dow Industrials crash to 1200. Food shortages feared. Unemployment hits 25%.

Mob of 2 million storms Washington. Obama calls out troops. Commanders refuse orders to fire. Capitol burned.

Rodney King pleads on national TV: “Can’t we all just get along?”

This (thus-far) fictional news flash extrapolates President Obama’s recent executive order, which suspends all deepwater oil-drilling for six months – i.e., on attempts to find new oil. People who hear me describe the future in terms like in the fake headlines, above, say it’s ridiculous, since the president lacks authority for such actions. In reply, I ask them where Mr. Obama finds the authority to shut down deepwater drilling or make BP pay $20 billion-plus in damages. (Hint: it’s not in the Constitution.) If he can get away with this move, what is to stop him from taking even more extreme actions involving oil? Or anything else?

At the end of the day, the president’s actions related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are not about what Constitutional authority he actually has, but about how much authority the body politic and the Fourth Estate (i.e., the media) will let him seize, in pursuit of his agenda, before they realize that something is terribly wrong. Stopping all domestic oil production and imports may seem far away from a six-month moratorium on deep water drilling. But the operating strategy is the same: take bold action; then challenge Congress or the courts to try to reverse you.

During World War II a reporter suggested to Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin that the pope might not approve of some action Stalin had taken. Stalin retorted: “How many divisions does the pope have?” It’s a question Mr. Obama might soon pose about Congress or the Supreme Court. How much power do these branches really have to oppose him? At some point it might come down to exactly that.

A comprehensive ban on oil does seem far-fetched, of course. But arresting deepwater drilling seemed equally as far-fetched before the accident that caused the disastrous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Who would have imagined this? Shocking events have a way of numbing the nation’s political senses to large changes. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel summarized this effect by his maxim: “Never waste a crisis.” In a remarkable burst of candor (for a politician), Mr. Emanuel admitted that a crisis allows politicians to enact things they never could get past the public in ordinary times.

The whole scenario – especially the oil spill – reminds me of a wonderful presentation of “The Sleeping Beauty” that I heard on a Children’s Record Guild recording when I was a boy. For a period of time we got their 78-rpm records by mail, every month or so. (They are collectors’ items today.) Each one presented a famous fairy tale in operetta form. My siblings and I listened to them over and over. Today we can still sing many of the songs. But I digress.

The Sleeping Beauty was the story of the princess whose birth brought great joy to a certain kingdom. But it happened that one of the kingdom’s powerful fairies was not invited to the celebratory dinner for the princess because the royal pantry didn’t have enough golden plates. The excluded fairy showed up at the dinner anyway and expressed her displeasure by pronouncing a curse on the princess: at the age of 16 she would prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall asleep for 100 years.

The curse caused great consternation in the royal court, so all of the king’s wise men deliberated with might and main over how to protect the princess. Finally they brought their recommendations:

“I have it; we’ll send the princess far, far way,” said one. “No!” said the king.

“We’ll watch the princess night and day,” said another. “NO!” said the king.

Every spindle in the land must be destroyed!” said a third wise man. “YES!” said the king.

Thus, all of the kingdom’s spinning wheels are destroyed so the princess will not fall under the wicked fairy’s spell. Naturally, this draconian plan is very expensive, for no new thread or cloth can be produced in the entire kingdom. It’s also flawed, as it’s impossible to find and destroy all of the spinning wheels. The princess is bound to come upon one in due time. When she does, being unfamiliar with the device, she manages to prick her finger. The spell is activated, and she falls asleep at once. An enchanted forest grows up around her. Luckily a handsome prince eventually finds her and awakens her. All ends happily.

The reader will recognize similarities in this story to our situation with the oil spill. (No, it’s not the part about powerful fairies in the kingdom.) Unfortunately, real life is not a fairy tale. Draconian, but ineffective “solutions” to problems do not necessarily turn out well.

Whatever Mr. Obama thinks he is going to accomplish by shutting down deepwater drilling – or perhaps by taking even more drastic measures – it’s not going to stop all accidents, or stop global warming, or wean us from our dependence on oil, or produce any other positive results. All it will do is artificially raise prices, cause more economic pain, make a lot of people unhappy, and produce political upheaval that even the Machiavellian Mr. Emanuel will not be able to control. For all of the latter’s sage counsel about not wasting a crisis, there are some dogs that can’t be restrained, once they are let loose. The Tea Party movement has already demonstrated how dangerous it is to anger the citizenry beyond a certain point. The Obama administration would be wise to step carefully here.

In a worst-case scenario, Mr. Obama’s six-month ban could turn into an indefinite ban on deepwater drilling – or even on all current underwater oil extraction. Environmentalists gone wild could crash the American economy and destroy what is left of the Democratic Party. (I’m probably OK with the latter result, but not at the cost of the former.) All jesting aside – this is a time for wise governance, not slavish adherence to a radical agenda most of the country is not aligned with and does not want.

At this writing, I see that a federal judge has overturned Mr. Obama’s 6-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, ruling that it was based on inadequate reasoning. The ruling simply sets aside the moratorium until a trial can be held on the merits of the two sides of the argument. This means that drilling for new oil can continue for the present, but the jury is still out – literally – on whether Mr. Obama will be able to starve the country for the oil it needs. Stay tuned.