A breakthrough week in the Gulf

A BREAKTHROUGH WEEK IN THE GULF…. It wasn’t too long ago that developments in the Gulf of Mexico were the single most important news story in the country. The hypnotic live feed of gushing oil was oddly popular; every update was considered breaking national news; and the anticipation for the day that the immediate crisis would finally be brought under control was palpable.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, that this week’s developments weren’t a bigger deal. In recent days, the well has effectively been shut down entirely — ahead of schedule. Work on the final relief well will take about a week, and offer a permanent solution, but it’s been about three weeks since oil stopped flowing into the Gulf, and all of the news of late has been encouraging.

This was a busy news week, but shouldn’t these developments, long sought by a desperate nation, be cause for slightly more relief? Or did the political world that speculated about the oil spill bringing down the Obama presidency decide that the crisis is so last month that good news doesn’t matter as much as bad news?

James Carville conceded yesterday that no Democrat was “as tough on the Obama administration” as the ordeal unfolded. Now Carville believes the president deserves credit for “a much improved and vigorous response to the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf.”

[L]et’s review the bidding: First, the decision to keep the unflappable retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen in place as national incident commander, in spite of considerable opposition from some local politicians, has proven to be wise.

Second, when Attorney General Eric Holder announced a criminal investigation into the BP disaster, it was a demonstration that the Obama administration meant business in dealing with this catastrophe.

Third, the establishment of the $20 billion restitution fund administered by Ken Feinberg was the ultimate statement of the seriousness with which this situation was being addressed by the administration.

Fourth, people who have deep knowledge of the events in the Gulf give substantial credit to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other experts from government labs who were brought in to assist with the successful capping of the well.

Obviously, when I refer to the good news of this week, I’m only talking about the immediacy of the well that was gushing. The larger problems, of course, still exist, and it would exacerbate a tragedy if the needs of the Gulf Coast region were forgotten now that the Macondo well has been shut down. In the short term, retrieving millions of feet of boom is a top priority, as is the health of cleanup workers, many of whom were exposed to toxic chemicals. Needless to say, the ecological, environmental, and even economic effects of the disaster are still largely unknown, and will require years of diligence.

But a lot of us were waiting a long while for that well to be shut down, and there’s nothing wrong with being glad that this day has arrived.

As for the politics, for all the palaver about Spock and butt-kicking, Obama steadily delivered the results that we needed and expected, at least for now. Given that his Republican detractors effectively took BP’s side during the crisis, it should set up an interesting debate for the campaign season.