Obama's Katrina? No. His Iran Hostage Crisis? Maybe.

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Getty Images

The now-angry president of the United States is promising to find the right ''ass to kick'' in connection with the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In lieu of an actual solution, which is still some ways off, this is not a bad strategy to pursue. But if the president is not able to quickly find the deserving kickable asses, he may be forced to put on his Superman suit, dive 5,000 feet to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and plug the damn hole his own damn self. Doing nothing, or doing the responsible thing quietly, is no longer an option.


It is now clear that whatever rational actions the Obama administration is taking in the Gulf, they are not enough. While there is little danger that the Gulf disaster will turn into Obama's Katrina—which was about incompetence—there is now the looming possibility that it could turn into his Iran hostage crisis, a debilitating, long-running drama of helplessness and hopelessness that's less about incompetence and more about impotence.

After a while, not knowing what to do becomes as equally disastrous as doing the wrong thing. The origins of the problem may be different and the functional parallels may be few, but the political consequences promise to be exactly the same. If Obama is not careful, the oil spill could turn him into Jimmy Carter, who, 80 days into the hostage crisis, was promising a little ass-kicking of his own: ''If the American hostages are harmed, a severe price will be paid. We will never rest until every one of the American hostages are released,'' he said in his 1980 State of the Union address. By the time that happened, of course, he was no longer president, having lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. Over time, it became increasingly clear that Carter had no workable solution and that he was entirely at the mercy of the Iranians in terms of bringing the crisis to an end. All the while, a daily dose of television pictures from Iran reinforced a national sense of helplessness.

Obama could find himself in a similar situation with BP. Americans can't abide the idea that problems exist which we cannot solve; that is a thoroughly un-American idea, even if you have a geyser of light Louisiana crude three miles below sea level. The president himself has embodied this impatience with his ''plug the damn hole already'' sentiments. There must be something at Home Depot that can do the job. But the reality here is harsh and the impotence is real: There is nothing quick and easy about the available solution, which apparently is to drill another well to release the pressure on the old one. A slow, debilitating solution to live with that may take us into August.

But he's gotta do something. The problem is that there is nothing substantive to do. As long as there is crude oil gushing into the ocean every minute, every hour, every day, for the next few weeks or maybe months, whatever he does will, by necessity, be more political than practical.

Ass-kicking needs to be high on the list. That, at least, is not doing nothing.

Terence Samuel is The Root's editor-at-large. His first book, The Upper House, was released last month. Follow him on Twitter.