A White House once ridiculed for having too many czars is now being criticized by disaster experts and a former oil company president for not having one: an oil-spill czar.
Obama administration officials find that criticism hard to stomach. They say there is clearly someone in charge, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, and he's been cleaning up oil spills and other messes for decades, including the aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. His title is national incident commander, and even though he retired this week as head of the Coast Guard, he's staying on to run the spill response.
Those wanting a czar say they have nothing against Allen or his skills and generally praise the government's overall response to the spill. They question the perception of authority that Allen has and his focus. They want a big name, a bigger title, someone prominent who can walk into the Oval Office.
"Titles are interesting, effects are better," Allen told The Associated Press Wednesday evening. "I'm responsible for effects."
In his clipped cadence, Allen added: "I don't think it's an issue of authority. I think it's an issue of unity of effort."
Allen, who worked his first oil spill in 1980, is on a conference call every evening with the Cabinet secretaries, agency chiefs and five governors dealing with spill issues, according to Carol Browner, the White House climate and energy czar.
In a White House news briefing Monday, Allen explained in detail the 1990 law on cleaning up the oil spill and the national contingency plan, saying, "This is a command-and-control structure."
That's not quite how it looks, critics say.
"It strikes me as odd that you have multiple Cabinet secretaries showing up periodically," former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister said. "They should have appointed someone immediately as the Gulf of Mexico incident czar, a project leader or project czar reporting to the president. That's what I would have done."
Hofmeister, author of the book "Why We Hate the Oil Companies," said it needs to be someone told by the president, "You are in charge of all the federal agencies."
But Allen, who noted that he has agency chiefs' numbers on his speed dial, said, "I have direct access to the (homeland security) secretary and the president when I need it."
Some disaster experts say they fear the Coast Guard admiral is too focused on the gritty technical side of the spill and the oil on the water.
"Thad Allen is a Coast Guard person who could deal with the spill, but who is dealing with the local governments, the fishermen and all the people who are put out of work?" asked Jane Bullock, who was chief of staff of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration.
"I'm concerned that they're concentrating on the mechanics of the spill as opposed to the implications and the impacts of the spill on local governments and people and the community," Bullock said. "This is not something the Coast Guard deals with."
George Haddow, another former FEMA veteran turned disaster consultant, moved to New Orleans and is frustrated by what he sees: a lack of focus on the locals, the fishermen, the tourist businesses, the local government — all recovery stuff that FEMA once did well. He said FEMA's role is limited because there's no presidential disaster declaration, something no governor has asked for, according to the Homeland Security Department.
"There has to be someone in charge of the whole thing," Haddow said. "I don't think there's a concerted effort on looking at what the impacts are on businesses and communities in southeast Louisiana."
Allen said that's not so. "There's extraordinary outreach regarding economic impacts," he said.
Beverly Cigler, a Penn State University professor who chairs the five-year-old Katrina task force for the American Society for Public Administration, is torn. She said the federal government's response to the oil spill, unlike Katrina or the Exxon Valdez, has been "pretty good" but believes things have changed.
Initially, it made sense for Allen to be in charge, Cigler said.
"Originally and for a couple weeks, everybody underestimated the amount of oil, so Thad Allen was the one," Cigler said. "Now obviously all the estimates are wrong and this is really bad, so I agree we need a czar."
"There is no question that there is no one voice that could speak toward stopping the oil, dealing with the oil on shore and now dealing with the recovery," Cigler said. "They need to come up with someone who has a direct line to the president."
That's Allen, according to the White House, which says Allen's authority and experience is beyond questioning.
Allen is doing a great job, said former Florida emergency management chief Joe Myers, a disaster consultant.
"Thad Allen is the czar as far as I'm concerned," Myers said. "Who would you get if you don't get the Coast Guard? They've been responding to oil spills since they've been spilling. They are the czar. That's the law."
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