Navy secretary Ray Mabus is an inspired choice to lead the Obama Administration’s Gulf Coast recovery initiative. When he was elected Mississippi’s governor in 1988, he was the youngest politician to claim that post in over a century. He went on to distinguish himself as a strong advocate of public education, fighting illiteracy and granting teachers the biggest pay raise in the nation. He also worked closely with Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer to develop the impoverished Delta region. Self-made men are a common phenomenon in U.S. politics, but there aren’t many who have managed to receive nationwide recognition for advancing the cause of both economic development and conservation at the same time.
The Mabus magic has continued to win praise during his current tenure as Secretary of the Navy. Mabus runs a tight ship and gets things done. Although the role of service secretary has lost some of its luster as responsibilities were drained away by various reform measures, it is still very much a full-time job. Which raises an obvious question: is it possible to effectively discharge the responsibilities of that post while also spearheading administration efforts to save the Gulf Coast from a series of environmental catastrophes?
Gulf Coast states are still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and now they are reeling from the consequences of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Calling the BP oil rig blowout a “spill” hardly begins to describe what releasing over two million gallons of oil per day into the Gulf for months has done to the regional economy. Two local mainstays — seafood production and tourism — have been staggered, and the oil industry too is faltering as regulators struggle to fashion a policy response to the environmental disaster. The effects of the oil spill will linger for many years, disrupting the ecological balance and reducing employment throughout the regional economy. The task Secretary Mabus has been given of planning a recovery is likely to absorb most of his energy for a year or longer.
However, the responsibilities of his job as Navy secretary can’t wait while the misery of the Gulf Coast is addressed. Over the next few quarters the Navy will have to finalize its fiscal 2012 budget request, which requires major decisions concerning force structure and investment priorities. The future role of amphibious warfare and forcible entry in Marine Corps strategy will need to be clarified. Agreements covering future wartime cooperation between the Navy and Air Force will need to be hammered out. There may be a transition to a new defense secretary with very different priorities from those of the current incumbent. And then there are the scores of routine responsibilities that the Navy Secretary must carry out, from chairing meetings to representing America abroad. Mabus is fortunate to have a first-class under secretary in Robert Work, but Mr. Work’s job is a full-time position too, so he can’t reasonably be expected to pick up all the sea-service responsibilities that Mabus relinquishes.
Is it reasonable or responsible to expect that Secretary Mabus can carry out two very demanding, very different jobs at the same time? Both jobs sound like full-time undertakings in which hundreds of billions of dollars and many human lives are at stake. The Obama Administration is supposed to be all about competency, but it seems improbable that Ray Mabus or anyone else could give both of these jobs all the energy and effort they require at the same time. Maybe Secretary Mabus should decide which role it is that he really wants to play.
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