"Drill, baby drill," Sarah Palin and the Republicans used to chant. No longer. President Obama's decision yesterday to halt deep-water drilling permits for six months cannot undo the calamity of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. However, it undoubtedly corresponds to the overwhelming will of the country.
But even if BP's current "top kill" attempt to staunch the spill quickly succeeds, it will be too late to staunch the public frustration and anger, and the mounting political recrimination, over the disaster. The repercussions are impossible to predict. The company has obviously sustained huge damage to its finances and, at least as important, to its reputation. Like the financial crisis of 2008, the 21st-century Black Death that has descended on the Gulf has brutally exposed the flaws in the Republicans' philosophy of deregulation, and the belief that private enterprise has the answer to every problem. The same Republicans that habitually deride the government are now howling for effective government intervention.
Yet the crisis has inflicted damage on this Democratic president as well. Mr Obama cannot be blamed for failing to recognise the extent of the disaster. But part of his undisguised fury at what has happened reflects his impotence and frusrtation that the federal executive he heads has been revealed as ineffectual in the crisis. Washington has been forced to concede that only the foreign company that caused the accident has the equipment and know-how to tackle it.
There are two deeper lessons from this tragic tale. The first is that the regulatory system must be reinforced. Yesterday the head of the Minerals Management Service, the agency that supposedly oversaw BP's drilling operations, was removed. Individuals must be held accountable, but far more than a search for scapegoats is needed. An entire culture must be changed, to end the cosiness between regulators and regulated. Whether Republicans like it or not, that means more powerful and intrusive government.
The other lesson is one that has gone unheeded for decades – that the US needs an energy policy that reduces its dependence on fossil fuels, and oil in particular. For decades experts have warned that America could not indefinitely continue to consume 25 per cent of the world's oil when it possessed only 3 per cent of its reserves. This dependence has partly been fostered by the oil companies themselves. If this episode in the Gulf does not propel Congress to enact sweeping new energy legislation, then nothing will.