Salena Zito

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste … it’s an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before,” White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel advised during the early days of the financial crisis.

All presidents understand a crisis of historic magnitude is only a breath away when they hold office; it is in their competency under pressure that measures whether they can lead.

As the tragedy of the gulf oil spill unfolds hourly, President Barack Obama finds his competency being questioned on virtually every political side.

Instead of the echo chamber calling this “Obama’s Katrina,” perhaps we should look back further in time to Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Three Mile Island disaster.

Rush Limbaugh

In March 1979 a partial core meltdown occurred at a nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pa.

Carter demonstrated leadership skills and knowledge of nuclear reactors in handling the situation. His one shining moment has a lot of teachable moments for Obama.

The timeline laid out by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is pretty impressive:

The meltdown happened at 4 a.m. on March 28. The NRC’s regional headquarters became aware of it at 7:45 a.m. Within 15 minutes, the NRC’s Washington headquarters was involved. By 9:15 a.m. the White House learned about it, and by 11:00 a.m. the call was made to evacuate all non-essential personnel.

Some confusion occurred over the next few days, yet everyone did their jobs. And Carter, a nuclear engineer who was involved with handling a reactor meltdown while serving in the Navy, got on top of things and took command.

This did not turn into Chernobyl. The federal government clearly understood that, even though a utility company operated TMI, the failure could have a huge impact on the environment and on people; it was measuring radiation levels by midday on March 28.

Despite the Obama administration’s “Day One” narrative of taking charge of the latest disaster/tragedy, neither it nor British Petroleum appear to have come close to meeting the TMI crisis’s levels of competency.

Three Mile Island completely spooked Americans about nuclear energy, causing two things to happen: We became even more reliant on oil, and only now are we starting to consider licensing nuclear power plants again.

Which leads us to some bad news-good news.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.