The other day, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked what will happen if the people running BP decline to go along with everything the administration demands of it. "The president," he replied with chilly menace, "has the legal authority to compel them to do so, and if they don't, he will."
As a matter of strict truth, Barack Obama may not have all the legal authority he would need. But punctilious adherence to the law is rarely the hallmark of American presidents.
When the head of the executive branch makes his desires known to a private corporation, the company defies him at its peril. Given the vast centralization of power in the Oval Office, Obama wields enough weapons to make BP come to heel or wish it had.
Lately, the administration seems more focused on meting out punishment than solving concrete problems in a measured way. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar boasted of his intention to "keep our boot on their neck," and Obama resolved to find out "whose ass to kick."
A villain as hated -- and justifiably hated -- as BP creates a temptation to indulge in excess, and Obama is not inclined to resist.
First there was the announcement that the Justice Department is considering criminal charges. It's entirely possible that in the fullness of time, evidence will emerge to support prosecution. But as a first resort, it discourages BP from working closely with the government to cope with the current emergency.
"Criminal prosecution kills cooperation," laments University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein. "How do you give information to someone who will use it to indict you?" You don't. But the president seems to think catering to populist outrage is more important right now.
Members of his party also demand that the oil company stiff its shareholders by canceling its dividend, while turning over billions to the feds to distribute as they please. Not many Democrats seem to worry about BP's obligations to its investors -- which, in an economy based on property rights, take priority over the whims of politicians. But that assumes we still respect property rights.
On Wednesday, Obama forced BP to set up a $20 billion fund to compensate everyone who suffers economic harm from the spill. But it's a pernicious solution to a fictitious problem.