Possible payoff from the Gulf Coast oil spill?

Business Times - 11 May 2010

Possible payoff from the Gulf Coast oil spill?

Obama could press for an energy bill and its cap-and-trade provisions more strongly now


FIVE years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, then president George W Bush was criticised for waiting much too long to act. The Bush administration had failed to provide the kind of decisive leadership required for dealing effectively with an emergency, said Democratic lawmakers and media commentators.

That negative assessment was magnified by media images of Mr Bush presenting a birthday cake to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona in Phoenix on exactly the same day the hurricane hit.

Indeed, Mr Bush's handling of the 2005 disaster - which resulted in the death of 1,800 people and caused close to US$100 billion in damage - turned out to be the lowest point in the history of his administration.

The debacle of Katrina helped erode much of the remaining support for Mr Bush and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill - who had already come under a lot of criticism for the handling of the Iraq War. And the debacle provided political ammunition to the Democrats, who campaigned successfully against the Republican administration's management of the Katrina mess, regaining eventually control of the Senate in the 2006 congressional elections and achieving their huge electoral win in the 2008 elections.

So no one was really shocked that, five years later, with the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf Coast of the United States now close to three weeks old, Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits are accusing President Barack Obama of gross mismanagement of the effects of the oil leak and are describing the catastrophe as - surprise! surprise! - 'Obama's Katrina'.

President Obama's response to the oil explosion was so slow and unsuccessful that he actually made Mr Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina seem timely and effective, according to the House of Representatives' Republican Conference chairman Mike Pence, who insisted that 'people in the Gulf of Mexico deserve better'.

The American people 'want answers', he told reporters, arguing that Mr Obama left the containment of the oil spill to British Petroleum (BP). The president did not fully respond until late on April 28, Mr Pence said, adding that 'the American people know this was a slow response'.

Conservative columnists, bloggers and radio talk-show hosts have also been aggressively promoting the 'Obama's Katrina' spin.

And in what could be described as a scene from the theatre of the absurd, playing the role of one of Mr Obama's leading critics is none other than Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under Mr Bush. It was he who, while much of New Orleans was underwater, was being complimented by his boss for his performance. 'Brownie, you're doing one heck of a job,' was the way Mr Bush rated his FEMA director's response to Katrina.

'You're now nine days into the storm, into the disaster, and actually now, only now is the president appearing to be engaged,' Mr Brown told Fox News as he assessed President Obama's response to the oil spill.

Moreover, Mr Brown seemed to be advancing a political conspiracy theory to explain Mr Obama's conduct, accusing the president of a delayed response to the Louisiana oil spill as part of a strategy to stop offshore drilling.

It was 'pure politics', Mr Brown said. 'This president has never supported big oil. He has never supported offshore drilling, Mr Brown told Fox News. 'And now he has an excuse to shut it back down.'

Interestingly enough, in contrast to the American public's reaction to Mr Bush's handling of Katrina, most Americans seem to have rejected the Republicans' spin and have given President Obama good grades for his management of the Gulf oil spill disaster.

According to a Rasmussen opinion poll, the majority rate it as 'excellent' (20 per cent), 'good' (23 per cent) or 'fair' (28 per cent) - which doesn't sound like the American public has concluded that the Gulf oil spill is turning into 'Obama's Katrina'. Only 25 per cent consider his performance 'poor'.

But officials in the White House recognise that public perceptions can change. While no one expects the oil spill to produce the human and economic costs that resulted from Katrina, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has tested President Obama's ability to manage major crises and their political consequences.

And it seems that Mr Obama and his aides have learned quite a lot from Mr Bush's disastrous response to Katrina. Hence, while in theory Mr Obama could have managed the current crisis from the White House via teleconferencing, he decided to make a presidential trip to the Gulf in order to ensure that - unlike Mr Bush, who is recalled for flying over the parts of Louisiana ravaged by the hurricane - he would be seen as a commander-in-chief who was fully engaged in leading the rescue and recovery operations.

And unlike during Katrina, when television viewers were following the misery inflicted on thousands of Louisianans crying for help, the images of the oil spill from the Gulf were less graphic and were associated in the minds of most Americans with the failure on the part of oil giant BP.

Indeed, while the responsibility for the collapse of the levees in Louisiana was with the government and the US Army Corps of Engineers that had built them, it was a private company - not the government - that was responsible for the oil leak.

Mr Obama would have been in a better position to criticise BP and to launch an attack on the Republicans who have been urging even more domestic oil drilling operations if the oil leak had not happened just a few weeks after the president made a speech in support of allowing offshore drilling.

But Mr Obama had agreed to a compromise on the oil drilling issue as part of an effort to reach a deal with the Republicans over the passage of comprehensive energy legislation by Congress. Now that the oil spill has clearly eroded public support for the Republicans' pro-oil-business position, Mr Obama may have gained new political leverage over the opposition party and could be in a stronger position to press for an energy bill and its cap-and-trade provisions.

So perhaps something good could come out of the oil spill disaster, after all.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


PatriotPaul said…
Let's see, the oil spill is Obama's Katrina. The underwear bomber was Obama's Katrina. H1N1 was Obama's Katrina. Haiti was Obama's Katrina. The GM Bankruptcy was Obama's Katrina. The Ft. Hood shootings were Obama's Katrina. Even the Kentucky ice storms were Obama's Katrina. Hasn't the right wing ever heard the story of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf"? What's almost as bad is that the so-called liberal media seems complicit in this spin.

I can't tell you how many times in almost 5 years that I've heard conservatives yell that Katrina was something that should have been handled by the locals. This in spite of the fact that it was larger than 9/11, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Northridge California earthquake and the San Diego firestorms combined.

Now these same folks, many led by Rush Limbaugh are saying that the oil spill, which is the fault of a private corporation IS suddenly the responsibility of the Federal Government. How hypocritical can they get? And to think in 2008 how many right wing media members lied that Katrina didn't cause any oil spills and therefore we should be expanding oil drilling in the Gulf.

Paul Harris
Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"
Anonymous said…
Katrina was an act of God.
The federal government's job is to step in quickly when tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes and natural disasters strike.

This oil spill was entirely 100% caused by human error on the part of oil company officials and employees.

Right now there appears nothing that oil experts can do to plug the leak.

The government was at fault for trusting private industry to provide fixes for the problems it creates

There was never any containment plan to begin with. Everything oil companies are doing now are wild guesses.

They were drilling for oil while all along having no emergency plan in case of a disaster.

Meanwhile, oil executives and drilling proponents and Republicans have been selling modern offshore drilling as the safer than the old technology.

As this disaster worsens, so does public attitudes to the "Drill, Baby, Drill" proponents.

They are showing themselves to be incompetent and incapable of leading
mitch said…
When will Obama admit he jumped on a political bandwagon?

The effects of the Gulf Oil spill are relatively minor and short-lived in terms of oil disasters.

This is being borne out even by U.S. experts.

Maybe in time an apology is due to B.P.?
Ebenezar said…
For my part every person should read it.
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