Business Times - 02 Jun 2010
Oil spill could 'top kill' Obama presidency
Poll shows over 50 per cent of Americans rate his response to disaster as poor or very poor
By LEON HADAR
WITH the failed 'top kill' operation of British Petroleum (BP) to plug the gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, US President Barack Obama and his aides are now bracing themselves for the worst.
Indeed, it seems that the most devastating environmental catastrophe in American history is gradually becoming Mr Obama's most destructive political crisis.
It could not only damage the efforts by the Democrats to maintain their control in Congress after November's midterm election; the political aftershocks of the oil spill, coupled with public discontent over a high unemployment rate and rising government spending as well as general cynicism over the conduct of politicians, could make it more difficult for Mr Obama to return to the White House for a second term.
Following the April 20 explosion of the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 people and produced an underwater gusher that BP has been trying to cap since, the initial expectation in Washington was that Mr Obama would succeed in placing the blame for the mess on BP and that the spill would prove to be a relatively short and 'manageable' crisis.
This was not going to become 'Obama Katrina', insisted administration officials and Democratic lawmakers, contrasting the current president's swift response to deepwater spill in the Gulf with his predecessor's slow and ineffective reaction to the human calamity produced by Hurricane Katrina.
But as thousands of barrels of oil continues to gush, creating environmental devastation and ruining the livelihoods of thousands of residents in the area, Mr Obama and his team have found themselves playing defence, responding to growing scepticism by the media over the White House's handling of the spill that has been reflected in an erosion in Mr Obama's popularity and poll numbers.
A Gallup poll released last week, a day before Mr Obama made a second trip to New Orleans to assess the devastation in the Louisiana region, suggested that while the public continued to place most of the blame on BP, more than 50 per cent of Americans rated Mr Obama's response to the spill as 'poor' or 'very poor'.
Similarly, a new CNN poll indicated rising dissatisfaction with Mr Obama's response to the oil spill, with 46 per cent approving, while 51 per cent disapproving. These numbers seem to be in line with the Obama presidency's overall approval rating, with the public divided almost in the middle between those who approve and those who disapprove of his job.
That might not yet signal that the public regards the environmental mess in the Gulf of Mexico as 'Obama's Katrina', but it poses major challenges to the electoral standing of the White House occupant who had marketed himself as the non-Bush candidate during the presidential campaign.
Indeed, the main objective behind the White House's aggressive media strategy last week - in addition to Mr Obama's second visit to the Gulf - was to contrast Mr Obama's energetic post-spill performance with former president George W Bush's perceived post-hurricane lethargic reaction, symbolised by the infamous image of Mr Bush looking down from Air Force One on the Katrina wreckage.
The White House was hoping to demonstrate that Mr Obama, unlike Mr Bush, was 'in charge' and that 'he cared'.
During his press conference, Mr Obama seemed to be going out of his way to admit that he and his administration fell short in anticipating and responding to the devastating consequences of the oil spill. He expressed his anger and frustration over the inability of BP and the government to contain the disaster.
Trying to add a certain personal touch to his comments, Mr Obama told the reporters that his 11-year-old daughter Malia knocked 'on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?'
The White House's media strategy was supposed to help establish that the White House - and not BP - was in command, with Mr Obama emphasising during the press conference that 'ultimately it is our folks down there who are responsible'. But his performance seemed to raise doubts about his I'm-in-Charge posture.
He admitted that he did not know if Elizabeth Birnbaum, the Department of Interior official heading Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency overseeing offshore drilling, was fired or allowed to resign. 'I don't know the circumstances in which this occurred,' he said.
Moreover, the fact remained that it was BP and not the government that was responsible for fixing the problems in the Gulf of Mexico and that there was not a lot that the government could do to change that reality. No, Malia. Daddy could not plug the hole.
Mr Obama could have exploited the catastrophe to launch a political offensive against the pro-business Republicans who have been calling for expanding oil-drilling operations. Indeed, one of the Republican slogans during the last election campaign was 'Drill, baby, drill', as they accused Mr Obama and the Democrats of banning offshore drilling in response to political pressures from their allies in the environmental camp.
But ironically, as he was trying to win Republican support for his proposed energy bill, Mr Obama ended up proposing more offshore drilling in March, making it more difficult to paint himself as the environmentally responsible president now.
In fact, Mr Obama admitted that MMS, which is an agency within the Interior Department, has had a 'cozy relationship' with the oil industry, which explains why the administrations of Mr Bush and Mr Obama have both skirted federal requirements that required impact assessments from environmental agencies before issuing drilling permits.
While Mr Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared himself the 'new sheriff in town' days after the president's inauguration, his MMS exempted BP's Deepwater Horizon operation from the required environmental impact analysis in April 2009, according to news reports.
While Mr Obama has criticised the 'ridiculous spectacle' of major drilling firms such as BP, Transocean and Halliburton blaming each other for the spill, the fact was that his Interior Department kept rubber-stamping oil-drilling permits to these companies. A new sheriff, perhaps; but the same old failed approach.
Mr Obama announced last week that he was now banning drilling at 33 deepwater Gulf of Mexico rigs for six months and suspending exploration off Alaska's coast and cancelled pending lease sales in Virginia and the Gulf. He also stressed that unlike the Republicans, he never saw drilling as a long-term energy fix. 'That's part of the reason you never heard me say, 'Drill, baby, drill', because we can't drill our way out of the problem,' Mr Obama said. 'It may be part of the mix as a bridge to a transition to new technologies and new energy sources, but we should be pretty modest in understanding that the easily accessible oil has already been sucked up out of the ground,' he said.
But it is not clear that Mr Obama's promise to fix the mess and his efforts to show that he was in charge and engaged are going to make a difference, especially if BP fails to plug the leak anytime soon. If anything, the image of Mr Obama sticking his finger into the sand during his visit to Louisiana last Friday seemed to accentuate on the major problems that he may be facing as he tries to communicate with the American people.
As his critics and allies have noted, the image that Mr Obama transmits is of a detached upper-class intellectual and not of someone who is able to empathise with the common 'folks' in Louisiana and elsewhere. While former president Bill Clinton would have probably hugged a local fisherman while shedding a few tears - after all, he was 'feeling his pain' - Mr Obama looked more like a scientist who was conducting an experiment.
He was engaged and in charge - but it did not seem that he was feeling anyone's pain.
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