Gulf oil spill: Obama’s big political test

President Obama is facing a critical test of his political philosophy: If the federal government can do so much, why can’t it stop the slow-motion Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf?

Jonathan Henderson, of Gulf Restoration Network and a small group of environmentalists try to get their message across to President Barack Obama as the presidential motorcade goes by in Grand Isle, Louisiana, on Friday.

President Obama’s exhortation to the American people is a simple one: Trust government.

Yet faced with his first major disaster – the BP oil spill – Obama is facing a critical test of his philosophy: If the federal government can do so much, why can’t it stop the slow-motion Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf?

So far, the President is faring better than both Congress and BP in polls about the handling of a spill that has now surpassed the size of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in 1989.

But as oil continues to flow and slicks gather in marshes and on beaches, the gushing Deepwater Horizon geyser has become increasingly intertwined with both the messenger – the President – and his message.

“The original sin in my view is that as soon as the oil rig accident happened the president tried to maintain distance between the gusher and his presidency,” writes former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. “When your most creative thoughts in the middle of a disaster revolve around protecting your position, you are summoning trouble. When you try to dodge ownership of a problem, when you try to hide from responsibility, life will give you ownership and responsibility the hard way.”

White House says Obama in charge

The White House says the response to the spill disaster has been unprecedented with Obama in charge from the beginning, corralling resources and holding BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig, accountable. What’s more, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandates the current command structure that puts BP at the top of the relief effort. Meanwhile, Obama has largely held back from making dramatic policy moves in the wake of the spill.

That changed on Friday when the President ordered a tripling of federal manpower on the Gulf in order to focus more efforts on clean-up as BP desperately tries to kill the well using a “top-kill” maneuver that involves pumping drilling mud and even golf balls into a failed blow out preventer at the well’s head.

“The buck stops with me,” Obama told Gulf residents during a three-hour visit on Friday, where he met with local leaders and picked up tar balls on a beach.

Yet administration officials admitted this week that they relied too heavily on the early estimates of 1,000 barrels a day, not fully realizing the extent of the catastrophe until April 28, a week later, when a third leak was found in the crumpled “riser” pipe. Later estimates show that as much as 19,000 barrels of oil a day have been leaking into the Gulf.

New Orleans resident and Democratic strategist James Carville opened fire in frustration this week.

“It just looks like (Obama) is not involved in this,” Mr. Carville said on ABC’s “Good Morning America. “Man, you got to get down here and take control of this, put somebody in charge of this thing and get this moving. We’re about to die down here.”

(After the president’s visit to the region Friday, Carville and his wife Mary Matalin – a Republican political consultant – were far more laudatory of Obama’s message.)

A problem getting protective booms to the shore and a federal delay in approving a barrier island berm project in Louisiana were seen by many as evidence of bureaucratic bungling.

“We’ve been frustrated with the disjointed response to date,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, said last week.

It's an emotional issue for many

But there’s also a question of how much of the criticism of government and the President is legitimate and how much is simply an outburst of emotion from frightened coastal residents and leaders. One Louisiana Congressman, Charles Melancon, teared up during a Congressional hearing on the spill last week. And one critic, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, said he “felt real bad” about his strong criticisms of the response after meeting with Obama on Friday.

In some respects, political grumbling over Obama’s handling of the crisis, especially from conservatives, strikes some political scientists as intellectually dishonest, since the main conservative thrust today is reining in the size and expanse of federal government in response to Obama’s progressive agenda (not to mention a “drill baby drill” attitude toward energy production).

But in hearings last week, Interior Department officials also admitted that Washington has, in fact, struggled to control not just the leak, but the narrative of its response.

“There’s an irony that people like Peggy Noonan, who seem convinced that government is incompetent and shouldn’t be trusted, are now complaining loudly that government isn’t more involved in this case,” says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the same time, he says, “Government doesn’t have the technology to cap the well, but on the cleanup operation … you might expect the government to be more effective and certainly the perception is they are not.”


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