Imagine a world in which the massive BP oil spill had never taken place.
President Obama and his administration would be fighting with all their might to promote job creation amid stubbornly high unemployment. They would have embarked on a public relations blitz to convince Americans that the new health-care reform law is already helping millions, as Republicans try to repeal key elements. And they would be focused like a laser beam on the war in Afghanistan, which has quietly crossed an important threshold: The US now has more troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
Oh wait – they're doing all that already, in addition to addressing the biggest environmental disaster in American history.
Attempts to assess the impact of the BP oil spill on Obama's presidency must of necessity factor in everything else that's happening. Even if Obama has not received high marks for his handling of the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, it remains but one of many elements that voters consider when asked their views of his job performance.
"There is significant concern about the oil spill," says Gary Langer, polling director for ABC News. "But at a time of 9.7 percent unemployment, there is very long-running and significant concern about the economy. And I still think the economy is the -pound gorilla of this presidency."
Perhaps most startling for Obama, amid the stutter-stepping over the two-month-long-and-counting BP mess, is that his job approval ratings have held steady in the high 40s. That's not bad, considering all the bad news, including the fact that the spewing well still has not been capped. BP is the primary villain in this disaster, especially after the release of documents showing that the company took "shortcuts" that may have led to the explosion of its Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20. The Obama administration picks up its share of blame, not least for the lax federal oversight of offshore drilling that was well-known when Obama took office but which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had not fully addressed by the time the spill began.
But Obama himself, while criticized for not showing enough visible concern in the early going or demonstrating a sense of command, has won some sympathy in the public arena amid an untenable situation. "There is absolutely nothing that the American president can do" about the ecological disaster in the Gulf, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum writes in arguing that the oil spill is not Obama's hurricane Katrina. Michael Bloomberg has also come to Obama's defense: "He can't put on a scuba suit and go down and stop this well," the New York mayor said on June 17.
Still, Obama has plenty to worry about politically.
"The president is an almost automatic lightning rod for practically anything that happens," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian and professor emeritus at Princeton University in New Jersey.
The Iranian hostage crisis wasn't President Carter's fault, but it created a feeling of impotence that permeated his administration, amid other challenges, such as a bad economy. By the time Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, George W. Bush's presidency was already heading downhill over the Iraq war and economic concerns. Criticism over Katrina dealt a further blow from which he never recovered.
Judging how the BP oil spill will affect Obama's political strength for the rest of this term – and ultimately, his reelection chances in 2012 – is like analyzing a basketball game at halftime. Not possible. Perhaps, after more than a week of daily public focus, Obama has now hit his stride on the oil spill, or at least will be seen as doing the best he can amid horrendous circumstances.
It's also possible that Obama was not going to accomplish much more in the way of big, signature initiatives anyway this term. Financial regulatory reform is expected to reach his desk, but beyond that, immigration reform looks like a long shot. And despite the opening for comprehensive energy reform that the oil spill has created, as Obama laid out in his Oval Office speech June 15, that's another long throw. After a year and a half in control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Democrats seem nearly spent after passing the massive stimulus package, health-care reform, and, presumably, financial reform. Come January, after midterm elections, the Democrats' big majorities in Congress will likely be gone, making major accomplishments even more difficult to achieve.
The week of June 14 may have been Obama's best on the oil spill. His two-day visit to the Gulf region was his longest yet, and he got the kind of pictures his critics have been demanding as he surveyed the devastation and visited with locals. His speech from the Oval Office didn't wow even liberal pundits, but at the very least, it reinforced to the public a single-minded focus. And on June 16, the four-hour meeting between senior administration officials and top BP executives produced a real victory for Obama: a $20 billion escrow account, funded by BP, to pay for cleanup costs and damages. That amount is not a ceiling, and could well go higher. Even James Carville, the loudly unhappy Louisiana Democrat, was impressed: "If money talks, $20 billion screams," he said.
Mr. Langer, the ABC News pollster, sees Obama as standing on the edge of a slope slippery with oil. For now, his public – mostly Democrats and some independents – is sticking with him. But that could change.
"Crises ... present opportunities for presidents to exert leadership – and the attendant risk of failure," Langer writes. "With both Bush's fortunes [after Katrina] and the current data in mind, Obama likely is less concerned about what the spill response has done to him now, as the challenge it poses for the future."
Obama has said that most Americans don't expect their presidents to be "magicians." But at the very least, they expect competence. And defining presidential competence in the face of an unprecedented environmental disaster is difficult. Estimates of the flow rate out of the damaged Macondo well have risen dramatically since the oil started leaking – from 1,000 barrels a day (42,000 gallons) to as many as 60,000. That's the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez every four days. Some, but not all, is being collected or burned. By the time relief wells are completed – no sooner than August – and the leak is permanently sealed, it's anyone's guess what the Gulf Coast will look like. Ditto the Obama presidency.