Nobody has had much positive to say about President Obama's handling of the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, and some of the highest-intensity rants are coming from members of his own party. Whether he suffers long-term political damage has a lot to do with how soon the oil stops spewing, how quickly the environment can be repaired and whether Obama's cool governing style continues to hold appeal.
The numbers right now aren't good for Obama or anyone in charge of an impossibly complex, dangerous, unnerving and environmentally consequential catastrophe. Several polls show a majority of the public disapproves of the way Obama is handling the spill. Still, in the latest, a USA Today-Gallup poll, the president does better than BP and the federal government (53 percent said he is doing a poor or very poor job, compared with six in 10 for the feds and nearly three-quarters for BP).
Is this "Obama's Katrina"? Karl Rove and other Republicans are promoting this talking point, but it's unclear if it will take hold. The most damaging political developments are those that reinforce an existing impression of a leader. So Hurricane Katrina was George W. Bush's "Katrina" because much of the public already believed the Bush administration had bungled the Iraq war. The hurricane aftermath reinforced the perception of incompetence. Similarly, when Dan Quayle prompted a child to add an "e" to the word potato, it reinforced the idea -- fair or not -- that he wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
Obama is widely viewed as smart and his administration has not been branded incompetent. Still, there is an emerging narrative that could damage Obama if it sticks. While polls suggest the public perceives him as empathetic, cable chatter often focuses on his alleged detachment and inability to connect. The BP crisis has provided considerable fodder for that story line.
"There's a perception that he hasn't shown strong leadership, that he hasn't stepped up to the plate. He talks about leadership more than he demonstrates it," says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. He adds: "You can't keep telling people 'I'm the guy in charge but everybody else is to blame.' "
Ironically, two customary allies of the White House -- Democratic consultant James Carville and MSNBC "Hardball" host Chris Matthews -- are among Obama's loudest critics. Carville, a Louisiana native now living in New Orleans, vented repeatedly in the days leading up to Obama's Thursday press conference about the administration's "lackadaisical" response and "political stupidity."
"I have no idea of why they didn't seize this thing. I have no idea why their attitude was so hands-offy here. It's just unbelievable," a fired-up Carville said Wednesday on ABC. "He just looks like he's not involved in this. You got to get down here and take control of this -- put somebody in charge of this thing and get this thing moving. We're about to die down here." Later that day, Obama announced he'd make a second visit to the Gulf on Friday.
Carville and Matthews have wondered why Obama was not engaging with the families of the dead and people who've lost their livelihoods; why he hadn't sent scientists from Woods Hole and other experts to the coast; why he hadn't marshaled technology and tankers from all the oil companies operating in the United States to help stop and clean up the spill. Matthews, offering cold comfort, has said the Gulf spill is less like Katrina than the drip-drip of the Iran hostage crisis that finished off Jimmy Carter's presidency.
As he waited Thursday for Obama's press conference to start, Matthews said the potential for lasting environmental damage is more important than a presidency, but Obama hasn't acted like it. "He doesn't seem to be taking ownership," Matthews said. "Presidents must seize control when something like this happens. This is big-time and he hasn't acted like it's big-time."
Obama tried to seize that control -- or at least improve the PR optics -- at the end of his press conference, when he said this: "My job right now is just to make sure that everybody in the Gulf understands, this is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about. The spill. . . . And it's not just me, by the way. When I woke up this morning, and I'm shaving and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, daddy?' "
There was no mercy for Carter when he said he had talked to his young daughter Amy about nuclear proliferation, but Obama's disclosure of his conversation with Malia impressed Matthews and MSNBC political editor Chuck Todd. "Talk about a sound bite," Matthews said. "Did the president deliver? I'd say personally there, in a way he rarely does." Todd agreed that the remark was "more of a gut moment . . . personal connection moment" from a politician who is usually more cerebral. "I gotta think that moment helps at least calm down Carville and some other critics a little bit," he told Matthews. Critics like, for instance, the fellow he was talking to.
Obama took the emotional connection to a new level Friday in Grand Isle, La., after receiving a Coast Guard briefing on the clean-up. "Our response treats this event for what it is. It's an assault on our shores, on our people, on the regional economy, and on communities like this one," the president said. "People are watching their livelihoods wash up on the beach. Parents are worried about the implications for their children's health. Every resident of this community has watched this nightmare threaten the dreams that they've worked so hard to build, and they want it made right, and they want to make it right now."
He repeated that he is responsible for solving the crisis and said the people of the Gulf will not be facing the future alone. "I give the people of this community and the entire Gulf my word that we're going to hold ourselves accountable to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this catastrophe, to defend our natural resources, to repair the damage, and to keep this region on its feet," he said. "Justice will be done for those whose lives have been upended by this disaster, for the families of those whose lives have been lost -- that is a solemn pledge that I am making."
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