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The Gulf Oil Spill Is Not Katrina and Obama Is Not Bush


For myriad reasons, the last 48 hours in the Gulf have dealt a devastating blow to the political fortune of the Obama administration. The impact of recent events in that region will certainly be felt in November and perhaps even in 2012. And while the Israeli raid on ships carrying Palestinian activists is getting some attention, the spill is still the biggest story in America this morning.

Not every event or issue has an electoral effect, but our sense is that the Gulf oil spill will. Here is our up-to-the-minute take on events in the Gulf and our assessment of the political implications. As always, while the Gulf oil spill will have an enormously negative impact on wildlife and peoples' livelihoods, our focus is on the political and public relations elements of the catastrophe.

  1. We're now more than 40 days in, and the White House has finally gone into full crisis mode. Last week the President addressed the spill in a press conference and travelled to the region. He took responsibility for virtually everything under the sun. That seemed like the right strategic move until, of course, "top-kill" failed. Now it may prove to be problematic as voters begin to look for somewhere to place blame.
  2. The administration is doing what every good political campaign does: they are lowering expectations. The front page headline above the fold in dozens of newspapers across the country is: "Oil could flow until August." Now you could say that they are accurately and realistically setting expectations, since the relief wells will not be ready until August. But the statement from White House energy and climate advisor Carol Browner tells us that Team Obama does not want another expectations setback like the failed "top-kill." Better to lay out the worst-case scenario and if they do better, great.
  3. The President and his political team were slow to react to this crisis and it may have a lasting public opinion impact. Let's take a quick snapshot of the timeline of this incident:

    a. April 20th the oil rig Deepwater Horizon explodes.
    b. April 24th oil is found leaking from the well.
    c. April 29th Obama speaks publicly for the first time about the spill in the Rose Garden.
    d. May 2nd Obama visits the Gulf to inspect response operations.
    e. May 28th Obama holds an hour long press conference on the spill.
    f. May 29th Obama visits the Gulf again.

    It was nine days after the explosion--and five days after the world knew that the well was spewing oil--before the President spoke about the issue. And he didn't travel to the Gulf until 12 days after the explosion. It was more than a month before Obama held a full news conference to answer questions on the crisis. There is no doubt that the White House underestimated and underplayed the incident for its first few weeks. The result was the prevailing impression that Obama was disengaged. Of course, it is possible that Obama may be able to correct this impression.

    At this point in time, voter attitudes toward the President's handling of the Gulf oil spill are mixed. The following chart shows voter evaluation of Bush's handling of Katrina thirty days after the hurricane and reactions to Obama's handling of the spill in a comparable time frame.

    june 2 handling crisis.png

    As you can see, the Gallup poll in particular suggests that voters are starting to view the President's handling of the spill in a negative light. The coming days will be critical in terms of cementing or reversing this opinion.

  4. The short-term problem for Democrats is that the Gulf crisis drives down Obama's approval rating, the long-term issue for the President is that it diminishes one of the core reasons people voted for him: competence. There is no shortage of blog posts and op-eds on this point. Obama was supposed to be the "anti-Bush," the competency guy. He may not be emotional but he is smart and will know how to get things done. Well, his reaction to the Gulf oil spill seems to suggest otherwise. Now, for all we know the President had a multitude of discussions with his team about the issue and probably was monitoring and managing it from the start. However, a large segment of the voting public does not have that impression and in the end, that is what counts.

  5. This is not Katrina and Obama is not Bush. Look, it is interesting to compare the two because of the geographic proximity but they are very different Presidents at very different points in their presidencies. Bush was one year into his second term and his approval rating (in the low 40's) had been eroding for more than a year due to Iraq War fatigue. Bush's slow and distant reaction to the human toll in Louisiana suggested that he didn't care, taking away the one attribute some voters still ascribed to him. Katrina was the tipping point and Bush's approval rating fell into the 30's and never recovered. Obama is 18 months into his first term and his approval rating - though not great - is in the high 40's. So while Katrina was a tipping point for Bush, the Gulf oil spill may be a turning point for Obama.

  6. Team Obama has something that Bush never had with Katrina: a villain. A large international oil company. What better villain could you ask for? Team Obama will maximize this to its political advantage over the coming weeks. With Katrina, Bush was the villain.

  7. Remember, it is not usually the event that kills a President's approval rating; it is the reaction. Bush couldn't prevent the hurricane but voters thought the government's reaction was terrible. Time will tell whether the public believes that the Obama administration handled the aftermath to the oil spill well.

  8. At this point in time, there is little evidence that Obama's job rating has suffered substantial erosion because of the spill. While it may emerge over time, so far there is little sign of a negative effect on Obama's overall job approval: over the past month he has been consistently around the 47%-48% mark among registered voters. As we have said before, the economy is still far and away the number one issue for voters, and perceptions of it has far more impact on Obama's approval rating than the Gulf spill - at this point in time. The current unemployment rate is 9.9%. The main economic event this week is the May payrolls report. Most economists are forecasting 500,000 new jobs and the unemployment dropping .01 to 9.8%. Will that be seen as enough improvement? Doubtful.
  9. The saturated media coverage of the oil spill is reaching historic proportions and that means all eyes will be on POTUS. In September of 2005, 58% of the public was watching the Katrina crisis "very closely." According to a Gallup poll taken a week ago, the Gulf oil spill was already up to 47%. The 3-D graphics of the "Top Kill" have dominated cable news shows and the impact on the views of Americans outside the media echo chamber is just beginning to become known. They are certainly aware of it, with The Economist reporting that 73% of adults have heard or read "a lot." And we are in an environment where distrust of government and corporations are both at record highs, so this disaster will become part of the "narrative of failure" of public institutions in the same way that Fannie and Lehman have. But right now, most of the impact appears to be on BP, not the administration. A Pew poll found that 26% of voters feel that the Obama administration has done a "poor" job and 44% think that BP has done poorly.

  10. The spill takes the President "off message" and further diminishes Democratic efforts to forge a winning agenda for the Fall elections. This maybe one of the most significant problems for the President and Democrats. The spill will likely suck the oxygen out of the room for at least the next 30-60 days at a time when Democrats need the focus to be on their legislative agenda.

  11. If nothing else, the Gulf oil spill will be a significant blow to future offshore drilling development along our coasts, much as Three Mile Island affected the domestic nuclear industry. The effect on public opinion is already dramatic; fewer than half of all Americans now support expanded offshore drilling.

    june 2 expanded support.png

  12. The Gulf oil spill is likely to have dramatic political effect in the weeks ahead. And once we are swamped with videos of oil-soaked seabirds and ruined beaches, all bets are off.

 

Comments
hoosier_gary:

One big difference is that for 5 years, Bush said that big government was not the answer to the country's problems. Katrina proved that true. Obama has been saying that big government is the answer to all the country's problems. His oil disaster incompetance proves him wrong. His entire presidency is based on bigger is better.

Bush had to wait 4 days for a democrat governor of Louisiana to quit crying and worrying about what allowing federal troops in would do to her politically. Obama has been ignoring the governor of Louisiana who has been begging him for 4 weeks to allow them to build sand barriers. Obama hasn't answered yet.

He thought he would be a hero when he announced he was taking responsibility - on the day he though top kill was going to stop the flow. That was a huge political mistake. It just shows more of his incompetance.

Now he is going back to his ambulance chasing instincts and since he can't fix the problem - he is going to sue somebody. Holder talking about criminal charges at this time is another monumental political blunder. I expect approval of Obama's handling of this disaster to drop into the upper 30's within a week.

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LordMike:

So, less regulation would have prevented this accident? That makes no sense.

If anything, this proves that unregulated free markets cannot police themselves.

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MikeyA:

I think you make some great points Gary.

People don't want blame at this point. They want someone to solve the problem. Unless that happens quickly Obama will have a huge problem of being viewed as incompetent. It is no shock to me that while this has erroded his approval the repeal of healthcare question has gained more and more support.

Where he stands to lose in this election is because of the census. Many of the states that are going to gain congressional seats are red states. They are going to have Republican Governors. When redistricting comes into play it's likely that we won't see a Dem controlled house for at least a decade.

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hoosier_gary:

@Lordmike:

There has been a law in effect since 1990 that requires the president to make sure there is a plan in place, equipment ready to go, and people ready to move on a moment's notice in order to control an oil spill. This is the big government solution. It is a complete failure. Not just Obama - all presidents since 1990 have failed to create this ready response force. Obama was caught unprepared because he trusts big government.

You can have one or the other. You can regulate the industry or you can tell the industry to not worry - that big government will take care of the problem.

This has nothing to do with regulation. This has everything to do with the failure of a nanny-state take care of everything big government.

Why didn't the free market regulate itself on this? Because idiots put big government in charge instead. Why would BP spend money on things the government told them was not their responsibility? The government said, "Don't worry - we've got you covered".

What is absolutely true in this article is that the problem is not the oil spill - it it the horrible way Obama has been handling it for 44 days now. He spent 6 days denying there was any spill. Then he spent 3 weeks saying it wasn't his problem. Then he said that he has been in control since day one.

Then he had the EPA order BP to stop using dispersal chemicals which were preventing the oil from congealing until they could study the environmental impacts.

Then he refused to allow the gulf coast governors to build sand barriers at first because he wanted the EPA to do an environmental impact study, and now because he doesn't know for certain if they would work or not.

He keeps falling back on big slow agencies, debilitating regulations, big government, and is failing miserably. HE has to take control. Not just play lip service that he is in charge. He actually has to do something - not just walk around the beach and look somber.

In other words, he has to be the president - not a candidate. He has to quit campaigning for 2010 and 2012 and do his damn job.

If he would just take his candidate hat off for a few months and do what he was elected to do, his approval will recover. If he keeps doing what he is doing now, he'll never be able to swim up out of the hole he dug in the bottom of the gulf.

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LordMike:

You just promoted big government in your rant AGAINST big government.

You argue that the president needs to "do something". Shouldn't your argument be that since government is so bad, the president should do nothing and let the free market fix this themselves.

After all, the drilling rig was privately owned and run by a private corporation. The free market should fix this on its own without any government intervention.

In that sense, Obama's response was profoundly conservative--BP must clean up its own mess.

The fact that they can't (or won't) suggests that there is a role for "big government" in these disasters.

In fact, you are demanding it, even while you belittle it. You can't have it both ways. Either you have government involved or not.

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hoosier_gary:

LordMike - the president is not big government. He is the president. He doesn't need 87 different agencies and 175,000 people to take control of this problem. Just him. He has the army, navy, marines, and air force at his beck and call. He has the ability to comandeer private organizations. It doesn't take big government to make a president a good leader. It just takes a good president. Unfortunately for the gulf coast - we have Obama.

If we had a free market they might have fixed this. We don't have a free market. We have a government stupid enough to tell private enterprise that we will clean up after their mess.

How much has Mr. Obama spent on this? I don't mean on a P.R. campaign. I mean has he spent even a fraction of the $1 billion that B.P. has already spent on this?

If he can spend $200 billion to give union members raises so they keep sending him campaign contributions he can throw resources at this problem - even if it is hired from the private sector. Big government caused this problem. It can't fix it.

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hoosier_gary:

And now Obama just shot himself in the foot again. "Never let a crisis go to waste", right?

His new answer? Pass a global warming tax bill and raise everyone's taxes. Now raising taxes is his new emergency. Hurry up! Pass that bill now! Quick - don't let anyone read it.

His answer to the failure of big government? Raise taxes and make government bigger.

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hoosier_gary:

Wait, wait, wait! Obama has a brand new strategy. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/dcnow/2010/06/obama-faults-gop-bp-as-he-seeks-to-reset-economic-agenda.html

What brilliant new strategy is Obama using now? Blame Bush.

How long until the racism charges come out?

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LordMike:

It is Bush's fault... He's the one who deregulated the oil industry and then opened up offshore drilling after 20 years of being closed off.

Let's not forget the GOP mantra: Drill baby Drill... and no regulations... and no oversight.... and shrink the government so it can be drowned in a bathtub. Well, now you're drowning in oil...

And your begging the federal government to help save you... ironic. The free market should clean up this mess. the free market cures everything.

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LordMike:

BP cutting corners to make more profit as a result of lax regulations is a failure of big government? It sounds like more of a failure of unregulated free market capitalism.

Tell me, please, how "less government" would have made BP less greedy and reckless. "Bigger government" could do a better job of regulating, but 30 years of stripping down the government and reducing oversight has caused this mess.

Less regulations and less oversight is the GOP way... the oil spill is the result!

Drill baby drill!!

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Farleftandproud:

Look, there have been 12-15 fatalities from this oil spill. I feel badly for them, but it isn't Katrina.

Nearly 500 people died after Katrina, if you include the people whose deaths were related to the hurricane.

Lets look back at the Valdez oil spill in Alaska; it was a moment in time where I don't fault Bush 1 or Reagan for failing to prevent it. Alaska is a half continent away and there is just so much any president could do.

What Obama needs to do, is to do a better job at settling the losses from this oil spill and hold the corporations accountable. I can't remember how involved George H W Bush was involved with Valdez, but it took nearly 20 years to settle it in court.

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Farleftandproud:

We didn't have any other cable news other than CNN back in 1989 during the Valdez oil spill. The news that existed than didn't overfocus any where near on that disaster. The autistic nature of our media tends to overfocus on one issue for weeks and we forget all the other news going around us. Cable news takes the cake.

I value my local Albany, NY news because they focus on local issues and national issues too. The oil spill is important, but unless progress in the gulf is really being made, I lose interest. There is no sense of talking about it constantly like they do.

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BobNelson2:

In order to "respond effectively" to the oil spill, Obama would have to 1) have known immediately that this particular industrial accident, among the hundreds that occur every week, had enormous consequences 2) set in motion the nonexistent government mechanism to swoop in to 3) dispatch non-existent government workers to 4) implement technologies which haven't been invented yet to 5) stop an oil leak the likes of which have never before been seen.

Bush, similarly, would have had to pick up the phone and order in the National Guard to get into their trucks and drive into New Orleans on the heels of more than a few lone reporters who managed to drive to the Superdome and get back home the same day in time for press.

I can see why people make the comparison...

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Aaron_in_TX:

BobNelson, you have completely nailed it on the head. I was just about to say that the government knows how to respond to hurricanes and there is FEMA that is specifically tasked with that duty. Bush's praise of their obvious incompetence is what caused the erosion of his approval, not just his dismissal of the the people dying of dehydration and exhaustion in the superdome.

There is no one in the government who knows adequately how to respond to this. The government is not in the oil business. This is gross negligence on the part of EVERYONE in the oil business. We can drill in 10,000 feet of water and 40,000 feet deeper into the ground below that, but are helpless to stop a leak at more than a few hundred feet. Obviously no foresight or development of redundant technology.

wrt to this analysis:

The main difference is that Obama has not praised the inadequate response and has taken responsibility. I think everyone thought this could be solved fairly easily 7-10 days after the explosion.

Are there no other surveys for comparison besides gallup?

The erosion of support for offshore drilling comes almost exclusively from independents and democrats. A precipitous drop among both. Republicans still support it strongly. So I wonder what that will do to Obama's approval? Bush didn't lose his own supporters after Katrina, he lost a good number of independents and basically all democrats.

This is absolutely the right time to push an energy bill. We must find some way to reduce oil usage, or things like this will happen again and again. Ultimately this disaster is not Obama's fault but all of us collectively. It's like blaming someone's father for the damage his son caused while addicted to heroin, except this son doesn't live with his father anymore.

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MikeyA:

"It is Bush's fault... He's the one who deregulated the oil industry and then opened up offshore drilling after 20 years of being closed off."

Wow this is the dumbest comment I've seen yet.

How long as Bush been out of Office? How effective has the Republicans been by stopping the Democratic agenda?

If the Dems REALLY wanted to stop off shore drilling they could. Healthcare was more important to them.

Now we have gov't mandated HC and a coast of dead animals. You can't blame that on Bush.

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hoosier_gary:

@bobnelson2:

"Bush, similarly, would have had to pick up the phone and order in the National Guard to get into their trucks and drive into New Orleans on the heels of more than a few lone reporters who managed to drive to the Superdome and get back home the same day in time for press."

Do you know about this thing we have in this country called the Constitution? Do you know that the president does not control the national guard - governors do? Do you know that a president is constitutionally forbidden from sending federal troops into a state without that state's governor's permission. Do you know that Kathleen Blanco - the most stupid governor in the history of this nation refused for 4 days to allow Bush to send troops in. Did you know that this stupid governor refused to allow the red cross to bring shipments of food and water in to the Super Dome.

Why doesn't Obama have the clean-up force that he is required by law to have? Because he depends on big government and he is a failure.

So, here's the difference. Within minutes of Blanco allowing troops in - they were there. It's been 45 days and instead of working to fix the problem, Obama is blaming Bush and instead of cooperating with BP has launched lawsuits against them. He is an idiot. A moron. A bumbling fool. A disaster.

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LordMike...government regulations forced the drilling so far offshore making all known technologies to stop this spill ineffective. That's the irony of this story. Had this occured in 500ft of water (or God forbid ANWR), non-issue...leak is stopped, oil is contained.

Point two...free markets do work. Don't go buy BP gas and put them out business. Oh wait...they might be too big to fail and eligible for a government bailout.

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StatBabe:

IWMPB: You do not know what you are talking about. Over 4,000 offshore wells are pumping in less than 500 feet of water while less than 600 offshore wells are of the "deep water" variety like the one that blew up. In addition, of all the countries on earth, only the U.S. and the U.K. fail to have restrictions on offshore drilling that require either a remote shutoff or a relief well to be drilled simultaneously with the test well. If this had been Canada, this problem would have been solved weeks ago--and NOT because of the brilliance of BP engineers but because the Canadian government requires the drilling of a relief well along with the test well as well as a remote shutoff.

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StatBabe:

Farleftandproud: You're wrong about the number of fatalities after Katrina--the "official count" in New Orleans alone is 1,464, although they were still finding bodies as recently as last year when I was there for a meeting. Also, from what I read at the time, officials did everything but stand on their heads to try and keep the body count low so who knows how many really died? One thing is certain--MOST of those deaths were entirely preventable if the Army Corps of Engineers had upgraded the levees, like they should have done years ago.

I would not be too quick to blow off the potential casualties from this oil spill since people are already getting sick from BP using toxic dispersant to try and hide the extent of the problem. It is hard to predict what is going to happen to our food chain, too, with these dispersants that were used.

As to the comparisons to Katrina, that's something that totally escapes me. George W. Bush appointed a guy that had been fired from the horsey show to run FEMA, and he proved to be incompetent to respond to a natural disaster, which is what FEMA is SUPPOSED to do--respond to natural disasters! The BP Deepwater Horison blew up, and there is NO government agency with the expertise or manpower to respond to plug up the leak. T

he problem lies with a laissez faire attitude toward oil drilling that has pervaded this country for the past 30 years.

The libertarian fruitcakes who have been arguing that less regulation is the answer stand logic on its head. First and foremost, oil takes millions of years to form, and we are well past the tipping point in terms of what we have already used. It is simply a matter of time when we will have no choice but to seek other energy sources. Why we are jeopardizing our wildlife, wetlands, and beaches in the name of drilling for more and more oil instead of finding alternatives to the internal combustion engine, I will NEVER know! I DO know that it is well past time for the libertarian fruitcake fringe to quit bending over to kiss the behinds of the oil industry in the name of a broken ideology that stands logic on its head.

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