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Obama Faces Backlash Over Drilling, Leak Response

President Obama, standing in the rain, makes a statement to reporters in Venice, La., as he visits the Gulf Coast region affected by the oil spill on Sunday.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama, standing in the rain, makes a statement to reporters in Venice, La., as he visits the Gulf Coast region affected by the oil spill on Sunday.

With the oil leak catastrophe two weeks old and the White House in full crisis overdrive, President Obama finds himself at the center of two debates swirling through his own Democratic Party.

The massive leak in the Gulf of Mexico has unleashed a dispute over the quality of Obama's leadership in confronting the still-unfolding disaster. And it has renewed scrutiny of proposed energy legislation that hinges on White House-endorsed provisions for more offshore drilling.

Obama has been lambasted and lauded for his response to the leak, and subjected to increasing pressure from liberals to rescind his support for new leases to drill off the coast.


A television ad is calling on Obama to reinstate a ban on new offshore drilling. The president has suspended all new drilling pending resolution of the crisis but has not made future promises.

During his press briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated Obama's commitment to domestic energy production "as part of our overall domestic energy strategy." However, when asked if Obama could change his mind about opening up some areas to offshore drilling, Gibbs said: "I wouldn't rule it out."

Amid the debate, most Republicans -- including senators from coastal states who are pressing the White House for government aid -- have been holding their fire, letting Democrats duke it out over the leak's larger implications, both political and legislative.

"It would, after all, be kind of ironic for criticism to be coming from the 'drill, baby, drill' crowd," says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.

Disaster And Drilling


In recent days, the White House has begun pushing back against those questioning whether the president reacted quickly enough after the April 20 explosion on a BP oil rig killed 11 workers and damaged the well.

A scorching piece headlined "How Obama has Failed America in the BP Oil Spill" was posted on the liberal Firedoglake website and distributed Tuesday by the House Republican leadership office.

It accused the president of "misleading the American people" about how much of the cleanup tab taxpayers will have to pick up, and compared his response unfavorably to President Bush's much-criticized reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

Though liberals like Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress derided the piece and defended Obama as "responding promptly from Day 1," there have been signs of agitation in the administration. The Washington-based political publication Politico went so far as to characterize the White House as in a public relations "panic" over criticisms of a too-slow response.

Exhaustive disaster updates are now being issued by the White House under the heading, "The Ongoing Administration-Wide Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill." In them, the administration details "response actions," "coordinated interagency asset deployment and response" and hotline numbers in multiple pages.

Defenders of the president's response note that BP initially reported that the well had been capped, and that it wasn't until nearly five days after the explosion that the company reported that it was still leaking. On April 28, BP said it learned that the well was leaking five times the oil originally reported.

The following day, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared it a spill of "national significance."

The mobilization of government forces in response to the crisis "could help people see the value of government in action," Weiss says.

"President Obama's response," he says, "is a reminder to everyone what a competent government is capable of doing."

The Fate Of The Energy Bill

Despite intra-party skirmishes over Obama's environmental bona fides, it does appear that he will emerge from the disaster with his reputation for leadership intact -- and perhaps enhanced.

But to answer tough questions about where BP -- and the government -- went wrong, Weiss has encouraged the White House to establish an independent commission to investigate and hold hearings. Similar commissions were established after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the Challenger space shuttle explosion.

But the fate of the energy bill is another story.

Its success hinged on a deal that captured GOP support by allowing new drilling off the Florida coast in exchange for a provision supported by environmentalists that requires that utilities use more renewable energy.

Republican strategist Cameron Lynch sees big trouble for the fragile agreement.

"Most of mainstream political America was finally beginning to coalesce around the idea that America needed to do everything it could to increase domestic energy production -- from all sources," Lynch says. "My fear is that this oil spill will curb enthusiasm for drilling, and set back this emerging bipartisan consensus."

What Next?

Environmentalists, however, insist that the crisis provides an opportunity to reshape drilling provisions in the bill. But that would be what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might call a "heavy lift."

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said Tuesday that energy legislation with provisions to open new coastal areas to drilling "is not going anywhere." However, Nelson told reporters that Democrat Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, an author of the bill, has not agreed to remove the drilling provision.

Says Fenn: "It's very clear now that this is very complicated, and this shows how difficult it may be to do offshore drilling."

His suggestion to move along energy legislation: include language of support for the increase of safe offshore drilling, but hold off specific provisions until the cause of the Gulf disaster has been determined.

Drilling Inevitable?

Michael Economides, managing partner of a Houston-based petroleum engineering and strategy consulting firm, called the leak a "self-fulfilling prophecy for the left."

"But you can't live a risk-free life in the 21st century," says Economides, a co-author of The Color of Oil and a chemical engineering professor at the University of Houston. "These incidents are rare and we use oil because we have no choice."

That's the prevailing position of Republicans on Capitol Hill, where this week House Minority Leader John Boehner avoided criticizing Obama. Instead, he advocated the continued pursuit of an "all of the above" energy strategy, including the extraction of oil off shore.

But the priority now -- and one that will affect not only Obama's reputation, but the fate of the energy bill -- is to shut down the well, says Francisco Parra, author of Oil Politics: A Modern History of Petroleum.

"The arguments that have emerged [in the wake of the leak] are not unusual or unexpected or particularly wrong," Parra says. "People will make a lot of noise about restrictions and regulations, but offshore drilling will continue one way or another."

Bottom line, he says: "Everyone wants more oil" -- and it costs more than $80 a barrel right now.

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Corrected: May 3, 2010 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to House Minority Leader John Boehner as speaker of the House.
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