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Oil Spill Legacy: 'Obama's Katrina'? Probably Not

President Obama picks up balls of tar while touring the beach in Port Fourchon, La., on May 28.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
President Obama picks up balls of tar while touring the beach in Port Fourchon, La., on May 28.

Six months ago, a fireball ripped through an oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and sending more than 100 others scrambling for lifeboats.

The April 20 explosion was the beginning of what would become the nation's biggest accidental oil spill.

For a time, President Obama seemed like another helpless shorebird, rendered flightless by the oil. USA Today asked if this latest Gulf disaster was becoming "Obama's Katrina."  And The New York Times drew ominous parallels to Jimmy Carter, as TV's spill-cam offered a round-the-clock reminder of government impotence.


"Even though I'm president of the United States, my power is not limitless," Obama confessed during a June meeting with Louisiana fishermen. "I can't dive down there and plug the hole. I can't suck it up with a straw."

But for all the hand-wringing and breathless forecasts, the oil spill does not appear to have done lasting political damage to the president or his party.

"Its impact on what happens on the second of November, I think, is really going to be fairly minimal," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "I think that probably a year from now, people will be asking, 'What oil spill?' "

Hidden Costs?

To be sure, on the Gulf Coast, where people were more directly affected, many are still angry about lost business, the slow pace at which damage claims are being paid, and the government's drilling moratorium, which was only lifted last week.


But elsewhere around the country, the spill does not seem to be a defining political event.  Obama's Gallup approval rating when the well was finally capped in mid-July was just shy of 50 percent -- exactly the same as before the spill began.

Of course, even if the oil spill hasn't left an obvious stain on Obama's political standing, there may be hidden costs just below the surface. Every day the president was forced to spend on the oil spill was a day he couldn't devote to his own agenda.

"The country, and the president, was transfixed by this spill for many, many weeks," said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman. "Those were weeks that, absent the spill, could have been spent talking about the economy, focusing on job creation and sending a more effective message to the public."

Potential Losses

The spill also forced Obama to backpedal on plans for expanded offshore drilling -- a bargaining chip he'd hoped to parlay into a broader energy and climate bill. The federal government did reorganize its offshore drilling regulator. But there has been no big push to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the way the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island put the brakes on nuclear power.

In addition, the time it took to plug the well, the disjointed nature of the initial cleanup, and faulty estimates of how much oil was actually leaking may have eroded public confidence in the government's ability to tackle big challenges. If it takes three months to cap a leaking oil well, voters may wonder, how can the government ever fix health care?  That's a bigger problem for Democrats, who favor a more activist role for government.

"Any time any government program goes awry, I think the Democrats are going to get blamed for it," Baker said. "Democrats really are in the public's mind identified with a very expansive scope of the federal government."

Americans -- or at least journalists -- haven't stopped looking to government for solutions, though. Just this week, a Bloomberg columnist warned that inaction on the foreclosure mess could be the president's next Katrina.

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