Is the BP oil spill turning into President Obama's equivalent of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that will scar the rest of his presidency?
Not quite; not yet.
In 2005, when Katrina flooded New Orleans, the federal government's tragically inadequate response became a symbol of then-President George W. Bush's inattention to the hard work of managing the nation's domestic business.
When it comes to inattention, Barack Obama is no George W. Bush. But the 40-day-old drama of the uncontrolled oil flow from BP's well, now the largest spill in U.S. history, has become a public test of his competence at handling an unanticipated crisis. And until last week, Obama's authority and credibility were leaking away with the gulf's oil.
As with Katrina, the White House responded to an unexpected problem with hesitation and missteps. Obama's aides were slow to assert federal responsibility; they initially described the problem as BP's to solve, not theirs. After that wore thin, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar abruptly suggested that the federal government might seize control of the well — only to be publicly contradicted by his crisis manager, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who said such a move would be foolish.
As with Katrina, there have been angry demands from hot-tempered Louisianans — including former Bill Clinton-aide James Carville — for quicker federal action to rescue their state. And as with Katrina, cleaning up the mess and paying for the damage will take years.
But those similarities only go so far. There are important differences too, and they still give Obama a chance to regain his footing. But only if he is both lucky and effective from here on out.
Unlike Katrina, which flooded New Orleans within 24 hours of landfall, this crisis has been slower to develop; Obama still has time to act. Last week, he belatedly took public charge of the issue, declaring: "In case you were wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility." (When a chief executive needs to affirm that he's responsible for his own organization's performance, you know something's gone wrong.) He brushed aside objections from skeptical experts and ordered Allen to build Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, one of the artificial barrier islands he's been asking for, to try to protect beaches and wetlands; that may not be sensible engineering, but it was surely good politics.
In his news conference Thursday, Obama said he wouldn't try to compare this crisis to Katrina, but then he went ahead and did anyway. "When the problem is solved … I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis," he said.
On top of it? Not likely. But if BP succeeds in its attempt to plug the leak, and if federally directed cleanup efforts accelerate, he could still emerge relatively unscathed. Allen, a 42-year Coast Guard veteran whose plainspoken bluntness comes across as the opposite of political spin, is being given plenty of authority to help make those things happen.
As important is what larger lesson American voters and their politicians take from the crisis: Does it show that the federal government should be given more power to regulate energy industries, just as the financial crisis showed that Washington needed more power to regulate Wall Street? Or will it show, as Katrina did, that the federal bureaucracy is too inefficient to deliver relief supplies, let alone regulate big chunks of the economy?
On that count, this crisis is very different from Katrina, which was mostly about governments' failures to prepare for a natural disaster. The oil spill fits into a different political narrative: the Democrats' insistence on the need for more federal regulation, in this case to protect the environment.
In the face of events, voters may take a second look at that proposition. For months, polls have shown that most Americans think the federal government is too big and needs to get smaller. But a USA Today/Gallup Poll released last week found that a strong majority felt that environmental protection (which, in practice, means federal regulation) should be a top national priority, "even at the risk of limiting energy supplies." That was a stark reversal from a poll taken only two months before, in the pre-spill era. (The same poll found a growing majority rating Obama's handing of the disaster as "poor," one of the reasons the president moved so visibly to take control last week.)
Obama is already testing whether this crisis might even offer an element of opportunity. He argued that the BP accident should spur the Senate to pass the energy bill his Democratic allies have proposed. "This economic and environmental tragedy … underscores the urgent need for this nation to develop clean, renewable sources of energy," he said last week.
That's not likely to work. The bill is stalled, not only because Republicans oppose its cap-and-trade provisions to regulate greenhouse gas emissions but because many Democrats dislike its compromise-seeking provision for, of all things, expanded offshore oil drilling. Even the bill's principal author, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), admitted last week that it may be impossible to win passage in an election year.
If Obama is very lucky, Republicans will protest his moratorium on new deep-water wells, revive their chant of "Drill, baby, drill," and move public opinion in the Democrats' direction.
He's not likely to be that lucky. His crisis in Louisiana won't have a happy ending; it's too late for that. But he still has time to prevent it from becoming a symbol of presidential failure.