News / USA

Gulf Oil Spill Major Political Challenge For Obama

President Barack Obama's decision to postpone a trip to Indonesia and Australia scheduled for later this month is the latest example of how U.S. domestic politics often trumps foreign policy concerns.  Mr. Obama decided to put off the Asian trip to deal with the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which now threatens to dominate his political agenda for the foreseeable future.  

On Friday President Obama paid his third visit to the Louisiana coast since the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded on April 20th, killing 11 workers and spewing a torrent of oil into the surrounding waters.

The president got a briefing on clean-up efforts along the Gulf coast.  Afterward, he vowed to keep pressure on the company responsible, oil giant BP, and said his administration would strengthen environmental and safety standards for future offshore drilling. "I do not want to see this repeated again, and the American people don't, and I promise you the people of the Gulf don't want to see it either," he said.

In Washington meanwhile, environmental protestors gathered in front of the local offices of BP, upset with its efforts to stop the oil spill. "We are tired of big oil polluting our political process," said one protestor.

Before his latest visit to the Gulf, President Obama told CNN he was furious about the oil spill, a comment that came after some critics complained that the president seemed disconnected from the crisis and was not displaying enough emotion.

Some Republicans have criticized the administration for being slow to respond to the magnitude of the crisis, including Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is considering a run for president in 2012. "He wants to say he's in charge.  That's great.  I'm glad he is assuming responsibility and accountability.  I wish he would have done it probably earlier," he said.

Coverage of the oil spill is dominating U.S. media, and the political fallout from the disaster has become a major political test for the Obama White House.

Kevin Whitelaw is with Congressional Quarterly magazine and is a guest on VOA's Issues in the News program. "And it has reached sort of saturation coverage level in all the U.S. media.  This is absolutely the biggest thing on Obama's plate.  He is cancelling foreign trips now.  The White House is in full, hardcore crisis response mode," he said.

This is the second time the White House has cancelled the trip to Indonesia and Australia, and both times the reason was domestic politics.  The trip was initially scheduled for March but put off because of the congressional vote on Mr. Obama's signature domestic achievement, enactment of health care reform.

A sampling of recent public opinion polls indicates the public is increasingly unhappy with the administration's response to the oil spill.

But Gallup pollster Frank Newport says it is too soon to know the political impact of the Gulf oil spill on the president's political fortunes. "We are monitoring that carefully.  Obama's job approval rating was down to 46 percent in the last week of May.  That is the lowest of his administration, but only by a point or so, so it is not like we have seen a dramatic drop-off.  And even then we are not exactly sure why Obama's rating would be lower, but it did drop some and there may be a little residual from that.  So far I would say it is not clear that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dramatically affected Obama in a negative way," he said.

Some conservative commentators predict the Gulf oil spill could turn out to be President Obama's Katrina, a reference to the widespread criticism of former President George W. Bush's response to the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Other analysts are starting to draw parallels to the Iranian hostage crisis that bedeviled President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and 1980.

Conservative commentator Bill Kristol spoke on Fox News Sunday. "Who is in charge?  Here is an easy way to think of it," he said. "And who is running this crisis from the White House?"

But President Obama's defenders say his administration is well aware of the political lessons from the Katrina disaster under President Bush.

Peter Beinart writes about domestic and foreign policy and is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.  He's also a guest on VOA's Press Conference USA. "In policy terms, this is just one of the greatest disasters that we've seen in the United States in recent decades.  When Katrina happened you already had this widespread impression of Bush's incompetence as a result of Iraq.  That is the not the perception, by and large, that people have with Barack Obama.  I mean there are criticisms out there.  Conservatives think he is weak or socialist or whatever, but incompetence is not the stereotype that he labors under," he said.

That may be true for now.  But Gallup pollster Frank Newport cautions that public perceptions of the president could change depending on how long the oil spill disaster drags on. "Unfortunately the person in charge usually gets too much credit when things go right, but I say unfortunately for that person (because) he or she gets less credit and a lot of blame when things go wrong.  So if things continue to be bad in terms of the oil spill through the summer it may be hard for Obama to get out of the way of the negative reaction on the part of the American public," he said.

The administration's handling of the oil spill could become an issue in this year's midterm congressional elections, where Republicans expect to gain seats in November in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

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