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Gulf Oil Spill Tests Obama's Political Skills

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with BP executives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, 16 Jun 2010, to discuss the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with BP executives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, 16 Jun 2010, to discuss the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

President Barack Obama vowed to keep pressure on energy giant BP to clean up the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, following a White House meeting on Wednesday with BP executives.  The meeting came the day after Mr. Obama delivered a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office on the crisis, the first of his presidency.

After meeting with BP executives, President Obama said he would make sure the company meets its obligations to clean up the spill and compensate those affected by it.

"So what this is about is accountability.  At the end of the day, that is what every American wants and expects," said the president.

The meeting came the day after Mr. Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office.  Presidents often speak from the Oval Office during times of war and national crisis.  Mr. Obama sought to reassure the public that his administration is on top of the Gulf oil spill.  It was the first time he used such a platform to speak directly to the American people.

"The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face.  This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again," he said.  "What sees us through, what has always seen us through, is our strength and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us -- if we summon the courage to reach for it," President Obama added.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has become a major political and leadership test for President Obama.  Political experts were not surprised that Mr. Obama used the trappings of an Oval Office address to try to restore some of the political footing he lost during the early stages of the crisis, when critics said he was slow to respond.

Bruce Buchanan is an expert on the presidency at the University of Texas.

"Well, I think it is very important if only because we now kind of broadly recognize this as the most important environmental crisis we have ever faced as a nation.  And any problem that is perceived to be manifesting at that level of magnitude needs to have high profile presidential attention and that is what he is trying to do," said Buchanan.

The president's challenge is made all the more difficult by the constant stream of video images of oil continuing to leak from the underwater well, forcing him to contend with a frustrated and angry public, says political analyst Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News.

"And I think there is a growing worry among a lot of Americans [who say], 'Why can't we get this fixed?  We sent men to the moon.  We won a world war.  Why can't we shut this cursed oil spill off?'" DeFrank asked.

Some of Mr. Obama's critics questioned why it took so long for the president to assert himself on a crisis that threatens to undermine public confidence in his ability to solve problems.

Analysts say Mr. Obama has made four trips to the Gulf region for a firsthand look at the problem, mindful of the political price paid by his predecessor, President George W. Bush.  Mr. Bush was severely criticized for his administration's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Political experts also point to another example of how presidents should not handle a crisis -- an Oval Office speech given by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 during a national energy crisis.  Mr. Carter criticized Americans for what he called self-indulgence and consumption, and said the country was experiencing a crisis of confidence.

"The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America," said Mr. Carter.

It became known as Mr. Carter's "malaise speech," even though he never used the word.  Experts say the speech contributed to a public perception that Mr. Carter was not up to the task of inspiring the American people.  He was defeated for re-election by Ronald Reagan the following year.

Political analyst Bruce Buchanan says that a president's ability to instill confidence and a sense of leadership among the public is an important skill vital to effective governing.

"And the prices paid by presidents such as President Bush in association with Hurricane Katrina for seeming to be indifferent at a time when there was great alarm and great human suffering," he said.  "A big part of the president's job is to communicate not only empathy, but also reassurance and solidarity with people who are badly stressed.  And all of us as Americans as well as the citizens of any country want to know that the government and its executive leadership are doing everything that can be done from the minute a problem arises," Buchanan explained.

Public opinion surveys show that a slight majority of Americans disapprove of President Obama's handling of the oil spill.  But some analysts, including Bruce Buchanan, say that so far the crisis is having only a marginal impact on the president's public approval ratings.

"I am actually quite surprised to see that they [i.e., the president's public approval ratings] are hovering around 50 percent, not only given the magnitude of the oil crisis, but also a large variety of problems that have been on his plate for most of his presidency," he said.

Gallup pollster Frank Newport generally agrees with that assessment.  But he is also quick to warn that the public could easily lose patience with the administration's handling of the spill, if things do not improve in the coming weeks.

"So if things continue to go 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," said Newport.

Perhaps the only comfort for the president in the polls is that the public has a much more negative view of the company responsible for the spill, BP.  The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 83 percent of those surveyed disapprove of BP's performance in dealing with the crisis.

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