The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is fast becoming a political liability for Democrats, threatening the image of competence that the Obama administration has used as a trump card over its predecessor.
While Democratic leaders direct blame at BP, the administration has begun taking heat from friends and foes alike. And recent polls show voters dissatisfied with the government’s response, as well as with BP.
“We will not rest until this well is shut, the environment is repaired and the cleanup is complete,” Obama said Wednesday during an event on the economy in Fremont, Calif.
On Wednesday, a prominent Democratic strategist with close ties to the Gulf region, James Carville, lambasted the White House response, saying the administration’s “political stupidity is unbelievable.”
“I have no idea why they didn’t seize this thing. I have no idea why their attitude was so hands-off here,” Carville said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
For President George W. Bush, it was fallout from another disaster in the Gulf — Hurricane Katrina — that threw his second term into a tailspin and cemented a perception of incompetence in the management of his administration.
The Gulf oil spill is not yet comparable to Katrina, in which hundreds of people died and an entire city was submerged, but for Democrats the longer-term fear is that the situation will snowball into an all-out crisis that undercuts their progress in turning around the economy.
Administration officials have labored to point out the actions they have taken from the outset of the crisis, whether in dispatching Cabinet members to the Gulf or pledging to “keep the boot on the neck” of BP as it scrambles to stop the leak.
But as oil continues to gush from the deepwater well and attempts to plug it fail, administration allies acknowledge time is running out to contain the political damage.
“I think they’ve taken some hits,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) said in an interview.
“In fairness, there’s not a lot we can do. The federal government has no vehicle capable of going down there. None of our submarines can go down there. That is a pre-existing condition that was not the fault of the Obama administration.”
But, he added, “As we know, politics is as much perception as reality.” He said a “clear risk factor” in the fallout of the spill going forward was that it would sully the administration’s record.
Rendell also noted a difference between Obama’s style and that of the last Democratic president, a famous micromanager: “If Bill ClintonBill ClintonFor Trump, foreign policy should begin and end with China Harvard spat between Clinton, Trump camps proves Dems can't accept Trump's improving Trump flirts with Dems for Cabinet MORE was president, he’d have been in a wetsuit, you know, trying to get down to see the spill,” the governor said with a laugh.
Congressional Democrats, while broadly backing the administration, have also shown signs of losing patience. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Tuesday sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar criticizing his office for a lack of responsiveness to inquiries.
Yet the more perilous political threat for the administration is the ongoing leak itself, with the ensuing images of oil seeping onto Gulf Coast beaches and suffocating wildlife.
In recent days the administration has had to bat down calls for the government to simply push BP aside and take over responsibility for plugging the leak. Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonRed-state Dems face tough votes on Trump picks Feds allow GM to delay airbag recalls Florida governor won't serve in Trump administration MORE (D-Fla.) said on CNN Wednesday that Obama should step in if BP couldn’t fix the leak with its “top kill” maneuver.
The government has neither the capacity nor the expertise to do that, officials have said.
“If they could have taken it over, I think they would have taken it over,” Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) said, even as he criticized the administration over its handling of permits for BP.
Thus far, Democratic leaders have stood behind the administration.
“British Petroleum is primarily responsible for getting this thing stopped and cleaning it up and preventing further damage. The administration has responded immediately,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday. He called the Obama response “very, very robust.”
Still, there is evidence that public patience is growing thin. Just 31 percent of respondents rated the administration’s response to the oil spill positively, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday. And a CNN/Opinion Research survey on Tuesday showed a majority of Americans disapproving of the handling of the crisis.
“I don’t think the president was out front early enough or often enough to show the public he was on the case,” a Democratic consultant, Dan Gerstein, said. A key deficiency, he said, was that the administration did not do a good enough job calibrating expectations of what the government could do.
“One of the bulwarks of the president’s popularity is that people think he’s competent and makes rational decisions and performs well in a crisis,” he said.
That reputation, Gerstein said, bought Obama a few weeks on the Gulf oil spill. But now “that clock has run out,” he said.