Political ripples from Gulf spill

Senior Democratic lawmakers are worried President Barack Obama fumbled public relations on the Gulf oil spill.

The critique is similar to one Obama heard during the healthcare debate last year, when voters soured on his top domestic policy initiative.

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The president has seen public opinion turn critical of his handling of the Gulf oil spill, which has been called the worst environmental disaster in American history. And congressional elections are just five months away.

“I just think the president underestimated how important it is for the people to see his face and hear his voice,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). “But he’s getting that and understanding it and responding to the constructive criticism.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said, “Monday-morning quarterbacking, probably what he should have done is set up a command headquarters someplace around New Orleans and put some general in charge and set up a mini-White House down there.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Obama would not be facing the same public anger if he had spent more time at the site of the disaster. “Maybe he could have gone down and stayed for a while,” she said. “That might have helped.”

She added that the administration’s visible response in the first week was “critical.”

Obama has heard from friends and fellow Democrats that he needs to speak out more frequently on the issue, Landrieu says, and she has urged him to spend as much time as possible in the region.

“What was lacking and being corrected now is the communications aspect of it,” Landrieu said. “I hope the public will have a different view in six to eight weeks.”

The White House announced Tuesday that Obama will spend two days at the Gulf Coast next week. On Monday and Tuesday he will travel to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to inspect efforts to counter the spill.

The administration also sends daily e-mails to reporters containing details about that day’s actions in “the Ongoing Administration-Wide Response to the Deepwater BP Oil Spill.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Feinstein said the “finger of blame should be put back in the pocket” and that “the problem with all of us is that everybody needs to put blame, and the fact of the matter is nobody knows the answer.”

Like Landrieu, Feinstein believes the president has done everything he could to limit the actual spill in the Gulf. It is the public relations effort they suggest was less impressive.

The Democratic senators argue the president mobilized the necessary manpower to contain the spill. The principal problem, they say, was that neither the government nor BP, which leased the well, have been able to plug a leak more than a mile below sea level.

The Obama administration set up a command center in Robert, La., within days of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, but this was not widely publicized.

Obama also asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, to convene a brain trust of experts to examine responses to the disaster. This, too, received scant public attention during the early days of the spill.

Chu didn’t tell reporters about the formation of the panel of experts until three weeks into the disaster.

Obama didn’t visit Louisiana until 12 days after the explosion and was back at the White House the following day.

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He made his formal Rose Garden speech about the spreading slick on May 14, three weeks into the disaster.

As the oil has spread week after week, conservatives have drawn attention to Obama’s five weekend trips to the golf course and his meetings with celebrity athletes and entertainers. They seized on his discussion of basketball with sports commentator Marv Albert on May 23 and on a White House tribute to former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney.

Obama made a quick trip to a ravaged Louisiana coast before the Memorial Day weekend, but then flew to Chicago for a short vacation with his family.

Public opinion of Obama’s handling of the situation has steadily declined.

In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted over the weekend, 69 percent of respondents expressed a negative view of the federal response. That’s worse than the 62 percent negative rating that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina received in 2005, two weeks after floodwaters inundated New Orleans.

A USA Today/Gallup poll published May 27 found that 53 percent of Americans rated Obama’s response to the spill as “poor” or “very poor.”

A senior Democratic congressional aide said Obama’s public-relations battle over the Gulf spill was reminiscent of last year’s healthcare debate, when some Democrats on Capitol Hill criticized the president for not traveling to states such as Maine to make a strong case for the legislation.

Some Democratic strategists believe Obama could have put pressure on Republican swing Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, because he won their state by a large margin in 2008.

“There are two different things: being disengaged and appearing disengaged. Obama’s problem is that he appears disengaged,” said the senior Democratic aide, asserting that Obama is “10 times more engaged” in the Gulf disaster than President George W. Bush was in response to Hurricane Katrina.

Some Democrats note that even during his victorious 2008 presidential campaign, Obama was sometimes too focused on his campaign theme while ignoring the news of the day. They see something similar with the oil spill, suggesting he was preoccupied by the sluggish economy, which topped voter concerns, and so he spent April 27 and 28 traveling through Iowa, Missouri and Illinois talking about jobs, rather than going to the Gulf.

Landrieu said there was no reassuring message of presidential control in the early days.

“I think it was a lack of communication as opposed to a lack of caring,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, because first impressions have a great impact, and the first impression wasn’t very good.”