GOP contenders test experience as 2012 theme against President Barack Obama

Republican presidential contenders appear to have found a 2012 campaign theme: They’re spreading the word that President Barack Obama lacks enough real-world experience for the job, and that his response to the Gulf oil spill proves it.

No Republican has formally started to campaign, but several are speaking up now to say Obama is out of his league.

“I frankly think that he’s shown that in a crisis setting where there’s a deepwater oil spill, he’s out of his depth,” said Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, who ran for president in 2008.

“He just does not have the experience to actually lead. He’s a great speaker but not a great leader.”

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Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOPs vice presidential nominee in 2008, said Obama’s lack of experience has become evident during the crisis.

“I think what the president is realizing is that his lack of executive experience is coming into play right now,” she said. “I know that he mocked and chided others who did have experience in the campaign and he acted like being a community organizer was all that it was going to take.”

Romney and Palin made their comments during appearances on Fox News.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Republican leaders haven’t said much about Obama’s inexperience since he took office in January last year.

Hillary Clinton tried in vain to make the issue play to her benefit during the 2008 campaign.

Now the issue is making a comeback as Obama faces perhaps the biggest crisis of his presidency. More than six weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11, thousands of gallons of crude are still gushing into the ocean.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), another possible White House candidate, is now sounding the same theme as Romney and Palin: that Obama is failing to show leadership at a critical time.

“The administration claimed to be ‘on top of this since day one,’ but the reality is that the president didn’t personally address the issue for many days, until the public outcry was too loud to ignore,” Huckabee said in a statement to The Hill.

Huckabee pointed to the president playing golf five times and hosting celebrity events at the White House, such as a tribute to Paul McCartney, since the rig exploded on April 20.

He also faulted Obama for not quickly convening local governors and private-sector companies to develop a broad response to the disaster.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), whom some experts consider the most viable 2012 contender in Congress, also said executive inexperience may have affected the federal response to the oil spill.

“Whether it’s lack of experience or lack of focus, there were a lot of things that probably should have been done that weren’t done that indicated the administration was at a loss as to what to do,” said Thune. “You can tie that back to experience.”

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Thune, who is focusing on his 2010 Senate reelection, said the most stunning revelation of the week was that Obama had not personally talked to Tony Hayward, chief executive of BP, since the start of the crisis.

The administration announced Thursday evening it had invited BP officials to the White House for a meeting next week.

Almost all the most likely GOP presidential contenders are current or former governors. They argue that leaders with executive experience, such as theirs, know how to assemble partnerships to solve problems.

But Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said that argument is self-serving. “It’s an argument often heard from governors during presidential elections,” he said. “It’s arguable. [Former President] George W. Bush was a governor and he bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina.”

Democratic lawmakers stepped in to defend the administration.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) argued that the spill happened because of the culture of lax federal oversight that developed during the Bush administration.

“It takes a measure of nerve to say that when the Minerals Management Service was put under operational control of the oil industry by Republicans,” Whitehouse said in response to Romney and Palin. “It’s a little like the arsonist party blaming the firefighter for not doing a good enough job.”

Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) say Obama’s administration was on top of the problem from the first day and sent enough federal resources to the area. But Landrieu acknowledges that Obama fumbled the early PR effort by failing to take a more visible role.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has criticized Obama for not sending more ships to skim oil from the ocean surface. He said the president should have made it clear from the first day that his administration, and not BP, was in charge.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 GOP nominee, said the president had demonstrated a lack of experience and “also a lack of competence,” and added, “No one can understand why he wouldn’t speak to the head of BP.”