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BP, Katrina: A world of difference

Is the BP spill President Obama’s Katrina?

To ask the question is to raise doubts in the public mind — doubts about competence and empathy — doubts that may not even have entered the public consciousness were they not planted by Republican critics and their sometimes unwitting accomplices in the media.

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Anyone who wanted a serious answer and did a modicum of research would reach a clear and definitive conclusion — NO. Reactions to Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf spill are quite dissimilar — but the equation is frequently repeated without any examination of the facts.

The still Moonie-owned Washington Times seems to have been the first to draw the parallel, doing so about a week into the spill, followed within hours by such objective journalists as Drudge and Rush Limbaugh.

Not to be left out, Fox News hopped on the bandwagon, injecting a meme into the public dialogue that soon spread to the mainstream media.

On May 27, about a month into the spill, USA Today offered some polling data under a headline that put the meme in question form — “Is oil spill becoming Obama’s Katrina?” the paper asked.

Karl Rove, intimately familiar with the failures of his administration in dealing with Katrina, had already offered a definitive answer to the question in the previous day’s Wall Street Journal, penning a piece presaging USA Today’s question with a declarative statement — “Yes, the Gulf Spill Is Obama’s Katrina.”

But what do the data actually tell us?

Ironically, Fox was among the first to ask Americans whether they approved or disapproved of President Obama’s handling of the spill. During the first week in May, Fox found Americans approving of the president’s handing of the crisis by a 21-point margin. That doesn’t sound very Katrina-like, though, of course, Fox broadcasters had been drawing the parallel to Katrina for over a week at that point. I may have missed it, but did Fox at any point say, “No, unlike Katrina, the public is not faulting the president’s response”? I certainly do not recall hearing an acknowledgement of the fact that its own data offered a clear negative answer to the question the network kept raising.

As the spill continued, and the false parallel was raised repeatedly, Americans certainly became more disillusioned. How could they not? Oil was still flowing. How could anybody be doing a good job dealing with a problem that still posed a real and growing threat? And the constant comparisons to Katrina no doubt raised questions in voters’ minds without providing a scintilla of evidence or argumentation linking the two very different responses.

As a result, by June 3 a CBS poll found Americans disapproving of Obama’s handing of the spill by a six-point margin (38 percent approve, 44 percent disapprove). More negative than positive evaluations, to be sure, and down from Fox’s own high. However, suggesting that the spill is this president’s Katrina is not an absolute statement, it is a relative one. It suggests that the Gulf spill has been as bad for Obama as Katrina was for Bush. But that is simply not the case.

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USA Today’s Gallup poll in September 2005, several weeks after Katrina, found Americans disapproving of Bush’s handling of the hurricane by 16 points — a margin more than two and a half times greater than the margin of those disapproving of Obama’s handling of the spill. Six months after Katrina, voters disapproved of Bush’s response fully 2 to 1.

In short, voters offered a much more harshly negative assessment of Bush’s handling of Katrina than of Obama’s response to the oil spill. From a political point of view, President Bush would have been lucky if Katrina had been his oil spill.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.