The oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has hit home in a personal way for President Obama. As he was shaving one morning, 11-year-old Malia knocked on the door with a pressing question: "Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?" The answer, unfortunately, was no. But that Malia was so interested struck the president as revelatory. Many people, including his daughter, are paying close attention to the growing environmental disaster, and it's the president who they expect to fix it. [See photos of the oil spill disaster.]
If the disaster continues unabated, it could doom Obama's reputation for competence. Before his news conference last week, 53 percent of Americans said he was doing a poor or very poor job of handling the spill, and 60 percent said the same about the federal government, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll. Seventy-three percent of Americans said BP, the oil company actually responsible for the leak, was doing a bad job. All these numbers are expected to worsen as the impact becomes more visible.
This is a no-win situation for Obama, as it would be for any president. The nation's leader tends to get the blame when things go wrong, whether he deserves it or not, and that applies to economic and social distress, wars, and environmental catastrophes. "People expect you to solve problems," Obama said at a Democratic fundraiser in California last week. "And when things go wrong, they're definitely going to blame you." And he is getting exasperated. In a discussion with aides recently about what to do next, the normally unflappable Obama said sharply, "Plug the damn hole." At his news conference, he called himself "angry and frustrated" about the spill. [Check out our editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.]
Obama's dilemma is particularly difficult because the country is deeply divided on the role of government. Many people think the president has been slow to act, and some even want him to nationalize the response to the leak and the cleanup. Others say BP needs to stay in the lead because the firm has the best expertise and equipment to deal with the crisis.
But Obama and his aides seem to be locked in the past. They are eager to show that they were on the case from the beginning to avoid comparisons with former President George W. Bush's slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush seemed isolated and out of touch, failing to realize until much too late that thousands of people were on the edge of survival, even though it was apparent to anyone watching the news coverage. [See which members of Congress get the most from the oil industry.]
The current oil spill is a much different situation. Simply showing concern and being on the spot isn't enough. Today's crisis demands creative and long-term solutions. Yet officials of the government, including the Defense Department, the White House energy czar's office, the Coast Guard, and the Interior Department, say that so far they don't have any better answers than BP does. And this is despite a vast amount of government attention that has gone largely uncovered by the news media, including a series of brainstorming sessions in Houston involving hundreds of experts from business, government, and universities.
Nor is there any hope for immediate answers from the independent bipartisan commission that Obama established May 21 to investigate the cause of the spill and determine where the government response can be improved. That panel, co-chaired by former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly under President George H.W. Bush, has six months to recommend changes in federal regulation of offshore oil drilling.
Meanwhile, the recriminations deepen. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, says the administration hasn't sent in enough booms, vacuums, skimmers, and other equipment to help block the movement of the oil toward shore and hasn't embraced his plan to set up artificial barrier islands. Obama said that federal officials have now accepted part of Jindal's proposal to erect barrier islands to help stop oil from coming ashore, but want to devote further study to the idea before committing to it more fully.
As the undersea blob continues to grow and pollute the coast along the gulf, frustration and anger will burgeon, and much of the disgust will be directed at the man in the Oval Office. Some think it isn't fair. But it's reality.