More Than Gulf Oil Spill Sinking Obama's Poll Numbers

Over the last five years, Americans have gotten more and more impatient with government at all levels, but especially the federal government.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that two-thirds of Americans have a negative view of how the federal government is handling the BP oil leak--which tops the number of people who said the same thing about the federal government’s response to Katrina. In this week’s poll, 69 percent said they had a negative view and 28 percent had a positive one of the federal response; in the 2005 poll two weeks after Katrina hit, 62 percent of Americans held a negative view, and 38 percent positive.

It’s tempting to say that those numbers are attributable to the fact that this disaster in many ways is worse than Katrina, in terms of long-term effects on the environment and the possibly widespread damage threatening the Eastern seaboard this fall. The poll shows that pretty much everyone, regardless of party, agrees that this is a major disaster, a fact that could be driving some of the overall disapproval numbers. And certainly President Obama has come across as disconnected and disinterested at times, further driving up his negatives. But comparing these polls is a little like comparing apples and oranges. What makes things different this time is that the government’s response has been better than it was during Katrina; in the Katrina situation, there was no corporate culprit to further aggravate voters. And the two polls were taken at different intervals after the two disasters (14 days vs. 45 days).

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the Gulf oil spill.]

So here’s why I think the numbers are higher this time: this isn’t about the specifics of the federal response--it’s about the fact that over the last five years, Americans have gotten more and more impatient with government at all levels, but especially the federal government. Since those days in 2005, we’ve seen many of the major institutions in American life come into question: newspapers going out of business, the stock market crashing, public schools not doing their job, the church not protecting children, banks failing, bailed-out insurance companies handing out big bonuses, and two wars grinding on and on for years. People’s disgust with the way Katrina was handled marked the beginning of that process; the town halls and tea parties are the natural continuation of it. Peggy Noonan called this long process of losing trust “ the big alienation” in a recent column, writing, “The American people fear they are losing their place and authority in the daily, unwinding drama of American history.” To see their president lose his place and authority in the daily drama of this latest crisis with BP is adding to that alienation. [See which members of Congress get the most money from the oil and gas industry.]

Noonan makes the point that alienation is usually followed by animosity, and that’s certainly been true. The animosity is showing through, not just for the president but for the government in general, and that’s what’s driving these poll numbers higher than they were five years ago.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.
  • See which members of Congress get the most money from the oil and gas industry.
  • See photos of the Gulf oil spill disaster.

  • Updated on 6/8/10