WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has prevented the BP oil spill from becoming his own Katrina-like nightmare so far, but the political and policy consequences of the disaster are likely to increase as the oil spreads.
By repeatedly assigning blame to energy giant BP Plc and focusing ire on the government agency responsible for regulating offshore drilling, Obama has deflected criticism that his administration was sluggish in its initial response to the Gulf of Mexico spill.
That may not last. A month since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, killing 11 people and leaving a ruptured well that has been leaking crude ever since, the feared environmental catastrophe is becoming more and more real.
Heavy oil is hitting Louisiana’s wetlands. Oil-stained animals are being rescued and cleaned. Gulf Coast economies are suffering and preparing for drawn-out damage.
Analysts say as the ecological crisis gains traction, voters will punish the president regardless of who is responsible — an important consideration for Obama ahead of congressional elections in November.
“There is a strong tendency for the public to penalize incumbents even for natural disasters if there is a plausible governmental angle — regardless of whether the government failed to respond adequately,” said Eric Schickler, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkley.
“If the oil spill has a significant impact on the Gulf Coast economy — and as a result, on the U.S. economy as a whole — it is likely to impose at least some damage on the president and his party.”
Obama’s Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, are expected to lose seats in the election and want to avoid shifting power to Republicans, who would make it more difficult for the president to achieve his policy goals.
Obama is aware of the government angle in the crisis and has made his displeasure with the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the Interior Department agency that regulates offshore drilling, very clear.
That agency is now being restructured, but other policy consequences loom, most notably the president’s efforts to pass energy legislation that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase domestic production of renewable fuels and — tricky under current circumstances — expand offshore drilling.
John Leshy, who served as general counsel for the Interior Department in the Clinton administration, said the spill could hurt Obama’s short-term prospects for an energy overhaul.
“Clearly the spill has dramatized the cost of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas, particularly oil. So to that extent it has, I think, boosted the idea that there needs to be energy reform,” said Leshy, now a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
“But in the short term you have to get 60 votes in the Senate,” he said. “I think the spill has made that harder.”
An energy bill introduced by Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Senator Joe Lieberman is languishing in the 100-member legislative body. The offshore drilling provisions were meant to attract Republican support for the bill.
Obama’s action plan for advancing that energy law is not clear, but his strategy for dealing with the oil spill has been to act fast.
Mindful of the political damage incurred by President George W. Bush’s administration for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Obama has not wasted any opportunity to show he is moving quickly and assigning blame.
‘MADE-TO-ORDER BAD GUY’
“Katrina was a natural disaster. This is a man-made disaster,” said Ken Medlock, an energy fellow at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “With this particular case, from Day One the Coast Guard has been on the scene. The federal government, as a result, has been involved from Day One.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Obama had learned from Katrina and made clear BP carried the blame for this Gulf disaster.
“Obama has a made-to-order bad guy in BP. And he sure hasn’t been hesitant about pointing fingers,” Sabato said.
Bad guy or not, public anger about the spill has not helped Obama prevail in getting Congress to raise the cap on oil companies’ liability for big spills.
It has also given Republicans, whose support Obama needs to achieve his energy overhaul, potential ammunition against the administration if MMS is found to have been negligent.
“The president has spent a whole lot of time pointing the finger at BP and you should point a finger at BP and the other companies involved,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show.
“We’re also interested to know what the administration did. Was the Mineral Management Service a part of this administration that approved this site? It also approved this spill response plan. What kind of oversight did the administration provide during the course of the drilling?”
Obama plans to create a presidential commission to answer questions such as these and identify the causes of the spill.
The amount of time he has will depend on how soon BP plugs the well, how far the oil flows, and how focused the U.S. public remains on the role of companies rather than the role of the government in this environmental crisis.
Editing by Todd Eastham