By Jeff Mason - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Comparisons with the slow U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina are already being made, but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not a huge political albatross for President Barack Obama -- yet.
The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to show it is overseeing and responding quickly to a looming environmental disaster from the ruptured undersea well that is gushing oil at a rate of up to 5,000 barrels a day.
“There are now five staging areas to protect sensitive shorelines; approximately 1,900 federal response personnel are in the area; and more than 300 response vessels and aircraft on the scene 24/7,” Obama told reporters at the White House on Friday, his second public statement on the spill in two days.
“I’ve ordered (Interior) Secretary (Ken) Salazar to conduct a thorough review of this incident and report back to me in 30 days on what, if any, additional precautions and technologies should be required to prevent accidents like this from happening again.”
Obama’s message: we’re in charge.
It’s a familiar message for the president. For much of the Democrat’s more than 15-month presidency, critics and pundits have compared various natural disasters or other political crises to Katrina, the 2005 hurricane disaster that was largely defined by what many considered a slow response by Republican President George W. Bush.
On Friday some critics, including influential conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, called the oil spill “Obama’s Katrina.” Similar labels were assigned at one stage or another to the January Haiti earthquake and the swine flu outbreak.
But the president, who was criticized for a perceived slow response to another crisis in December -- an attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner -- has repeatedly sought in other situations to get ahead of such labels with a swift response.
NOT ‘PLAYING CATCH-UP’
The White House viewed the comparison as contrived.
“I guess I’d want to remember that 1,800 -- more than 1,800 people died in Katrina,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, rejecting the analogy.
“We were there ... right after the incident happened,” he continued, referring to the oil spill. “This notion that somehow we’re playing catch-up is badly uninformed.”
Analysts and political strategists largely agreed.
“This is not Katrina yet,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University.
“While terrible, the oil spill does not equal the kind of human suffering that was seen in New Orleans. This is something (Obama) must respond to and improve his plan, but a distinction must be made.”
Republican strategist Rich Galen said the continuing response would show whether the oil spill turned into a bigger political problem for the president.
“Whether or not it becomes Obama’s Katrina depends on what happens when the little ducklings covered with black tar start showing up on CNN,” he said.
“For the sake of the shoreline, I hope that they will do it right. Do I have any confidence that they will? Not much, but I hope I‘m proven wrong,” he said.
Fellow Republican strategist Mark McKinnon questioned what had led to the incident in the first place.
“It’s too early to cast blame. But it’s not too early to ask questions about why the danger wasn’t recognized earlier,” he said. “It seems (the) initial response was pretty benign from both the company and the government.”
If there are political ramifications for Obama, they are more likely to affect his push for a climate change bill that includes provisions to expand offshore drilling -- a component meant to draw Republican support.
“This certainly complicates the message because it points out the potential environmental disadvantages of that domestic production,” said Adele Morris, the policy director for climate and energy economics at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“Does it change the outlook for climate legislation? no one was placing great odds on the chances for climate legislation this year anyway,” she said.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Mohammad Zargham