The politics of the gulf oil spill

Topic A
Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Post asked experts about the political winners and losers of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Below are contributions from Ed Rogers, Scott Keeter, Douglas E. Schoen and Donna Brazile.


White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

So far there are no political winners from the gulf oil spill debacle. And there probably won't be any winners, just various degrees of losers.

I was working at the White House during the Exxon Valdez spill, and I appreciate the challenges of many of the players.

President Obama's political managers are all being told that the president needs to "do something." But when he does he becomes more closely associated with the ugly problem and more responsible for the nearly impossible task of stopping the flow and managing a cleanup that will leave most people unsatisfied.

The governors of the affected states have to be busy and make demands of BP and the feds, yet they must not appear to be ineffective when not much happens.

In Washington, among those with no real responsibility, there is a contest to see who can kick BP the hardest and promise the most restitution to all those affected by the spill. Ultimately, there will not be enough money to make everybody happy, much less quiet. So we are entering a political cycle of blame, promises and poor results, which leads to more blame and another layer of promises. All the while, the results of the spill get worse, and the pictures of the failure appear on every TV in America several times a day.

Using contrived criminal and civil tools, Obama may decide that the death of BP is his best political cover; governors will do what real work can be done and hope for the best; Congress will no doubt commission a study, release a report and pass new laws whose effects, intended and unintended, are hard to imagine.

This is a great American tragedy whose political consequences will linger for years. No one will emerge as a hero, savior or indispensable leader. Instead, the revelation of the limits of our technology, leaders, laws and energy options will leave us all frustrated and in a mood to blame everybody involved.


Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center

Until now President Obama has avoided serious political damage from the government's handling of the spill, but this may be changing. Recent polling finds pluralities or majorities of the public disapproving of the administration's response or giving it low marks for its handling of the situation. Even among Democrats, ratings of the administration's performance have been tepid. The spill is unfolding at a time of exceptionally low levels of trust in government, which may make the public even less forgiving.

Still, unlike Hurricane Katrina, where the government had primary responsibility for dealing with the crisis, until now its role has been secondary to that of BP. And the public has been far more critical of BP for its handling of the crisis.

Although the spill may cause Obama political damage in the short run, it could help him in the longer run with key legislative priorities for his administration: the passage of a comprehensive energy bill and efforts to address environmental protection more generally. The spill has spurred an increase in support for environmental protection, which had declined over the past two years as concerns about the economy pushed aside many other public priorities. While polling by Pew Research and other organizations continues to find at least plurality support for offshore oil drilling, the level of support is much lower than before the spill.


Democratic pollster and author

With President Obama's approval rating dropping to close to 45 percent, driven in large part by his handling of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the Obama presidency is facing a real crisis. And while it was certainly welcome news Thursday that the president took full responsibility for the situation, that will do little to stem the ever-increasing political fallout from both sides of the aisle -- from James Carville to Sarah Palin.

The president has to stop seeking to both blame and distance himself from BP, all the while asserting federal authority and responsibility. He needs a fundamentally different approach.

He has to make it clear that we are all in this together -- not as corporations or populists, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans working to solve the problem collectively. This would be similar to how, in his National Defense Review, Obama spoke of the need for developing and enhancing alliances around the world to confront common enemies and solve common problems. He must emphasize results and outcomes -- not partisanship, populist bashing, or divide and conquer. This is how he ran his campaign, how he said he would govern and how he has to govern now. If he doesn't rally Americans, no amount of rhetorical parsing or political gamesmanship will solve a problem that has the potential to undermine the credibility and perceived competence of the Obama presidency.


Author and political commentator; manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign; served on the Louisiana Recovery Authority from 2005 to 2008

Even if some good comes out of BP's oil flood, it still looks like a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. Not only has the spill caused a substantial loss of marshland for the gulf and the livelihoods of residents, it will have lasting effects far into the future. The unlikely result? Both Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and President Obama may still emerge as political winners.

Jindal may already have won as much as he can, politically. The perception had been that Jindal cared more for a national office than the governor's mansion, but the perception has changed. His handling of this crisis has made him look competent, concerned and in charge. But since Louisiana must rely on the feds, Jindal is in a dilemma he can't control. Things are up to the president now. Jindal may claim he energized Washington, but winning big in his state may make Jindal less attractive nationally.

To be a "winner," Obama must accomplish, then publicize, the following:

(1) Emphasize the flood and the plug -- that he fixed what BP's greed and big oil's conceit broke.

(2) Change the regulatory culture, and not just at the Minerals Management Service. Make regulation effective at all agencies.

(3) Take charge, make BP pay -- and make sure the public knows both.

(4) Aggressively push for the progressive energy policy he campaigned on -- no more spill, baby, spill or mine, baby, mine.

(5) Dam the flood and clean up the marsh. Prioritize the wetlands and the coast, promising restoration and restitution for both. Even more, turn "Obama's Katrina" into a success story, by finally recompensing New Orleans and the region. Show how the federal government should work.

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