How Joe Barton's apology to BP saved President Obama's week

By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, June 20, 2010

President Obama spoke from the Oval Office on Tuesday night hoping for a game-changer in public opinion on his handling of the Gulf Coast oil spill.

But unlike in past high-profile addresses -- say, his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, his remarks at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in 2007 and his speech distancing himself from the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008 -- Obama failed to meet the high rhetorical expectations he had set for himself and was roundly panned by the punditocracy.

Combine that lead balloon of a speech with the oil still leaking into the gulf, coastal-state officials taking to cable shows to condemn the federal response and BP executives continuing to stuff their collective feet into their mouths -- "small people," really? -- and it seemed an easy choice to name our commander in chief as having had the Worst Week in Washington.

Then Joe Barton opened his mouth.

Barton, a Texas congressman and the highest-ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, decided to apologize to -- wait for it -- BP chief executive Tony "I'd like my life back" Hayward during a hearing Thursday morning.

"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Barton told Hayward, condemning a $20 billion account funded by BP to help pay damages from the spill and calling it a "shakedown" of the company by the Obama administration.

Did Barton venture into a political Bizarro World? Up is down? C-A-T spells "dog"?

Whatever his reasons, condemnation rained down on Barton as Democrats pointed to him as the symbol of Republicans' deep ties to the oil industry, and even House GOP leaders such as John Boehner and Eric Cantor averted their eyes and shuffled away from the looming PR disaster.

Barton's apology to BP -- for which he quickly issued a too-little-too-late apology and retraction Thursday afternoon -- allowed the White House to reclaim the high ground in the political fight over the oil spill. For sympathizing with the wrong guy, Joe Barton, you had the Worst Week in Washington. Congrats, or something.

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