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White House feeling pressure from oil spill, elections

Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; 1:30 PM

Post staff writer Dan Balz was online Friday, June 4 at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss his story about how the Obama administration is coping with the dual pressures of the Gulf oil leak and its involvement in Senate elections.

Read: White House is feeling weight of controversies surrounding oil spill, elections

BP oil spill live feed

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Juneau, Alaska: Hi Dan- Two questions.

Isn't the whole "WH tries to shape primaries" the old Casablanca "No gambling/your winnings sir" kinda thing? You've been around awhile, but this seems like a common practice for the WH to me.

Those who complain about the WH performance on the spill (and we in AK are supremely sympathetic to our LA brethren) do they state what they wish specifically the WH should do differently?

Dan Balz: Hello Alaska and to everyone else looking in today and thanks for your questions.

Yes, there is an element of "Shocked! Shocked!" to some of this. Every White House has had a political operation of greater or lesser skill and effectiveness, and political parties often like to avoid costly or divisive primaries if they can help it (although the Obama-Clinton presidential nomination battle certainly didn't hurt the Democrats in 2008).

In these cases (Sestak and Romanoff), there are several interesting factors that have made these into bigger stories than they otherwise might have been. One is that they appear to contradict the president's pledge to bring a new style of politics to Washington. Now perhaps people read too much into that campaign pledge. Second, there's been a lack of transparency on the part of the White House on these cases. They have been in a "trust us" mode rather than a "here are the facts" posture. It took quite a long time to get anything specific from the White House about Sestak, for example. Third, as some Democrats have noted, the White House hasn't been very effective in working its will with candidates they wanted to push out of the primaries. So all together this has elevated these episodes.

Now, on the oil spill, the reality is that in any big disaster like this, people naturally look to Washington and the president to take command. The criticism of the president has been a general one -- that he was slow to make it clear that this was a top priority (though he has said from virtually day one it was treated as such inside the administration). The government did not have the technical expertise to know a better way of plugging the leak in the Gulf, so that wasn't really an option. But the modern presidency demands much these days, from decisiveness in crises to empathy when people are hurting. Criticism comes with the territory if you are the president.

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Anonymous: Is there any polling to show that Americans even want the President to show anger? I ask because I remember what happened in autumn of 2008, where we had a similarly difficult to comprehend disaster, and two candidates--one who blustered about and flipped his lid, and one who kept a stiff upper lip throughout. And in the only poll that mattered, Americans roundly rejected McCain and voted for Obama.

What makes the mainstream press think this time, we want a McCain?

Dan Balz: I don't know of any polling that asks the question the way you have posed it -- do Americans want their president to show anger. Nor do I think the suggestion has been that people want a president who blusters or flips his lid. You're right that John McCain was hurt by the way he responded to the economic meltdown in September 2008 and that Obama's demeanor, in contrast, was reassuring to some people.

The president is in a difficult spot. He is essentially hostage to the gushing well and until that leak is stopped, he has to show he's focused on making sure everything is being done to plug it and everything is being done to minimize the damage from the oil that already has spewed into the Gulf. He obviously has many other problems on his plate -- the jobs numbers today show the economic recovery remains slow; the tensions in the Middle East as a result of the Israeli attack; Afghanistan; the global financial problems, etc -- but as his decision to cancel his trip to Indonesia shows, he and his advisers don't feel he can disengage from the problems in the Gulf any time soon.

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About the BP investigation: Love these informative chats -- thank you so much for your great columns: insightful as well as informational!!! I also always look forward to when you are on Washington Week as well as other news shows.

Okay, Mr Balz: I know I'm no beltway insider, but I thought the prudent thing to do was announce an investigation AFTER critical evidence that could assure a successful prosecution had been seized.

This seems like another avoidable (perhaps intentional) mistake which makes it more likely for much of the 'evidence' to be disappeared or altered.

Holder seems to be as tone deaf and flat-footed as his boss doesn't he?

I'm starting to think maybe Hillary was right about Obama being able to make fantastically great CAMPAIGN speeches and maybe not a whole lot else.

They have lost a lot of voters' confidence haven't they? (lots of mine has eroded but I would never vote for the republican, who after all spent 8 years getting us into all these economic and regulatory debacles). But What must the Obama & dems do to right their ship?

Dan Balz: We'll have to see what comes of the Justice Department investigation before drawing conclusions as to whether the attorney general mishandled things.

The president has lost some credibility and support, certainly, although it's not clear that the oil spill has affected his standing materially at this point. Certainly that is a worry to his advisers, but his approval ratings today are about the same as they've been for some weeks -- hovering just below 50 percent. He's lost support among independents, who were an important part of his coalition in 2008, and he'll have to work to get them back. But he had lost many of them before this took place.

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Saving the crux of the problem for last paragraph:: Mr Balz: great column (as usual)

Do you agree with the unnamed Dem strategist who told you this: "Obama's top advisers appear most focused on protecting his standing and his reelection prospects. ... At the end of the day, they tend to 'half do' ...problems."

In other words, it's perhaps worse than business as usual, they're not even doing basic constituent relations by actually solving the problems that voters sent them to solve.

Really, then if they sink under the weight of this catastrophic spill, they'll really have no one to blame but themselves (with a big heaping 8 years of assists and setups from Dick Cheney & George Bush coddling and cozying up to the oil industry, plus the 12 years of Reagan Bush which also set about gutting government regulations and removing "competence" from the mission of federal government, but nobody wants to hear about that anymore do they -- we just want them to whole heartedly solve the problem), right?

Why don't their operations focus on solving the problem(s) first and let campaigners worry about elections later?

...but that's not how Washington works and that's why people are A.N.G.R.Y. and more than sick and tired of the same ole same ole - but we keep putting the same ole same ole in office and then groan and moan about it.

It's a vicious cycle: so what's the solution?

Dan Balz: I would put the strategist's assessment in a different way, which is to say that presidents and particularly their White House advisers operate on a political clock that is not the same as their fellow Democrats or Republicans in Congress. Certainly the November midterm elections will be in large part a referendum on the Obama presidency, and if there are major, major Democratic losses, that will affect his ability to govern. But he won't lose his job this November. It's November 2012 that he and his advisers look toward. They know that Ronald Reagan had a tough second year and survived to win a landslide in 1984. They know that Bill Clinton's Democratic Party took a terrible licking in 1994 and yet he came back to win a pretty easy victory in 1996.

Also, I think the strategist was talking about issues like Sestak and Romanoff rather than some of the big problems facing the White House.

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Damned if you do...: Isn't this a bit of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" for the White House? When they take on a ton of things -- like if they had tried to reform MMS last year -- they get criticized for doing too much. But when there's a disaster, the president gets mocked for golfing.

I take it the best course from an optics standpoint is to just look busy all the time without doing anything anyone can criticize?

Dan Balz: That's always a problem for a president and it's certainly easy for the opposition party or the media to criticize and find fault. That's not new. Nor do I think most people expect a president or White House to be able to do everything at once or anticipate every possible problem. But once things go wrong, they do expect competence, decisiveness, a clear sense of command and a genuine compassion for the victims. That's how people will judge this president, as they've judged other presidents. Inevitably presidents will make decisions that some or many people don't like.

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Dan Balz: Thanks everyone. The time went quickly. I hope you all have a good weekend.

Dan Balz.

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