Friday, April 30, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill: Obama's Katrina?

Not quite one and a half years into his term, and President Obama now has his first real (non-economic) crisis to deal with:  An underwater oil spill, resulting from an explosion at an offshore drilling platform (the Deepwater Horizon) in the Gulf of Mexico, now leaking thousands of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf per day.  Many are comparing the spill to the Exxon Valdez disaster--except that the Valdez only carried a finite amount of oil in her holds.  Worst case scenario here is that the spill--hundreds of feet underwater--cannot be stopped.

Already, many pundits are trying to place blame on the Administration for this.  Paul Krugman wrote an article entitled "The Oil Spill Is Obama's Fault"--and while reading the article reveals that this is not what Krugman himself thinks (despite frequent criticism of the President on other matters, the Nobel-winning economist seems to give Obama a pass here)--he's sure that it will be spun that way.  Numerous sources, from Kaus to the Wall Street Journal to Business Insider have either been asking the question, or stating it as fact.  And of course, I'm asking it here.

The justification for blaming the Administration for this is a delayed Federal response to the disaster.  BP Oil, who operates the Deepwater Horizon, underestimated the magnitude of the spill--allegedly prompting the delayed response.  Whether or not this is fair or not is an open question, but nothing is fair in politics.

The trouble is for the "Katrina" advocates is--the GOP has little room to criticize the Administration on this matter.  While Obama has been a supporter of offshore drilling (though he has suspended any such plans in the wake of the disaster), the GOP is the "drill baby, drill" crowd.  Likewise, complaining about the delayed Federal response goes against the grain of GOP ideology.  One plausible line of GOP attack might be that we should be drilling in ANWR rather than offshore; land-based oil leaks are easier to stop and contain than ones at sea--I could see Sarah Palin making such an argument--but it would be a highly revisionist argument coming from Republicans.

(It's worth noting that many on the hardcore right, including Rush Limbaugh, have been suggesting that rather than being an accident, the explosion was instead the work of sabotage by eco-terrorists trying to create a green equivalent of the Reichstag Fire.  That the right, including politically astute commentators such as Limbaugh, would entertain such a theory without any evidence shows how difficult this disaster may be for Republicans to exploit).

The biggest danger to Obama, I think, would be an abandonment of him on the left.  Many on the left are already unhappy with him for various reasons; and this incident could increase the chances that many who supported him in 2008, might instead choose to stay home, or back a Naderesque candidate (including Nader himself) in 2012.  Obama could blunt this somewhat by tacking a bit to the left on environmental issues (the disaster does give political cover for such a maneuver), but in many ways, the damage is done.

Of course, in many ways, comparisons to Katrina are silly.  Katrina resulted in hundreds of lives lost and thousands of lives ruined; we don't yet know the scope of the current disaster, but it's probably safe to say that the body count won't go far beyond the eleven lives already lost in the initial explosion and sinking.  Katrina was a thorough clusterf*ck on all levels; whereas at this point the main issue (in the response) was a tactical decision to let BP handle it.  Comparisons to the Exxon Valdez are probably of limited use--while the Valdez spill resulted in widespread ecological damage, it didn't occur in a heavily populated area.  The birds and fish, after all, don't vote. 

A lot will have to do with the success of the (delayed) Federal response, and any investigation.  It the Feds stop the spill, and it is discovered that BP misled the government as to the scope of the disaster, political damage will be limited.  On the other hand, if the response is botched, or the oil leak becomes a permanent fixture in the bottom of the Gulf, it could have significant consequences for US politics--consequences which could go well beyond the Obama administration.

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