Obama’s Katrina? Oh, yeah.

May 28, 2010

It’s already become a cliche to say that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has become President Obama’s “Katrina,” a reference to the political harm done to George W. Bush over a perception of fecklessness, indifference, and incompetence in response to the 2005 hurricane that struck New Orleans. In Bush’s case, while some of the criticism was deserved (Brown’s appointment at FEMA, for example), the 1988 Stafford Act (PDF), section 401, made clear that the initial responsibility for disaster response laid with local and state authorities, who had to execute their plans before invoking Federal aid. Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco failed at this. But, thanks to Democratic demagoguery and a hysterical press, all blame was dumped on Washington. Fair or not, that was the political reality.

In the current disaster, however, all the blame now finally starting to be hurled at the Obama administration is merited. For this type of disaster, the 1990 Oil Pollution Act makes the Federal government the lead agency:

Many believe that there were lost opportunities in the immediate aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill to help contain the damage. For example, the oil sat around the grounded tanker off the Alaskan coast for several days before it was blown toward coastal areas and caused onshore environmental damage. But conflicting state and federal actions stymied the cleanup efforts and slowed the initial response to the spill.

Congress concluded that the existing response protocol was poorly coordinated. One of the goals of the Oil Pollution Act was to clarify the lines of authority in the immediate aftermath of a spill so that the response can be swift and effective. The statute also beefed up preparedness measures in anticipation of spills and created a liability scheme for the government’s cleanup costs and to injured third parties for damages.

The act authorizes the President to either federalize the spill or oversee the cleanup efforts of the responsible private party or parties. Spills in coastal waters are handled by the Coast Guard, while the Environmental Protection Agency handles inland spills. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the President delegated authority to the Coast Guard, which in turn coordinates efforts with other federal agencies and state officials as well as BP and other private parties. The Coast Guard has at its disposal the resources to address spills.

More than a month into the disaster, the administration’s feckless, indifferent, and incompetent response to a problem over which it has clear statutory authority has caused it to be hammered in public opinion and even the media, the latter of which normally fawns over anything “Obama.”

And the administration’s opponents are taking advantage of this. Via Ed Morrissey, this web ad from the NRSC slamming Obama over his handling of the oil spill is devastating, especially when it quotes leading Democrats and the President’s own words:

(And I never, ever thought I’d find myself sympathizing with James Carville.)

So, to answer the initial question of whether this is “Obama’s Katrina,” I’d have to say a qualified “yes.” Yes, because it’s a disaster feeding a perception of incompetence that’s starting to cost him politically, even though the press is only belatedly starting to take him to task. Qualified, because we don’t know yet if this will cause a permanent negative change in public perception, as Katrina did for President Bush.

RELATED: Former Governor Sarah Palin, who was intimately involved with the beginning and end of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, breaks out the industrial nightstick on Obama:

Nearly 40 days in, our President finally addressed the American people’s growing concerns about the Gulf Coast oil spill. Listening to today’s press conference, you’d think the administration has been working with single-minded focus on the Gulf gusher since the start of the disaster. In reality, their focus has been anything but singular to help solve this monumental problem.

If the President really was fully focused on this issue from day one, why did it take nine whole days before the administration asked the Department of Defense for help in deploying equipment needed for the extreme depth spill site?

Why was the expert group assembled by Energy Commissioner Steven Chu only set up three weeks after the start of this disaster?

Why was Governor Jindal forced more than a month after the start of the disaster to go on national television to beg for materials needed to tackle the oil spill and for federal approval to build offshore sand barriers that are imperative to protect his state’s coastline?

Why was no mention of the spill made by our President for days on end while Americans waited to hear if he grasped the import of his leadership on this energy issue?


Read the whole thing. If Sarah Palin has one undoubted area of expertise, it’s in the oversight of natural resource development and regulation, and in dealing with oil companies. Her experience here dwarfs that of the President and his top cabinet officials. While false pride would keep him from ever giving her a spotlight that would inevitably shine badly on him, he could go a long way to getting this under control by making her the “Oil Clean-up Czarina.”