LCG Election Monitor June 1: The Gulf oil spill is not Katrina and Obama is not Bush

Steve Lombardo Contributor
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For myriad reasons, the last 48 hours in the Gulf have dealt a devastating blow to the political fortunes of the Obama administration. The impact of recent events in that region will certainly be felt in November and perhaps even in 2012. And while the Israeli raid on ships carrying Palestinian activists is getting some attention, the spill is still the biggest story in America this morning.

Not every event or issue has an electoral effect, but our sense is that the Gulf oil spill will. Here is our up-to-the-minute take on events in the Gulf and our assessment of the political implications.  As always, while the Gulf oil spill will have an enormously negative impact on wildlife and people’s livelihoods, our focus is on the political and public relations elements of the catastrophe.

  1. We’re now more than 40 days in, and the White House has finally gone into full crisis mode. Last week the president addressed the spill in a press conference and traveled to the region. He took responsibility for virtually everything under the sun. That seemed like the right strategic move until, of course, “top-kill” failed. Now it may prove to be problematic as voters begin to look for somewhere to place blame.
  2. The administration is doing what every good political campaign does: lowering expectations. The front-page headline above the fold in dozens of newspapers across the country is: “Oil could flow until August.” Now you could say that they are accurately and realistically setting expectations, since the relief wells will not be ready until August. But the statement from White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner tells us that Team Obama does not want another expectations setback like the failed “top-kill.” Better to lay out the worst-case scenario and if they do better, great.
  3. The president and his political team were slow to react to this crisis and it may have a lasting public opinion impact. Let’s take a quick snapshot of the timeline of this incident:
    1. April 20: The oil rig Deepwater Horizon explodes.
    2. April 24: Oil is found leaking from the well.
    3. April 29: Obama speaks publicly for the first time about the spill in the Rose Garden.
    4. May 2: Obama visits the Gulf to inspect response operations.
    5. May 28: Obama holds an hour long press conference on the spill.
    6. May 29: Obama visits the Gulf again.

It was nine days after the explosion — and five days after the world knew that the well was spewing oil — before the president spoke about the issue. And he didn’t travel to the Gulf until 12 days after the explosion. It was more than a month before Obama held a full news conference to answer questions on the crisis. There is no doubt that the White House underestimated and underplayed the incident for its first few weeks. The result was the prevailing impression that Obama was disengaged. Of course, it is possible that Obama may be able to correct this impression.

At this point in time, voter attitudes toward the president’s handling of the Gulf oil spill are mixed. The following chart shows voter evaluation of Bush’s handling of Katrina 30 days after the hurricane and reactions to Obama’s handling of the spill in a comparable timeframe.

As you can see, the Gallup poll in particular suggests that voters are starting to view the president’s handling of the spill in a negative light. The coming days will be critical in terms of cementing or reversing this opinion.

4. The short-term problem for Democrats is that the Gulf crisis drives down Obama’s approval rating, the long-term issue for the president is that it diminishes one of the core reasons people voted for him: competence. There is no shortage of blog posts and op-eds on this point. Obama was supposed to be the “anti-Bush,” the competency guy. He may not be emotional but he is smart and will know how to get things done. Well, his reaction to the Gulf oil spill seems to suggest otherwise. Now, for all we know the president had a multitude of discussions with his team about the issue and probably was monitoring and managing it from the start. However, a large segment of the voting public does not have that impression and in the end, that is what counts.

5. This is not Katrina and Obama is not Bush. Look, it is interesting to compare the two because of the geographic proximity but they are very different presidents at very different points in their presidencies. Bush was one year into his second term and his approval rating (in the low 40s) had been eroding for more than a year due to Iraq War fatigue. Bush’s slow and distant reaction to the human toll in Louisiana suggested that he didn’t care, taking away the one attribute some voters still ascribed to him. Katrina was the tipping point and Bush’s approval rating fell into the 30s and never recovered. Obama is 18 months into his first term and his approval rating – though not great – is in the high 40s. So while Katrina was a tipping point for Bush, the Gulf oil spill may be a turning point for Obama.

6. Team Obama has something that Bush never had with Katrina: a villain. A large international oil company. What better villain could you ask for? Team Obama will maximize this to its political advantage over the coming weeks. With Katrina, Bush was the villain.

7. Remember, it is not usually the event that kills a president’s approval rating; it is the reaction. Bush couldn’t prevent the hurricane but voters thought the government’s reaction was terrible. Time will tell whether the public believes that the Obama administration handled the aftermath to the oil spill well.

8. At this point in time, there is little evidence that Obama’s job rating has suffered substantial erosion because of the spill. While it may emerge over time, so far there is little sign of a negative effect on Obama’s overall job approval: During the past month he has been consistently around the 47 to 48 percent mark among registered voters. As we have said before, the economy is still far and away the number one issue for voters, and perceptions of it has far more impact on Obama’s approval rating than the Gulf spill — at this point in time. The current unemployment rate is 9.9 percent. The main economic event this week is the May payrolls report.  Most economists are forecasting 500,000 new jobs and the unemployment dropping .01 to 9.8 percent. Will that be seen as enough improvement? Doubtful.

9. The saturated media coverage of the oil spill is reaching historic proportions and that means all eyes will be on POTUS. In September of 2005, 58 percent of the public was watching the Katrina crisis “very closely.” According to a Gallup poll taken a week ago, the Gulf oil spill was already up to 47 percent. The 3-D graphics of the “Top Kill” have dominated cable news shows and the impact on the views of Americans outside the media echo chamber is just beginning to become known. They are certainly aware of it, with the Economist reporting that 73 percent of adults have heard or read “a lot.” And we are in an environment where distrust of government and corporations are both at record highs, so this disaster will become part of the “narrative of failure” of public institutions in the same way that Fannie and Lehman have. But right now, most of the impact appears to be on BP, not the administration. A Pew poll found that 26 percent of voters feel that the Obama administration has done a “poor” job and 44 percent think BP has done poorly.

10. The spill takes the president “off message” and further diminishes Democratic efforts to forge a winning agenda for the fall elections. This maybe one of the most significant problems for the president and Democrats. The spill will likely suck the oxygen out of the room for at least the next 30 to 60 days at a time when Democrats need the focus to be on their legislative agenda.

11. If nothing else, the Gulf oil spill will be a significant blow to future offshore drilling development along our coasts, much as Three Mile Island affected the domestic nuclear industry. The effect on public opinion is already dramatic; fewer than half of all Americans now support expanded offshore drilling.

The Gulf oil spill is likely to have dramatic political effect in the weeks ahead.  And once we are swamped with videos of oil-soaked seabirds and ruined beaches, all bets are off.