Obama’s slow-moving Katrina

Marco Vicenzino Contributor
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Just as Hurricane Katrina dealt a fatal blow to the credibility of President George W. Bush in the second year of his second term, the question swirling in political circles is whether the BP oil spill will deal a similar fate to the administration of President Barack Obama in the second year of his first, and potentially only, term.

Like Katrina, the current crisis focuses on America’s Gulf coast, and particularly on Louisiana. Federal, state and local authorities are overwhelmed. Although the current calamity’s pace is slower, its fallout will be greater. Since the beginning, finger pointing largely focused on the private sector, that is, BP and the oil-services companies it contracted.

Armed by apparent public support early in the crisis, federal officials took the high road. A congressional hearing including a panel of the private sector culprits was a political bonanza for legislators and the White House. However, the tables are suddenly turning. The finger pointing is beginning to spill over into the public sector, particularly when it was recently discovered that federal agencies were complicit in the private sector’s ability to cut corners.

President Obama attempted to short-circuit the blame-game by taking full responsibility for the matter by declaring “the buck stops with me.” To save face, the president simply had no other option. In hindsight, it may prove too little, too late.

The rhetoric has also changed dramatically since the calamity’s start when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised the administration would keep its “boot” on BP’s “neck until the job gets done”. Now mounting public pressure may keep a boot on the neck of the Obama administration until the task is fully completed. Whether justified or not, the growing perception of the president’s inability to effectively address the crisis risks sticking to the administration like the spilled oil on the shores of the Gulf Coast.

Beyond caring rhetoric and recent visits, sentiment of a behind-the-curve president detached from local realities threatens to spread from local to national levels, with potentially disastrous implications for Mr. Obama’s international agenda. The president’s standing would be dangerously weakened on all fronts. In a time of crises brewing from all corners of the world, the timing could not be worse.

The administration’s admission that the spill may continue until August, coupled with forecasts that the upcoming hurricane season may prove the worst on record, is a recipe for further disaster. Unless the spill is quickly stopped or significantly reduced, the president faces a long, hot and politically decisive summer. Any perceived gains from his recent legislative initiatives, and accompanying momentum, will rapidly fade. The worst-case scenario is permanent and irreversible loss of credibility resulting in a lame-duck presidency in less than two years from inauguration.

As President Obama struggles to seize the political initiative nationally, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is attempting to gain momentum locally. With an eye for a reversal of political fortune on the national stage, the 38-year old governor will seek to convert this crisis into an opportunity to recover and boost the capital he lost during his lackluster official Republican response to the President Obama’s speech to Congress in February 2009.

Furthermore, his pro-active stance is further fuelled by memories of his predecessor’s ineptitude during Hurricane Katrina. Jindal must also avoid former Governor Kathleen Blanco’s mistake of direct confrontation with the White House. It is in the best interests of Mr. Jindal, his constituents and the nation, for the governor to focus solely on the crisis and what needs to be done. Responsible leadership requires the ability to build consensus and unity in times of crisis. Negative rhetoric will backfire. Criticism must be constructive at best and veiled at worst. Leave it to the public and media to sort out who fell short of their obligations.

Governor Jindal’s vigor can play a critical role in galvanizing local community activism and participation. However, his ability to alter the situation and stop the spill is even more limited than President Obama’s. Spin-spin does not always translate into win-win, particularly when a man-made disaster becomes subject to the whims of Mother Nature.

Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C. He provides global political risk analysis for corporations and regular commentary on foreign affairs for publications/media outlets worldwide. He can be reached at msv@globalsp.org.