LCG Election Monitor: Will the oil spill lead to a disaster at the polls?

Steve Lombardo Contributor
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It has been 62 days since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and there is no end in sight to the disastrous oil leak. The Fish and Wildlife Service has collected about 2,000 dead birds and sea turtles and dozens of marine mammals, including a dead sperm whale.  As the oil approaches more Gulf shores, the disaster will become more palpable, and voters will become angrier. But that’s not even the biggest challenge for the Obama administration. While concerns over the spill and offshore drilling have grown tremendously, the biggest political issues the White House faces are the economy and job creation.

1. The political apparatus at the White House knows that the Gulf oil spill is the defining moment for this administration — and a likely pivot point in the Obama presidency — and is acting accordingly. That is why on Sunday Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was on ABC’s This Week and charged Republicans with “being on the side of BP.” They didn’t need to see Frank Rich’s Sunday New York Times column to know there was blood in the water. They saw last week’s Rep. Joe Barton fiasco as an opening and moved quickly to try to take advantage of it. They have made a decision to try to paint the GOP as the defender of big business and the administration as the protector of the people. The White House decided that the best defense is a good offense; time will tell if the strategy works. The move is a gamble, however, because, in essence, it is “playing politics” with an issue that is visceral and volatile for many voters

2. In one sense, the Deepwater spill has become a Katrina-in-reverse.  Obama’s characteristic style has always been deliberate and considerate. In contrast to Bush’s “cowboy” ready, fire, aim approach; Obama is more ready, aim, study, appoint a commission. After the hurricane, there was a failure by local authorities to respond quickly and appropriately — the slow evacuation of New Orleans and activation of the National Guard — that then necessitated a federal response. With the Deepwater Horizon, there has been a sluggish federal response — late approval to build barrier islands, boom sitting unused on piers — that has resulted in many local jurisdictions taking matters into their own hands. After eight years of the Bush presidency, most voters clearly wanted a more deliberative style from their next president. But our sense is that the spill response may become a key element of the “Obama is too thoughtful and detached” narrative that underpins much of the visceral disapproval we have seen from voters in our research.

3. The key players in the Gulf oil spill have taken a political hit as the growing crisis of leadership and finger-pointing has caused massive brand erosion for BP and is weakening the Obama brand as well. Obama’s approval/disapproval ratio is virtually 1-to-1 now (47 percent approve/47 percent disapprove) — an electoral danger zone for presidents. On Saturday, BP’s chairman announced that Tony Hayward will be “handing over” oversight of the spill response effort to Robert Dudley, a BP managing director and American citizen. It was never that likely that Hayward would be fired outright before the leak was stopped, because then his successor would have inherited a source of constant public ire. But with everyone from the federal government to their partner in the Deepwater Horizon, Anadarko Petroleum, trying to shift blame in their direction, this signals that BP is shifting from damage control to survival mode. The problem for the White House is that even if BP ultimately takes the lion’s share of blame for the spill and haphazard response, the buck will eventually stop with them. While the president’s net approval rating has slid just a few points since the explosion, our sense is that its effect on perceptions of Obama will — much like the oil cloud — be slow to disperse.

4. Obama’s speech on Wednesday was underwhelming and did little to stop the political bleeding. Our sense is that the public, more than anything, is hungry for immediate, forceful action from the administration on the spill itself. Instead, Obama spoke in generalities about holding BP responsible through a blue-ribbon investigatory commission and then launched into a lofty speech on “our clean energy future” that even touched on the moon landing.  (The media didn’t do Obama any favors, either, by constantly making the link to Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” address before Obama even made it to the podium.) With his clean energy legislation apparently stalled in the Senate, this appears to be an attempt to follow the Rahm Emmanuel dictum, “don’t let a crisis go to waste.” Yes, there is broad public support for a clean energy agenda; a recent Pew poll found that 87 percent of Americans support requiring increased use of renewable sources by utilities. But right now, virtually no one thinks that should be our top priority, as this recent Gallup poll shows.

5. The oil spill has not overshadowed the other major challenge we’re facing: economic growth and job creation. For nearly half of Americans, that remains the greatest problem facing the country. As the dismal May jobs report showed, despite the trillion dollar stimulus the economy has lost 2.2 million jobs since Obama took office. While the recession may be decelerating, until we have several months of sustained job growth it will not feel like a true recovery to the typical voter. Also, there is growing polling evidence that voters are very concerned about the level of government spending. Clearly, people see the nation’s debt as another indicator that “real recovery” is not yet happening.

6. And as we said two weeks ago, the continued focus on the spill takes the president “off message” and further diminishes Democratic efforts to forge a winning agenda for the November elections. With the relief well not online until August at the earliest, Democrats will spend the summer playing defense on the issues that currently occupy voters: the economy and the disaster response. Part of this is a simple fact of our political system; the party that is out of power gets to play critic without taking much blame for the national state of affairs. But 61 percent of voters now feel that the country is off on the wrong track, the highest level since Obama’s inauguration. So it shouldn’t be any great surprise that voters now favor Republicans on the national House ballot by 5 points in the Gallup poll, the largest single-poll Republican margin in history.

Thanks to John Zirinsky and Pete Ventimiglia for their insights and contributions.  For real-time reactions to events and more thoughts on the public opinion environment, please follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.