There’s a world of difference between the impact of an oil spill and a deadly hurricane. And the White House hopes it stays that way.
As Obama, who will visit the Gulf region on Sunday morning, has stepped up his administration’s response to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, ordering a moratorium on new offshore drilling leases and dispatching cabinet secretaries and cargo planes to the region, the White House is also trying to avert the kind of political damage inflicted on former President George W. Bush by his administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
In contrast with his treatment of the Massey Energy Company, which operates the West Virginia mine where 29 miners recently died in an explosion, Mr. Obama has not directed any tough rhetoric in public against BP, the British oil giant that was leasing the oil rig that exploded 11 days ago. Nor has he struck any tones of outrage on behalf of Gulf Coast residents and businesses affected by the spill.
But administration officials said privately that there was increased frustration with BP’s response, and the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, pointedly refused to say whether the White House had confidence in the company’s handling of the spill.
Mr. Obama, for his part, vowed, for the second time in two days, that his administration would respond aggressively to the oil spill. He maintained that he continued to “believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security,” addressing concerns about whether the administration would stick with its plan to increase drilling in the gulf.
But administration officials left open the possibility that they might reconsider the decision to expand offshore drilling if conditions in the gulf worsened. Mr. Gibbs said there would be “an extensive environmental review before deciding” on issuing new drilling leases.
Before it was announced that he would visit the Gulf Coast, Mr. Obama's weekend plans had already raised the eyebrows of some administration critics. He is scheduled to attend the high-wattage, celebrity-studded White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night, which CNN has been promising, in hourly promos, that it will broadcast live starting at 7 p.m. with dispatches from the red carpet.
For Mr. Obama, the potential political fallout “is going to be aggravated by the fact that the president traditionally gives a humorous speech,” said Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University. “There you are in Washington with celebrities and the media while wildlife and fishermen are doused in oil? That’s not going to do much for the White House or for the press, for that matter.”
Mr. Obama flew to Michigan on Saturday morning to speak at the commencement of the University of Michigan, and will then return to Washington for the dinner. Aides add that Mr. Obama could use his remarks at the dinner to highlight the plight of gulf residents, fishermen and wildlife.
“I think that given the serious nature of the problems that we face as a country, you could say that about any event on any day,” Mr. Gibbs said in an interview, responding to suggestions that the president’s attendance at the correspondents dinner might look unseemly while an environmental calamity was under way.
Natural disasters provide great opportunities, or great peril, for presidents. President Bush’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, magnified by his now-infamous “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie” praise of his FEMA director, Michael Brown, cemented an impression that his administration failed to act with enough urgency to address the suffering of tens of thousands of people.
The widening environmental calamity in the gulf is the first time Mr. Obama has confronted a domestic disaster. Complicating the White House response is the fact that the spill occurred just a month after the president announced he was expanding offshore drilling.
Officials note that a key difference between the spill and Hurricane Katrina is the pace of the onslaught of the disaster. While the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast in a fury, the oil has — literally — crept to the shores of the gulf. While the eventual harm from the leak could outstrip that of the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, that will not be known for weeks, if not months.
While characterizing the Obama administration’s response to the spill as intense, Bill Eichbaum of the World Wildlife Fund said the disaster showed that the expansion plans were a bad idea.
“This spill in the gulf is like having a heart attack in New York City,” he said. “Everything is there that you need to fix it. If you have a spill in the Arctic, it’s like having a heart attack on the North Pole. There’s nothing there to help you fix it.”
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