Are we witnessing the Obama Oil Spill, and what political consequences lay ahead?

June 4, 2010


This oil spill came at the worst possible time for President Obama.  The jobs reports had been showing positive growth over the last couple of months.  This fact, combined with a more assertive Obama that had become less timid about directly confronting his adversaries, made the legislative outlook for 2010 quite bright.  Perhaps we could get legislation through that dealt with climate change, or maybe we could even raise the Employee Free Choice Act from the dead and put a version of that to a vote on the floor.

Well that is no more, as the double whammy of the actual oil spill and the failed efforts to end the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico has all but ground President Obama’s legislative agenda to a halt.  Along the way, he has been criticized for myriad things:

  • He did not attend the funerals of the eleven men who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion that caused the oil spill.
  • He has not dispensed enough government resources to cap off the oil well.
  • He has not held BP accountable enough.
  • He has not been to the Gulf coast to talk with the residents of the region more.

These are but a few.  However, it is necessary to note a couple of things, the first of which having to deal with the entity that bears the responsibility for cleaning up the oil spill.  It is not the United States federal government; it is British Petroleum.  They should have to drain as much money as they have to in order to clean this mess up.  Second, while he did not attend the funerals of those that perished in the blast (like he did for the 29 West Virginia coal miners who died last month), should that be taken to mean that he does not care?  Did President Bush attend the memorials of those that died in the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia?  He did not.  How many times did President Bush visit the region after Katrina?  That is what I thought.  I would not expect the President of the United States to be talking to every citizen on the Gulf Coast; I would want him in Washington, putting together the kind of braintrust that is going to be needed to deal with the aftermath of the largest oil spill in American history.

All of this being said, is it Obama’s oil spill?  No.  It cannot be.  It cannot be because there is nothing that suggests that he is not doing everything legally necessary to make this situation right.  If the federal government comes in and cleans this mess up on its own, it would be akin to a parent constantly cleaning up after a child.  When does BP learn from its mistakes?  When are they made to feel the same sort of pain in the area that matters most to them (their pocketbooks/wallets) that the families of the eleven who were killed, or the thousands of fishermen that work and live along the Gulf Coast who now find themselves out of work, are made to feel every day that this drags on further?  The federal government should perform necessary duties (environmental impact alleviation, finding work for displaced fishermen, etc.), but British Petroleum must be made to pay for their actions, and short of President Obama ordering a nationalization of oil companies doing business within the United States, the clean up and payout of damages to victims should be the sole responsibility of BP.

As far as the electoral consequences are concerned, it is a wash.  Here in Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has been hitting U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO) hard on the issue, highlighting his campaign donations from BP and his stance against a bill that would have raised the liability caps for pain and suffering that companies such as BP would have been forced to pay.  But make no mistake: there are Democrats that have also taken money from BP as well, and they will be targeted in much the same way.  So I see this as something that will, politically speaking, not make too many waves come November 2nd.


Can this be considered Obama’s oil spill?

There are really two veins to this question. The first is, is Obama to blame for the spill? The simple answer is no. BP is to blame, perhaps Transocean, as well as the deregulation of past public servants.

The second is, does Obama “own” the spill in terms of the buck stopping with him. The answer is, to a limited extent, yes. BP ultimately is liable, but the public is certainly looking to Obama above all others to demonstrate guidance toward some sort of resolution.

What will be the electoral effect of the oil spill?

It depends. As I’ve said since Obama took office, the midterm elections of 2010 will be decided largely on management and budget issues. Positive results for Democrats depend partially on the economy (and budget) beginning to turn around. In terms of the oil spill, if the latest attempt to cap-and-contain the underwater pipeline is successful, the focus can then shift more toward cleanup of the existing spill with an aggressive cleanup regime. Because the midterms will be largely decided on management effectiveness, for Democrats meaningful progress/success on the oil spill will result in a neutral effect at worst and a positive effect at best.

If the latest attempt fails and the Gulf of Mexico continues to turn black through August or September when the relief wells are drilled, the oil spill could be somewhat harmful for Democrats whether it’s fair or not. That’s especially true of there isn’t a clear plan in place for the cleanup following the drilling of the relief wells in August. It has been well noted in recent years that planning for the aftermath, so to speak, is critical. By August, the Obama administration, the military, other top officials will have had plenty of time to develop a plan for cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico. If they fail to do that, the consequences in November will be limited, but real.


Can this be considered Obama’s oil spill? Well, it is not necessarily rational but the answer has to be an overwhelming YES. Not because it is but because that is how it is and will be perceived. I say it isn’t rational because there is little, if anything, for Obama to do in this case. He is being forced to throw his hands up and say ‘I have no idea’ just like BP and everybody else. It’s not like it was Obama’s plan to drill that well, and you can’t convince me that he should have done something which may have prevented it (perhaps taking some action to address MMS). He just happens to be the guy in the captain’s chair at the time of the accident; however that translates into blame and/or consequences. It’s Obama’s oil spill as much as it was Bush’s Katrina and Carter’s hostage crisis.

Allow me to digress for a moment, but the real issue to me is that we allow this offshore drilling with no plan or apparent ability to stop disasters that may happen. They have the blowout preventer…but then what? Nobody came up with a fail safe for the fail safe? Why not? As we see now, the consequences are pretty severe.

Anyway, as far as electoral effects of the oil spill, I think it is a tough subject to predict. For starters, I think the Democratic party is and was going to have a somewhat difficult mid-term election in the first place. Largely the result of a seemingly growing anti-government movement, the oil spill won’t be reversing any of those sentiments. But for Obama in particular, I think the inability of any one person or entity, government included, to stop the flow of oil before August (!) is going to translate into evidence or ammunition for the lack of experience and leadership argument (evidence or ammunition depending on your stance on the topic).

Let’s be honest, Obama did not win the election based on his extensive previous experience in government. It was a big target for the GOP in 2008, and it will be again assuming the spill and its effects are relatively fresh on Americans’ minds. Will it sway the election? Too early to say for sure, but if nothing else it might make it a much tighter race than anybody previously thought.


I believe that the oil spill should be considered President Obama’s oil spill. With that said, there is plenty of blame to go around (the status quo before Obama as well) is partially to blame as well.

However, like any political figure, ties to the current oil industry have caused an unsafe inbreeding that has led us to the largest oil disaster in our nation’s history. Steven Chu, President Obama’s Energy Secretary received the bulk of a $500 million BP grant to develop alternative energy sources. BP’s Chief scientist at the time (Steven Koonin) described Chu as “my twin brother.” Now, Chu is working with and against (to protect the President’s political capital) BP to stop the flow of oil.

I agree with James Carville, John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, and LA Governor Bobby Jindal. The President has not taken a proactive role in the oil spill. I believe this has the potential to be Obama’s Hurricane Katrina.

While Bobby Jindal is evaluating and helping with relief efforts, President Obama could be very hands on in this process, and he hasn’t been. He’s attempting to pass the buck on to BP for plugging the well and cleaning the mess. He should be working with other countries and industries in order to solve the problem. Instead of leaving BP’s CEO of making statements of progress, the President needs to have his “bullhorn” moment and take control of the situation.

BP memos show they may have been slow to respond or have underestimated the full effects of the problem. From a pure realistic perspective: if BP executives were slow to respond before, and directly after the disaster, are they the right people to tell the Obama Administration what their next plan is to cap the well?

We are a month and a half after the disaster and today is only his third trip to the Gulf region. While oil and energy ties are abound in every political regime, it’s unrealistic to say that Obama will “clean house” as he claims with the oil industry. If that is so, he needs to reconsider his own Energy Secretary. The Republicans could legitimately frame this as Obama’s Katrina. With that said, I do not believe this will have a drastic effect on the midterm elections in November. While the problem is all of ours, the responsibility rests at President Obama and BP’s feet.

Lastly, here are some facts on the amount of oil currently in the gulf:

  1. 11,300 – The distance in miles the current amount of oil leak would stretch if placed in milk jugs lined side by side.
  2. 102 – Number of school gymnasiums that could theoretically be filled floor-to-ceiling with oil from the spill.
  3. 19,000,000-39,000,000 – The amount of oil that has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico since the spill. 19 Million gallons would fill my car’s gas tank (14.5 gallons) 1.31 million times.
  4. 400 Wildlife Species threatened by the spill.