Obama and the Dreaded Katrina Comparison

Ever since the oil spill drama began in the Gulf of Mexico more than a month ago, President Barack Obama has managed to deflect politically damaging comparisons with the George W. Bush Administration's botched handling of the 2005 Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans. Yet last week, with the arrival of televised images from the Louisiana marshland of oil-coated birds and other marine life, the level of public anger reached another plateau and prompted a push by Obama to get out in front of the crisis.

On May 27, Obama was expected to unveil new regulations for offshore drilling, including updated permit procedures for oil rigs and tougher inspections to ensure that safety and environmental rules are being followed, an Administration official said on the condition of anonymity.

That same day, the President was set to receive a report from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the cause of the Apr. 20 rig explosion. (As Bloomberg Businessweek went to press, BP (BP) engineers were attempting to plug the gushing well with mud-like drilling fluid and cement.) Salazar said the U.S. has decided to review Royal Dutch Shell's (RDS) plans to explore for oil and natural gas in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas, even as he renewed the U.S. commitment to drilling. "We need to move forward with oil and gas development in the outer continental shelf," Salazar told a House panel on May 26. Shell's application to drill exploratory wells was conditionally approved last year by Salazar, and drilling could begin within months off Alaska's coast.

On May 28, Obama was set to make his second visit to the Gulf region. Even some fellow Democrats say the President needs to take stronger action to halt the slow-motion environmental disaster in the Gulf. "It's inexplicable," says Louisiana native James Carville, a Democratic consultant who moved to New Orleans after Katrina. "Why do we still not know how much oil has been pumped out? Why did it take us over 30 days to get the pictures?"

A poll released on May 25 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed a public critical of the Administration as well as BP. It found 26 percent of those polled rated Washington's response poor and 31 percent called it "only fair." What's missing is a sense that Obama has taken charge, says Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University in Houston. "Obama has yet to have his 'bull horn' moment on the Gulf catastrophe," says Brinkley, invoking the image of Bush speaking to New York firefighters after the September 11 attacks. "As the weeks turn into months you can feel, almost on a daily basis, the public's furor start heading toward the White House."

The White House says it's taking a tough line toward BP and won't rest until the well is capped and the mess cleaned up. Obama has ordered a bipartisan commission to investigate the spill in the Gulf. "Nobody is more upset than me, because ultimately, like any President, when this happens on your watch, then every day you are thinking, 'How does this get solved?'" Obama said at a May 25 Democratic Party fund-raiser in San Franciso.

The bottom line: Obama is trying to stay out in front of the Gulf oil disaster to avoid a Katrina-like political setback.

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