Will the Oil Spill Damage Obama's Popularity?

The "top kill" has failed, and administration officials are preparing for oil to continue gushing from the Deepwater Horizon well into the Gulf of Mexico, possibly until August. As the public continues to struggle with how this happened, BP is taking most of the blame, but there is also skepticism over how President Obama has handled the spill. " The possibility certainly exists, it seems, that this event will mean a dip in his public support.

Gallup poll released Thursday found that 53% see Obama's response to the spill as "poor" or "very poor":
Gallup oil spill response.gif
CNN poll last Monday showed dissatisfaction with Obama's oil-spill response as well: 46% approved, while 51% disapproved.

Since December, President Obama's approval rating has been hovering around even--that is, about as many people disapprove of his job performance as approve of it--and, as of right now, 47% approve on average and 48% disapprove:

Obama has offered some tough rhetoric for BP, and he has taken on accountability or fixing the mess. In his appearance in Louisiana last week, he appeared to be engaged, willing to cut through bureaucratic red tape, and willing to experiment with solutions for a problem the U.S. government has never encountered before.

He insists that critics of the administration's response "don't know the facts." It's pretty much accepted, however, that because BP's own estimates of the spill turned out to be inaccurate, the federal government's initial urgency surrounding the spill didn't match the reality of its scale. So far, polling indicates that Americans blame BP for that, but they clearly disapprove of Obama's response regardless.

Some have criticized the federal government for relying on BP for estimates and response. The federal government says that's the course of reaction that makes sense. We're likely to get more information about BP and the federal government as Congress investigates.

In the past week, the oil spill has generated some of the most intense and prolonged questioning of U.S. government performance to date in the Obama era, second only to the scrutiny that followed the Christmas Day bombing attempt. It's fair to say that the Gulf oil spill is the biggest psychic event having to do with American government and public opinion since the passage of health care reform. With the midterm elections looming, it seems unlikely that anything big will happen for the rest of the year; it's possible that Arizona's immigration law will force Congress to pass comprehensive reform, but it's unlikely anyone will want to take such a tough vote months away from an election.

Which means there's a significant chance that, as thousands of barrels of oil continue to gush until August, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe will remain the most significant event shaping the mood of the U.S. public throughout the summer. Over the next few weeks, more data will come out on what people think of the spill, as pollsters ask whether government and BP responses were adequate. Oil will continue to wash ashore, and we'll see more images of crude-soaked wildlife and wetlands.

Now that the "top kill" didn't work, this catastrophe will only get worse. And as it draws more and more dismay from the public, it seems entirely plausible that we'll see it reflected in Obama's popularity and poll numbers.