Will the Oil Stick to Obama?

Obama defended his handling of the oil spill at his first full press conference for months. Polls are showing that the public is losing its patience with the administration's response to the disaster. Gallup finds that more than half of those asked say that Obama's performance has been poor or very poor. Karl Rove -- who would have guessed? -- says Yes, the spill is Obama's Katrina. In fact, he reckons, it could be even worse.

The federal response to Katrina was governed by the 1988 Stafford Act, which says that in natural disasters on-shore states are in charge, not Washington. The federal obligation is to "support . . . State and local assistance efforts" by providing whatever resources a governor requests and then writing big checks for the cleanup. Mr. Bush had to deal with a Louisiana governor and a New Orleans mayor who were, by federal law, in charge.

But BP's well was drilled in federal waters. Washington, not Louisiana, is in charge. This is Mr. Obama's responsibility. He says his administration has been prepared for the worst from the start. Mr. Obama's failure to lead in cleaning up the spill could lead voters to echo his complaint in Katrina's aftermath: "I wish that the federal government had been up to the task."

It is hard to say how the politics will develop. If the environmental damage proves as terrible as many fear, and the government's best efforts seem puny in comparison, then sentiment may turn more harshly against Obama whether or not that is justified. My feeling, though, is that John Kerry is right to call much of the criticism ridiculous.

The notion that the government should be directing, as opposed to merely supervising, the effort to stop the leak -- BP should be pushed aside; bring in the military -- is absurd. So far as that side of the operations goes, all that matters is who has more technical expertise: the company or the administration? (If your house was burning down, would you want the White House directing the fire crews, or maybe calling in air strikes, as a sign of how seriously Obama takes your problem?)

There are complaints about the scale of federal resources committed to coastline defenses and clean-up, but I don't see evidence, yet, that the White House has chosen to do less than the feasible maximum. As for Rove's legalisms, they are preposterous and count for nothing. The country blamed Bush for the appalling mismanagement of the Katrina aftermath, and was right to. I see no signs of a remotely similar shambles in the way the leak has been dealt with. Worse, in the crucial first few days after the hurricane, Bush seemed blithely unconcerned, and those images were juxtaposed against the awful and immediately apparent human consequences. Obama has not made that error. If he is unlucky, or if he slips up in an uncharacteristic way, this may not protect him. Still, I would be surprised if the political harm could be even half as bad as Bush's self-inflicted injuries.

What Obama said today was correct. He admitted he was wrong to suppose that oil companies were ready to deal with accidents of this type. He was hardly alone in making that assumption. Ensuring that they are ready next time is the challenge for regulatory reform. But fixing those rules won't help in managing the present emergency. The spill has happened, and there is only so much the government can do. I'd expect the public to understand that.