The Fraught Politics of Calling the Oil Spill 'Obama's Katrina'

Many commentators insist they're different

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The government's handling of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster in and around New Orleans remains a low point in the history of the Bush administration. Rightly or wrongly, the debacle of Katrina has hung around Bush's neck since the 2006 congressional elections, when Democrats campaigned successfully against the government's management. Five years later, environmental disaster has returned to the Gulf Coast in the form of the massive, still-spreading oil spill.

The Obama administration is trying hard to repeat neither the disaster management mistakes nor the political fumbles of Katrina. But the White House is still struggling to quiet discussion of whether this spill could become "Obama's Katrina," as critics put it. Of course, Katrina killed over 1,800 people and caused over $80 billion in damage, numbers which no one expects the oil spill to approach. But this disaster has become a major test for the administration's ability to manage a crisis. Is the comparison fair? What does it reveal about the Obama administration?

  • White House Pushing Hard Against Comparison  Politics Daily's David Corn writes of Obama's on-the-scene work, "Could most of this been accomplished via a phone or video conference? Probably. And it's tough to estimate the value of the symbolism of an actual presidential trip to the region. But the White House sure wants Obama to be seen as fully engaged --not like you-know-who during you-know-when. No flyovers for this commander-in-chief."
  • Didn't Obama Prove This With Haiti?   The American Prospect's David Waldman reminds us, "that the Haiti earthquake -- remember that? -- was actually a success for the Obama administration." Haiti was supposed to be "Obama's Katrina," and then it wasn't because he did a good job. So why are we having this conversation all over again? "It seems that the better job the Obama administration does with this and future disasters, the less it will matter in the public's perception of what government is capable of."
  • The Media Equation The Washington Post's Michael Shear writes, "Unlike Katrina, there have been no obvious failures of government, no images to compare to the Superdome or the flooded streets of St. Bernard Parish. And unlike Katrina, there is an easy target for blame in the current oil spill: the oil giant BP, which by law is the "responsible party" and must pay for all of the costs of the cleanup."
  • Obama Must Demonstrate Focus The New York Times' Helene Cooper wrote on Friday, "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. ... Complicating the White House response is the fact that the spill occurred just a month after the president announced he was expanding offshore drilling."
  • This Isn't a Disaster-Management Story The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder sighs, "The Katrina comparisons are silly. For one thing, the Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for the collapse of the levees. State and local governments were unprepared and responded poorly." But, in the case, the government was not responsible for the initial problem and they are doing all possible to manage it. "The early government response to the spill was largely unnoticed and unpublicized because it was standard operating procedure."
  • Obama Faces Tough Timing Foreign Policy's Peter Feaver warns, "There is never a good time politically for an environmental disaster of this scope, but the timing is especially delicate for the administration. Not only does it come just a few weeks after the president made a much-ballyhooed compromise to allow off-shore drilling -- a move that dismayed this leftwing base -- but it is also comes in the same news cycle as two other bad stories: another near-miss attempted terrorist strike on U.S. soil and the visit to American soil of the Iranian troublemaker President Ahmadinejad. ... the administration can be forgiven if their spin sounds a bit defensive."
  • The Four Big Differences Blogger Paul Tullis lists them: "1) Katrina was not an accident, and as such, it was predictable. ... 2) Hurricanes are forecast; the type of accident that exacerbated the spill has never happened before. ... 3) Bush deliberately dismantled the system for responding to disasters, both directly and indirectly. ... 4) Bush slept, and New Orleans wept; Obama was on the case from Day 1."
When horrible things do happen, authorities respond quickly and effectively. Crisis prevention and effective crisis response, however, are inherently less interesting and less attention-getting than failed crisis response. ... If the Bush administration had conducted adequate preparation for Katrina and responded effectively, there'd be relatively little shared memory of the disaster.
Success and failure in crisis response, consequently, have asymmetric political effect. The Obama administration's response to the Haiti earthquake, in my view, has been a resounding success for responsible, capable governance. No one will remember that in six months. Bush's response to Katrina will endure in the political memory for decades.
  • Where's the Outrage Against BP? The New York Times' Helene Cooper wants to know. "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."
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