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Will the gulf oil spill be Obama's Katrina?

President Barack Obama watches oil containment booms being cleaned during a Gulf Coast tour in Alabama on Monday.

Associated Press

President Barack Obama watches oil containment booms being cleaned during a Gulf Coast tour in Alabama on Monday.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mary Landrieu felt an ugly sense of deja vu. Her home state, Louisiana, was experiencing a catastrophe and the president was slowly and clumsily responding.

"It was shocking to me after President Bush had taken such roundly deserved criticism for the same," said Landrieu, a third-term Democrat. "It was hard for me to watch another president make similar mistakes."

Below the surface of the gulf oil calamity run comparisons to Hurricane Katrina. Almost immediately advanced by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative activists, the notion has seeped into broader discussions as President Barack Obama struggles to respond to one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

An Associated Press poll this week found Americans are just as dissatisfied with Obama's handling of the spill as they were with President George W. Bush's handling of Katrina.

There are substantial differences, chiefly that this time there is a major corporation to blame, and an array of observers say the comparison is inaccurate or premature.

"The public had a very clear conception of the government's failure in Katrina very early," said Michael Dimock, associate director at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, a nonpartisan research group. "And it was exacerbated by one dumb statement, 'Heck of a job, Brownie.' I don't think you've had quite that crystallization yet."

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen carries a close view of both disasters — currently as national commander for the oil spill, and in 2005 as the man tapped to take over the Katrina response. He said, "there's no comparison." Allen said Obama was engaged from the start and that he briefed the president in the Oval Office two hours after the BP rig sank.

The damage in Katrina was done over a couple days, in a fairly defined area, while the oil continues to spill and threatens the entire gulf, Allen said. Response workers were able to help during Katrina while only robots can work on the well a mile down on the sea floor.

"This is now indeterminate, omnidirectional and very broad and complex in its impact," Allen said in an interview Wednesday.

And yet, therein lies the political risk. As long as the oil continues to spill and the damage is recorded, Obama will face continued scrutiny. He made his most public attempt at blunting the concern with a national address Tuesday night from the Oval Office, invoking the language of war as he pledged an unyielding response. Many pundits were unimpressed.

"I thought it was a great speech if you'd been on another planet for the last 57 days," said liberal TV host Keith Olbermann.

• • •

Hurricane Katrina has become a metaphor for government ineptitude. It accentuated public perception of Bush as someone out of touch and he never recovered.

Mindful of that, the Obama White House's initial tendency after the April 20 oil rig explosion was to keep the focus on BP.

"They were so obsessed with being tagged with this as Obama's Katrina that they missed the basic blocking and tackling of showing strong leadership and having the presidential presence to take command of the situation in the sense the nation is looking for him to lead," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow.

"The White House has exposed itself to this line of criticism by not really bringing its 'A' game," agreed Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, and now an expert at the Brookings Institution.

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has been among those complaining about a slow, poorly coordinated response. He is still incensed that when oil first entered Florida waters, no one notified state and local officials.

"We are livid that the command and control is not there," Nelson said at a June 10 congressional hearing.

Across the gulf, there have been communication failures and shortages of supplies. Florida officials say there are not enough skimmers in place to scoop up oil. And it's still unclear to many who is in charge — the government or BP.

"Our state has missed the president's leadership in this disaster," Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum said after Obama's speech Tuesday night.

Nelson said Obama's biggest mistake was trusting that the oil industry was prepared to handle a disaster. Obama has acknowledged as much.

But Nelson credits the administration for establishing an incident commander for Florida alone, a development Obama personally delivered in Pensacola on Tuesday, and cites Obama's success in getting BP to agree Wednesday to put $20 billion into an escrow account to pay victims.

• • •

The oil gusher remains, at heart, the doing of BP. Obama, as he has said, can't swim down and plug the hole. The government does not possess the equipment to even try.

But the past two months have shown that the federal government has failed to properly regulate the oil industry. Those problems had been going on well before Obama took office. "He inherited this mess," Nelson said.

Obama is aware that no matter how many fingers can be pointed at the past, the burden now lies with him.

"I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down," he said during a May 27 news conference. Asked about how his handling of the crisis stacked up to Bush's of Katrina, Obama said that was up to others to decide.

"Because what I'm spending my time thinking about is how do we solve the problem? I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis."

Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.

Will the gulf oil spill be Obama's Katrina? 06/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:52pm]
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