The Politics of the Oil Spill

President Obama over the Oil Spill disaster, Friday May 28, 2010. AP / CBS

BP's runaway oil gusher is having an impact far beyond the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. On this 48th day of the well disaster, CBS News chief White House correspondent Chip Reid has a Sunday Journal:


Images of tainted waters and afflicted wildlife will leave lasting memories of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But just as the coastline here is endangered, another kind of long-term damage is threatening to engulf the man who's put himself front-and-center:

"I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis - I am the President, and the buck stops with me," said Mr. Obama.

From Rush Limbaugh to "The Daily Show," the president has found himself taking hits from every side.

And according to University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato, "When a president gets it from both sides, it's probably because he deserves it.

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"This is one of those cases where just about everybody who's reasonable can agree that a president and an administration have fallen short," Sabato said.

And while some have given the president the benefit of the doubt ("The man's doing all he can, I think; his hands are tied behind his back to a certain extent"), according to a new CBS News poll, almost two-thirds responded that the Obama administration isn't doing enough to tackle the oil spill problem.

That's almost the same percentage who think BP's response has been lacking - not the kind of company a president would want to keep these days.

"You have to always stay ahead of the story, but when you're president you always have to be in-charge," said Sabato. "You cannot defer to any other organization, particularly a private company like BP. If they had even asked the appropriate people in their administration, 'What's BP's record?' they would have found out it's the worst in the oil industry."

And considering how much public anger is being vented against the British oil giant, even some supporters feel the president has been slow to step-up his rhetoric.

During Friday's visit to Louisiana - his third since this crisis began - Mr. Obama expressed anger at BP for launching a $50 million public-relations campaign and for considering more than $10 billion in stock dividends.

"What I don't want to hear is when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they're nickel and diming fisherman or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time," said Mr. Obama.

BP responded yesterday that it would indeed pay all "legitimate" claims.

Still, as the scope of the spill grows larger, it threatens to overshadow the White House's entire domestic agenda.

In fact, just how this disaster plays out could directly impact Mr. Obama's odds of serving a second term.

Trying to get that well plugged has been enormously frustrating for the president, but whether he serves one term or two, it's the cleanup that will be with him every inch of the way - and is sure to become a major part of his legacy.

"The administration needs to make sure there's a full and thorough investigation of the causes of this spill and who's at fault, and also need to make sure that when BP cleans up its mess, that that's not the same thing as cleaning up the scene of the crime," said Wesley Warren, director of programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Like many other environmental groups, they hope public outrage will translate into support for alternative energy programs.

"This is an opportunity for the president to have a 9/11 moment - to see that the nation faces certain vulnerabilities that it should never have and to come up with solutions that will fix them once and for all," said Warren.

Of course, supporters of expanded drilling are on the offensive, too. Last week, Sarah Palin posted a message on Facebook, blaming environmentalists for forcing oil companies to work so far off-shore - setting the stage for disaster.

So, as this new week begins, with the first stains of oil appearing on the Florida coast, the politics of this disaster - and the underlying politics of the nation's energy future - grow ever stickier.

"There has to be a long-term intervention by the president directly," said Sabato. "And that doesn't just involve visiting Louisiana a lot; it involves clearly supervising, maybe on a daily basis, what's going on, having a high level task force that doesn't just answer the question, 'What went wrong when the rig collapsed,' but rather answering the more basic question: 'What can we do today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year to clean this mess up?'"
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