Is the gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico President Obama's Katrina? That's the political question most often raised about it, but it might not be the right question.
Hurricane Katrina was a devastating blow to President Bush's claims of competence and compassion. After Katrina, his job-approval rating never again rose above 50 percent.
Obama is facing political damage of a different sort. His commitment to oil drilling and coziness with the business community risk dampening the enthusiasm of his political base, at a time when he desperately needs it energized.
The Obama administration has some explaining to do -- mostly to fellow Democrats.
The administration already has to deal with opposition on two fronts. Republicans, driven by ideology, are committed to bringing this president down and destroying all of his works. Independents, driven by economic anxiety, are exasperated with Washington and ready to throw the bums out. The president can ill afford opposition on a third front -- from his own party.
Polling on the oil spill shows limited political damage so far. Asked by the Pew Research Center to rate Obama's handling of the oil spill, the public was divided: 38 percent approved, 36 percent disapproved. In September 2005, a majority of Americans disapproved of the way Bush was handling the hurricane's aftermath.
Nor has the oil spill caused public support for offshore drilling to collapse. This month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked Americans whether they support more offshore drilling. The response was nearly 2-1 yes (60 percent to 34 percent).
Any anti-drilling backlash is likely to be among Democrats. In the Pew poll, support for more offshore drilling held steady among Republicans (74 percent in February; 76 percent in May). But support dropped sharply among Democrats (from 54 percent to 41 percent). Democrats were also more likely to see the spill as a major disaster and less likely to believe that efforts to control it will succeed.
Although Democrats give the federal government higher ratings than Republicans do for its response to the oil spill -- Obama is their president, after all -- their support is tempered (42 percent of Democrats give the government a positive rating; 46 percent, negative).
The Obama administration has some explaining to do -- mostly to fellow Democrats. Why did the president announce his decision to expand offshore drilling in March, before he carried through on his promise to reform the cozy relationship between federal regulators and the oil industry? Why did the federal Minerals Management Service grant BP an exemption from the environmental assessment procedures?
The MMS is becoming the FEMA of this story. Why did it take a disaster for the president to address the obvious conflict of interest within the agency? Now the president says, "The part of the agency which permits oil and gas drilling and collects royalties will be separate from the part of the agency in charge of inspecting oil rigs and platforms and enforcing the law." Talk about locking the barn door after the horse has bolted.
Democrats and environmentalists are pressuring the administration to reverse course on offshore drilling. Six West Coast senators, all Democrats, are proposing a permanent ban on drilling in the Pacific. And Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., says, "Expanded drilling is dead on arrival. Now that people see that this can completely disrupt their livelihood, their culture, and their way of life, I think you're going to see attitudes on drilling changing dramatically."
Ironically, this environmental disaster may doom any chance of getting a climate-change bill through Congress. The measure that Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., recently introduced would gives states the right to veto any drilling plans that could cause environmental or economic damage to their coasts.
Expanded drilling, which is still in the Kerry-Lieberman proposal, was a crucial concession aimed at winning the support of moderate Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who helped write the original climate-change measure, has withdrawn his endorsement of the bill. Democrats are unlikely to support any bill that includes expanded drilling. Republicans are likely to block any bill that does not include more drilling, especially because they have the polls on their side.
If their climate-change legislation does not become law, will Democrats be stirred to rally against the Republicans? More likely, they will be demoralized by their administration's fecklessness.
This article appears in the May 22, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.