Is Oil Spill becoming Obama’s Katrina?

obama-frownSo asks a headline to a USAT piece which starts as follows:

The hurricane that drowned New Orleans and cast George W. Bush as out of touch swept across the Gulf Coast nearly five years ago. Now, as oil laps ashore in the very same region, local officials are asking: Is there another government-Gulf Coast disconnect? Is BP’s oil spill becoming this president‘s Katrina

I think that the answer to this question is no, if the question means a moment in time that will be emblematic of the Obama presidency was for Bush’s–and whether one thinks it is fair or not, there is no denying that the handling of Katrina is a key negative moment in narrative of the Bush presidency.  Some basic evidence of this fact is the fact that “Heckuva job, Brownie” entered the lexicon and it has a very negative connotation.

Setting Bush aside for a moment (I will come back to Bush and Katrina below), there are some key reasons why the oil spill will not for Obama what Katrina was for Bush.’

  1. The Deaths. The loss of human life will not be the same.  Yes, people died when the Deepwater Horizons platform exploded and sank, but Katrina and its aftermath killed almost 2,000 people.   That fact alone brought a different kind of focus on the events of 2005 than will the events of this years.
  2. Property Damage. Something like 80% of New Orleans flooded when the levees broke.  NOLA still isn’t what it once was.
  3. Refugees. There were thousands upon thousands of persons displaced by the flooding of New Orleans.
  4. TELEVISION.  The caps are quite deliberate.  We watched Katrina unfold on television.  We saw people on their roofs and refugees at the Convention Center and elsewhere.  It was a mutli-day reality show of the worst and most dramatic kind.  That ramped up the political stakes in a way that the oil spill cannot, significant as it may be.
  5. Speed. As per the above, the Katrina tragedy unfolded quickly and was very easy to relate to.  The damage that the oil spill will leave its wake (ecosystems destroyed, fishermen out of jobs, etc.) will be a slow-moving, almost invisible event.  Yes, the evening news can do human interest stories about the shrimpers who are unemployed after generations in the business, but it will never have the exact same impact that the Katrina damage in NOLA had.
  6. Uniqueness.  This is basically a sui generis event.  Yes, we have had oil spills before, but never like this.  We don’t even know what to expect the government to do.  We have, however, had natural disasters (especially hurricanes and floods) before, so have a set of expectations.  While the expectations the public had of the Bush administration may have been unfair given the magnitude if the disaster, they is no doubt that there were expectations.  With the current event I am not sure that most people have any specific pre-established expectations.  This matters.
  7. Someone to Blame.  British Petroleum and their corporate partner (including Halliburton) are available to take some of the heat.
  8. Lack of Specific Role for Feds. While the US government has regulatory power over the process, they were no directly responsible for the platform or the well.  However, in New Orleans the Army Corps of Engineers (part of the federal government) had a very specific role in maintaining the levees that failed in the aftermath of Katrina.  Further, the federal government has a Department of Homeland Security that contains the Federal Emergency Management Agency which is supposed to deal with natural disasters.  There is no Oil Spill Management Agency to look to and blame in this case.

Now, none of this is to say Obama won’t take political heat for the federal government’s handling of the situation, but it won’t be the same as Katrina was for Bush.

When we think back to 2005, I think that some have let their memories fade on some of the more remarkable examples of ineptitude on the part of the Bush administration.  Not, by the way, that I think it is fair to “blame Bush for Katrina”—but rather it is fair to note that the Bush administration was not exactly at its shining best at that point in time.  It should also be noted that whatever benefit of the doubt that Bush had with the public had started to be exhausted over the topic of Iraq at about the time Katrina hit.

I think more than anything, Bush’s problems with Katrina stems from its slow-motion response to things we all saw in TV.  To wit:

Mr. Brown stunned several national television interviewers on Sept. 1 with the admission that he did not know about the 20,000 evacuees at the convention center in New Orleans until 24 hours after it was featured in news reports.1

On Thursday night, Michael D. Brown, the federal government’s point man for managing the response to Hurricane Katrina, made a remarkable confession on live television.

Speaking of the thousands stranded at the convention center in New Orleans without food or water, Mr. Brown said that his agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had just learned of their plight.

CNN’s Paula Zahn was incredulous. “Sir,” she said, “you aren’t just telling me you just learned that the folks at the convention center didn’t have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea they were completely cut off?”

“Paula,” Mr. Brown replied unequivocally, “the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today.”

The comment symbolized what some have described as a deeply flawed federal response.2

Couple that with the following and one had the feeling at the time that FEMA and friends were clueless:

Secretary Chertoff: “similarly confident, flew Tuesday to Atlanta for a briefing on avian flu. With power out from the high winds and movement limited, even news reporters in New Orleans remained unaware of the full extent of the levee breaches until Tuesday” (source) .

Some other bullets to refresh our memories:

  • Bush’s head of FEMA was woefully inexperienced for the job (source):

Before joining the Bush administration in 2001, Brown spent 11 years as the commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association…”This was his full-time job…for 11 years,” [a spokeswoman] added.

Brown was forced out of the position after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures. “He was asked to resign,” Bill Pennington, president of the IAHA at the time, confirmed last night.

Soon after, Brown was invited to join the administration by his old Oklahoma college roommate Joseph Allbaugh, the previous head of FEMA until he quit in 2003 to work for the president’s re-election campaign.

So no, this won’t be Obama’s Katrina (at least not that is foreseeable at the moment).

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree. 100%

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    However, I do think that if the White House is very determined it can turn the oil spill into the Obama Administration’s Katrina. I hope they don’t do that.

  3. Oh, the script is not fully written yet, to be sure.

  4. Franklin says:

    There is no Oil Spill Management Agency to look to and blame in this case.

    Definitely a key point. Also, look for there to be something like this in the near future.

  5. Davebo says:

    I’d add.

    We had days of advance notice that Katrina was on the way providing time to move assets into place to deal with it.

    We had the national guard in place with experience in evacuations.

    On the upside, you can’t sue a hurricane.

  6. john personna says:

    I agree James, a good round-up.

    One other thing to remember is that government (state and federal) was on “both ends” of the Katrina deal, building the levees, creating the hurricane response plan, and emergency response, and when that failed, a more-emergency response.

    The Oil Spill Management Agency, however it screwed up, was in a regulatory role. As such, they were not in the room when the plugging plan was first argued between Halliburton and BP.

    I don’t think critics of Obama and his “handling” want to put government in that room, reviewing every plan, but that’s what it would take to give him genuine responsibility.

  7. Wayne says:

    Bush could have blame the Louisiana Governor and NO mayor but didn’t. There was a perceive lack of response by the Federal government on both responses.

    We can go on and on with playing the similarities and non similarities game but the only one that counts is how people’s perception of the administration actions end up. In the short run IMO the reaction to the two administrations are pretty similar. How will it shake out in the long run, I am not sure.

    This is the first time I actually see the MSM take this administration to task. Even MSNBC had negative things to say about Obama. Are they falling out of love with him or is this just a short term spat? I don’t know. The Obama administration has been treating them like crap but I seen abused spouses put up with more. Only time will tell.

  8. just me says:

    I don’t see this as a Katrina moment-much for the same reasons listed but mostly because there aren’t thousands of dead people or people sweltering in overcrowded shelters waiting for help. There aren’t enough dead or miserable people for the media to cover. The human angle makes Katrina the disaster it was.

    But I also think the WH has shown very little noticable leadership on the issue-with Obama doing more to put his face out there, indicate what is being done, and to actually field some questions.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    We had the national guard in place with experience in evacuations.

    Cut the National Guard some slack on Katrina, Davebo. The units that were nearby were victims of Katrina. The units that were farther away couldn’t get there because of the damage to roads, etc.

  10. 9. A general reluctance of Big Media and Big Environment to make President Obama look bad. Do you really think George W. Bush would have been given so much benefit of the doubt and time to work on it? What’s the matter, don’t oil covered Gulf of Mexico pelicans merit the same attanetion as oil covered Prince William Sound pelicans? Bill CLinton more or less gets off without a scratch when 9/11 happens less than eight months after Bush is inaugurated, but Democrats are still blaming Bush for something that happened after Obama had been president for twice as long.

    10. There’s a Republican Governor in Louisiana now.

    11. The worst has not yet happened, most of the released oil is still off shore and the full effect is going to take some time to take shape. Perhaps the public will experience disaster fatigue before it reaches its worst levels.

    12. It isn’t just that BP and Halliburton (HALLIBURTON! BUSH! BUSH! BUSH!) are there to blame, but that it’s Big Oil that is there to smack around.

    13. Secretly and surreptitiously, a number of people are actually quite happy that this kind of accident has happened. Remember, never let a crisis go to waste!

  11. john personna says:

    Dave, I remember a story. It was about a guy who lived in Florida and saw the hurricane hit on TV. He said “they’ll need boats,” and so he hitched his to his truck and started driving. If I’d been his neighbor I would have thought he’d be too late, or get in the way … and I would have been wrong. He got there before response was organized, got his boat out, and started rescuing people off roofs.

    I do cut the National Guard some slack, but I don’t think they should have been beat by some guy in Florida.

    (The other lesson is that disorganized response by citizens does work in wide scale disasters. The ’89 San Francisco taught that about earthquakes too.)

  12. john personna says:

    12. It isn’t just that BP and Halliburton (HALLIBURTON! BUSH! BUSH! BUSH!) are there to blame, but that it’s Big Oil that is there to smack around.

    If I read that right, BP and Halliburton did it, but we can’t say that, because that would be smacking big oil around.

    13. Secretly and surreptitiously, a number of people are actually quite happy that this kind of accident has happened. Remember, never let a crisis go to waste!

    Like, you?

  13. If I read that right, BP and Halliburton did it, but we can’t say that, because that would be smacking big oil around.

    Perhaps Nature had a bigger role in this disaster than BP or Halliburton, perhaps we’ll never really know. But if you can pick a villain, Big Oil is who Central Casting would send down.

    Like, you?

    I’m not the one calling for an ending to all offshore drilling until 2011 today, but I would never wish for anything like this, it is terrible. If you are implying that I’m happy about so that Obama will look bad, then you need help. Obama is doing plenty to look bad without needing disasters like this.

  14. Dave Schuler says:

    I do cut the National Guard some slack, but I don’t think they should have been beat by some guy in Florida.

    Clearly, you didn’t read the coverage at the time of the problem that the bases in the area were having. They simply couldn’t get out. They’d been hit by a hurricane.

  15. floyd says:

    The real difference is that Dubbya was treated unfairly my the screaming, hair pulling, Bush hating Left., while B.O. would have been given a pass even if he were caught lighting the fuse.
    The fact is though, he was not, and his administration’s obviously slow response would have made no more difference than Dubbya’s supposedly slow one.

    That being said …In the case of the oil spill, any intial response by the government was the responsibility of the federal government. In the case of Katrina, any initial response by the government was the responsibility of the State and local governments, with federal response appropriately coming only after being requested by the States involved.

  16. john personna says:

    So Dave, how did the guy in a truck, with his boat do it? Seriously, the National Guard is military. Do you think “I can’t get there, there isn’t a road” is a military excuse?

    Charles, nature? Check out the story of how the link started, with the removal of mud, and emplacement of concrete plugs. As the currently story goes, Halliburton wanted it the safe way, with mud in until plugs are completed, the BP guy wanted to go faster, with less safety margin, removing mud faster. If that’s the case, we know how “faster, less safe” went.

  17. OhioRiver says:

    Don’t blame the weather (mother nature) or BP, it was the Obama team that approved the opening of the drilling without going through the safety procedures as required.

  18. An Interested Party says:

    If you are implying that I’m happy about so that Obama will look bad, then you need help,

    And yet, you don’t mind speculating that others are quite happy about this for reasons of their own…perhaps it is you who needs help…

    All this whining about how Bush had it so tough and Obama has it so easy might resonate in right wing echo chambers, but good luck peddling that meme anywhere else…

  19. Juneau: says:

    Obama is a hopeless, helpless, and hapless play-actor that thinks accountability is not moving your golf ball out of the sand trap when no one is looking. BTW, when even Carville is screaming for the President to show some leadership and do something, then he’s been messing up badly. When the press doesn’t seem that fit news to report on, then yes, Obama has it easy and Bush had it much tougher. The left are the real whine-masters- always have been, always will be.

  20. Wayne says:

    Re “So Dave, how did the guy in a truck, with his boat do it? Seriously, the National Guard is military. Do you think “I can’t get there, there isn’t a road” is a military excuse?”

    The guy in the truck doesn’t have the red tape and get permission from higher like the National Guard does. We had units(40 miles away) including one train in search and rescue ready and begging to go to Greensburg when the town was destroyed by a tornado. However they were Reserve units not National Guard and our incompetent Governor at the time didn’t want to give up any control so she wouldn’t allow them to respond.

  21. anjin-san says:

    Obama is a hopeless, helpless, and hapless play-actor that thinks accountability is not moving your golf ball out of the sand trap when no one is looking

    Instead of parroting Glenn Beck, why don’t you tell us exactly what Obama should have done that he has failed to do?

  22. Hmm, so one guy in a boat hitched to his car is the equivalent of the National Guard? I have no doubt that the National Guard might have had little difficulty getting one small watercraft on the scene very quickly, but that isn’t really their mission and if they had done that, the excoriation of them would have been even greater.

  23. john personna says:

    I think you are getting closer to the question and answer there Charles.

    Armies are good at top-down action with known goals and resources. They are less good when they don’t know all the goals or all the resources. The one guy could do it, and maybe some squads just told to “go do it could do it.” On the other hand, an organization waiting to figure it out and issue orders in detail, not so much.

    One of the response studies after the ’89 San Francisco quake said that fire house squads should _not_ stay together when the problem gets to a certain size. In a major disaster there are many able-bodied people willing to help, but they don’t know what to do. The study said that firemen should be trained to split up, grab 10 guys, and form new teams. Go from there.

    That makes sense to me, and I can see why organizationally the National Guard was less able to do something like that. Maybe they weren’t get best to do that anyway. Maybe the fire and police should have been doing that rather than … whatever they were doing.

    … but the argument that military can’t respond without roads, or after they themselves have taken damage, that’s just dumb.

  24. The Q says:

    To all the “why doesn’t Obama get the grief that Bush got” crybabies.

    Ah, lets see, Arbusto was bush’s first company…an oil exploration company…then he goes to Brown Root, an oil services company. He runs for congress in east texas as an oilman.

    He selects a VP who holds secret meetings with Big Oil and refuses to divulge the names or the topics discussed.

    He has a National Security Advisor, later Sec of State who has an oil tanker named after her by Chevron for her past services and relationships to that oil company

    And after eight years of gutting environmental regulations and weakening government oversight, the predicable results – disaster….just like no oversight of Wall Street, the botched invasion of Iraq, the mountain of debt due to insane fiscal policy…the list is endless

    Please put down the crack pipes..you guys got waxed in the elections…there will be others…perhaps your time will come..but I can’t understand for the life of me why you
    obviously intelligent gentlemen can come to such absurd, obtuse conclusions.