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Oil slick is 'Obama's Katrina problem'

Prominent Democratic strategist says the US president is risking everything by 'going along' with BP over offshore drilling disaster.

WASHINGTON // As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico and images of oil-blackened birds and tarnished coastlines appear on US news programmes, the disaster has increasingly become a political liability for Barack Obama.

A growing number of critics, including some Democrats, have attacked Washington's response as inadequate, or too slow, and many have begun to criticise Mr Obama for relying too heavily on BP to take the lead in responding to the disaster. The oil company, which has said it is doing everything in its power to deal with the problem, has so far failed to plug a hole in a broken pipe that has spewed thousands of barrels of crude oil into the sea.

In a recent appearance on CNN, James Carville, a prominent Democratic strategist who has defended most of Mr Obama's policies, said the president is risking everything by his "go along with BP" strategy. "They seem like they're inconvenienced by this, this is some giant thing getting in their way and somehow or another, if you let BP handle it, it'll all go away," Mr Carville, a native of Louisiana, the state likely to be most affected by the disaster, said of the administration. "It's not going away. It's growing out there. It is a disaster of the first magnitude, and they've got to go to Plan B."

The administration has orchestrated a massive federal response, deploying more than 1,100 vessels, more than 605,000 metres of boom, and about 24,000 personnel. The White House also has assembled a team of "all star" scientists and engineers to come up with a solution, according to the interior secretary, Ken Salazar. "If there is a way to kill this well, they will find it. If there is a way to stop this pollution from spreading, they will find it," Mr Salazar said this week.

Some, however, have said the reaction did not come fast enough. As the crisis enters its second month, administration officials now find themselves in a position they desperately sought to avoid: fending off comparisons to the government's 2005 response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast and damaged George W Bush's presidency. Although environmental experts do not draw comparisons between the two disasters or the types of government responses required in each case, the political atmospherics of a president struggling to instill confidence in the federal government's response to a major environmental calamity are increasingly similar, according to Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington who referred to Mr Obama's "Katrina problem".

"Just as Bush did not seem to be in charge of the Katrina crisis, Obama has not seemed to be in charge of the BP crisis," he said. As in the aftermath of Katrina, Louisiana state officials, including the governor, Bobby Jindal, have publicly urged the president to do more. Specifically, Mr Jindal has asked the federal government to agree to a plan to build new barrier islands to keep the oil from shore and wetlands.

"We've been frustrated with the plan to-date, which has often been too late for the oil hitting our coast," Mr Jindal said on Monday, noting that nearly 110km of coastline had already been affected. Mr Obama's position is further complicated by his endorsement of a plan to expand US offshore drilling - typically a Republican aim - just weeks before the disaster. Now some have raised questions about loose industry regulations and the widespread practice of granting waivers to rigs - including BP's Deepwater Horizon, which caused the current crisis - where oil spills were thought to be unlikely.

Attempting to head off further criticism and demonstrate the administration's command of the situation, Mr Obama has imposed a moratorium on new permits for drilling offshore oil wells and established an independent commission to explore ways to prevent future oil spills. "If the laws on our books are inadequate to prevent such an oil spill, or if we didn't enforce those laws - I want to know it," Mr Obama said on Sunday in his weekly address. "I want to know what worked and what didn't work in our response to the disaster, and where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down."

On Monday, Mr Obama participated in a conference call with Gulf coast governors, assuring them that the federal government is bringing the "best science and expertise to the table", according to the White House press office. Meanwhile, several cabinet-level officials - including Mr Salazar, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, and Steven Chu, the energy secretary - have converged on the Gulf Coast, focusing almost exclusively on the crisis. They also have sharpened their attacks on BP.

"We will keep our boot on their neck until the job gets done," Mr Salazar said on Monday. For now, Americans have mixed views of the federal response, polls show. A slight majority, 51 per cent, disapprove of how Mr Obama has handled the spill and 46 per cent approve, according to a new CNN poll. A poll by the Pew Research Center earlier in the month showed that 38 per cent of Americans approved of the president's handling of the oil leak compared with 36 per cent who disapproved.

Those numbers could change dramatically in the coming days and weeks if the leak continues or if the environmental disaster worsens. The next major test will come today, when BP attempts a manoeuvre called a "top kill" that involves pumping heavy drilling fluid - known as "kill mud" - into the mouth of the well in an attempt to plug the leak. The company rates the chance of success at between 60 per cent and 70 per cent.

sstanek@thenational.ae

Published: May 26, 2010 04:00 AM

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