By more than a 2-to-1 margin, Americans support the pursuit of criminal charges in the nation's worst oil spill, with increasing numbers calling it a major environmental disaster. Eight in 10 criticize the way BP's handled it – and more people give the federal government's response a negative rating than did the response to Hurricane Katrina.
A month and a half after the spill began, 69 percent in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll rate the federal response negatively. That compares with a 62 negative rating for the response to Katrina two weeks after the August 2005 hurricane.
BP's response to the spill draws even broader criticism – 81 percent rate it negatively. And 64 percent say the government should pursue criminal charges against BP and other companies involved in the spill, which has poured oil into the Gulf from a well 5,000 feet beneath the surface since an explosion and fire destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig April 20.
The poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday, mostly before BP announced Sunday that a containment cap on the well was capturing a substantial portion of the gushing oil. Nonetheless, BP faces deep damage to its public image: Nearly three-quarters of Americans, 73 percent, see "unnecessary risks taken by BP and its drilling partners" as a significant factor in the spill.
And amid fouled beaches, oiled wildlife and closed fisheries, there's growing public dismay over the damage. Seventy-three percent now call the spill a major environmental disaster, up sharply from 55 percent in a Pew Research Center poll a month ago.
Support for pursuit of criminal charges against BP and its partners rises to 71 percent among people who call the spill a major disaster. Similarly, 73 percent favor criminal charges among those who suspect that unnecessary risks were taken by BP and its partners.
There's sharp negative intensity in views of BP. Fifty-four percent give its response the lowest rating, "poor," and 51 percent "strongly" favor examination of criminal charges against the company and its partners – both high levels of strong sentiment.
Substantially fewer, by contrast, rate the federal government's response as "poor," 32 percent.
There's partisanship in views of the federal response, with Democrats less critical of the Democratic-led government. Nonetheless, even among Democrats, 56 percent rate the federal response negatively. That rises to 74 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans.
Partisanship ran in precisely the opposite direction in views of the Katrina response under the Bush administration. Just 41 percent of Republicans rated that response negatively, compared to 64 percent of independents and 79 percent of Democrats.
In addition to the 7-point difference in negative ratings of the federal response to the oil spill vs. Katrina, there's a 10-point difference in positive ratings – 28 percent for the government's oil spill response, vs. 38 percent for its response to Katrina. That's in part because 59 percent of Republicans rated the response to Katrina positively, while just 40 percent of Democrats say the same about the current oil spill response.