WASHINGTON, May 30, 2010— -- For a president who promised change, the danger now is more of the same.
The environmental calamity stemming from the BP oil spill is challenging President Obama's leadership in a fundamental way, threatening to undermine the sense of competence the president has sought to project.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the White House's purported job offer to Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., to keep him out of a Senate race is gnawing at Obama from another direction, depicting him as a business-as-usual politician who was slow to own up to an uncomfortable truth.
The chorus of critics of the president's handling of the Gulf Coast crisis is only growing, with leading voices on the left leading the way -- and, increasingly, invoking comparisons to President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina.
This is more than anger at Obama for not acting more quickly, or with more emotional power. It reflects a growing concern among the president's allies that a key attribute that fueled his political rise is leaking along with the oil spilling into the ocean.
On the BP disaster, the president risks looking like part of the problem -- the head of an unfeeling and red-tape-wrapped federal government that has a cozy relationship with a tarnished oil company -- instead of the leader who promised "never again" to these same residents of the Gulf.
His challenge will be to show both emotion and firm leadership in the weeks and months ahead, even with no end in sight to the leak and a clean-up that will last decades. It won't be enough to be seen as effectively marshaling the resources of the federal government, though that would be a start.
With fingers pointing in every direction, the president will need to show that he's not just in charge but also on the side of the people of the Gulf. That's no easy task, given the growing frustrations of local officials in the region, and the hardening political storyline of a president who seemed not to grasp the urgency of the moment.
Toss in a president whose resting heart-rate is just different than your usual human being -- we're talking about "no-drama Obama" here -- and the political path is messy indeed.
On its face, the Obama White House's efforts to coax Sestak out of the Democratic primary against Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., looks like the kind of nudge that happens all the time in politics, at all levels of government.
But the problem for the Obama White House is that the president wasn't supposed to be that kind of politician. He offered himself up as an antidote to the deal-cutting, backroom culture of Washington under his predecessors of both parties.
Whether or not anything illegal took place -- and most legal experts agree that it's a stretch to argue laws were broken, if the facts were as the White House presented them last week -- the political fallout could be substantial.
Republicans are clamoring for independent investigations, and no internal White House reports will quiet those cries. Already, the incident has been political grist.
"What's amazing is that this administration wants to talk about not doing business as usual, and then this is clearly business as usual," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said today on "Fox News Sunday."
"The question is, has this been transparent? No. Has there been stalling? Yes. Is there a possibility that what we're being told now is not true because it's not so plausible? Yes. Should there be independent investigation so we can move on? Yes."
Key in this story will be the White House response. This has lingered far longer than the president's allies have wanted -- in part because answers have been slow in coming from the administration thus far.