Oil Spill Disaster in Gulf Hurt Obama, but Governors Came Out Ahead

Poll shows majority of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of environment.

Aug. 8, 2010 -- For politicians, the daily drip-drip-drip of bad news can be devastating. Yet the oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for three months appears to have helped governors in the area. It hurt President Obama — but not as much as crises crippled his predecessors.

"People were blaming BP much more than they were blaming the government and Obama," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. Even so, along with the economy and two wars, the spill "added to a sense of things not going well in the country."

Obama's handling of the disaster was popular at first, but as time wore on, not so much. Polls show a majority disapproved: 53 percent of those polled in June by USA TODAY/Gallup and the same figure in a CNN/Opinion Research survey last month. A majority, 51 percent, disapproved of his handling of the environment in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last week.

Gulf Coast governors fared better. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist's independent bid for the Senate picked up steam after he highlighted his opposition to offshore drilling.

In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal won strong approval ratings after angrily denouncing the federal government's response.

"People appreciated that he was vocal in holding BP and the federal government responsible," said Edward Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political science professor. "Railing against the Obama administration is always good politics in Louisiana."

On a national level, Republicans such as Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma have compared Obama's actions to President George W. Bush's during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In that case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was seen as ineffective.

"I don't think it's going to hurt Obama the way Katrina hurt Bush," said Kenneth Green, an energy expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "We don't have an 'Oil Spill Response Administration.' If we did, there would probably have been a lot more blame."

The spill has given a boost to environmental causes, but that has not translated into congressional action.

Senators are preparing to leave Washington for the summer recess without acting on any response to the spill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said there wasn't even support to pass a scaled-back bill that would have raised liability caps on companies responsible for environmental catastrophes.

The announcement came days after Democratic leaders acknowledged that a broader energy proposal, intended to steer the country away from fossil fuels by targeting electric utility emissions, also would not get a vote in the Senate before the November elections.

"The oil spill has not ignited a groundswell in the Senate," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., an architect of the legislation. He blames that on energy industry lobbying and the lengthy health care debate. But he says the spill won't be the last chance to focus public attention on energy.

"This issue is going to be much more intense, not less," he said. "It's unavoidable."

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Democrats were partly to blame for using the oil spill to "overreach" on a broad energy bill.

"Anything that's going to raise energy costs for everyone is going to be rejected," he said. "People are focused on the economy."