Five weeks into the Hurricane Katrina crisis, President George W. Bush’s Gallup weekly public approval rating stood at 45 percent. Five weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, the same survey pegged President Obama’s approval rating at 46 percent. That is bad news for the White House. The worse news is that Mr. Bush’s approval rating had increased five points since the Katrina crisis had started; Mr. Obama’s has dropped four points.
Katrina is sometimes seen as the breaking point for Mr. Bush’s public approval ratings. Mr. Bush’s general job approval did not plunge into the permanent 30 percent range until six months later, but his handling of the Katrina response was seen as a leading indicator of his eventual decline. More bad news for the Obama White House is that so far there has been a remarkable similarity in the way the public has rated Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Obama’s crisis leadership.
Both started out with a measure of public support. According to a CBS/New York Times poll, Mr. Bush’s rating for handling the crisis in the first week after Katrina hit was 54 percent approval to 12 percent disapproval. According to a Fox News Dynamics poll two weeks into the current crisis, Mr. Obama had a 50 percent approval rating for his role in handling the Gulf oil spill, with 29 percent disapproval.
Public support eroded, however, as perceptions took hold that the presidents were failing to perform. After about 1 1/2 months, Mr. Bush’s numbers for handling the Katrina response had fallen to 42 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval. A June 9 Fox poll showed Mr. Obama’s comparable rating at a slightly worse 38 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval. An ABC News poll released Monday showed 69 percent disapproving of the Obama administration’s response to the oil spill. The same poll’s negative for Mr. Bush’s handling of Katrina peaked at 62 percent.
Mr. Obama’s defenders contend that no comparison can be made to the 2005 Katrina disaster, but the comparisons keep getting made. The coincidence of the location is one factor, but more important, both events stand as major tests of presidential leadership.
Mr. Obama is failing in two critical responsibilities. First is his role as interagency coordinator. As chief executive, the president is charged with coordinating interagency responses to crises, which entails establishing clear lines of authority, allocating resources across bureaucratic boundaries and ensuring that agencies work in a cooperative fashion to mount a coherent and effective response.
Mr. Obama’s team got off to a rocky start. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano failed to request support from the Navy to assist in the oil-spill response, later confessing she didn’t know about the Navy’s considerable oil-spill-response resources. The incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, was unaware of a company in Maine standing idle that could produce 90,000 feet of containment boom a day until a journalist brought it to his attention. Mr. Obama’s administration stood in the way of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposal to block the encroaching oil by constructing temporary sandbars. This week, Mr. Jindal decided to press ahead anyway.
Mr. Obama’s announced six-month moratorium on oil and natural-gas drilling in the Gulf will do more economic harm to the region than the spill itself. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar defended the policy, saying it was reviewed by a team of experts from the National Academy of Engineering, but the experts later released a letter saying the “moratorium was added after the final review and was never agreed to by the contributors.”
Mr. Obama also has failed as an inspirational leader, as the polling suggests. He waited two weeks to visit the affected area, being detained by a series of celebrity events at the White House. Now he can’t seem to stay away from the Gulf, though visuals like strolling the beach eating a snow cone won’t generate the requisite sense of urgency. And his comparison of the oil crisis to the Sept. 11 attacks borders on national sacrilege.
Mr. Obama recently bellyached that he “can’t suck [the oil] up with a straw,” but he will have to suck it up to get through this crisis with his crumbling presidency intact.