"Obama Struggling to Show He's in Control," reads the headline on The Washington Post's story on Barack Obama's Thursday press conference, where most of the questions were about the Gulf oil spill. "Defensive, unauthoritative and equivocal," wrote Congressional Quarterly's Craig Crawford of Obama's performance. "He came across as a beleaguered bureaucrat in damage control."
Uh-oh. People, even people in the Obama-friendly press, are beginning to say that the oil spill is Obama's Katrina. That it destroys his reputation for competence.
At this point, you may expect a comparison between George W. Bush's handling of Katrina and Obama's handling of the oil spill. In Bush's behalf, it can be said that state and local officials mishandled their responsibilities and that the Coast Guard's rescue of some 20,000 New Orleanians was unknown to the public because there was no room in its boats and helicopters for cable news reporters and camera crews.
In Obama's behalf, it can be said that plugging underwater oil wells is not a government responsibility and that the extent of the disaster became clear much more slowly than was the case with Katrina.
All that said, Obama's press conference -- his first in the White House in 309 days -- did not make him look any more in command of things than the photos of Bush's flyover visit to New Orleans. The candidate who told us his electoral victory would be seen as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal" is now the president who seems helpless to prevent the oil slick from spreading.
But if the oil spill turns out to be Obama's Katrina, there's one big difference between him and George W. Bush.
Bush's reputation for competence suffered grievously from Katrina and from the increasing violence in Iraq that voters were seeing on their television screens at the same time.
But Bush never suffered a similar loss on ideology. In 2004, after heated attacks from John Kerry and other Democrats on substantive foreign and domestic issues, Bush came out narrowly but decisively ahead.
In the 2006 and 2008 congressional elections, the Democrats' campaign chairmen Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel fielded candidates well adapted to local terrain in conservative states and districts. They successfully attacked Republicans more on competence and corruption than on substantive issues.