To the left, the oil spill is not an index of presidential competence or an issue in the political sphere. It is a daily gushing of poison into the Earth's waters as a direct result of the president's failure to stop it. They blame BP. But they already hate oil companies. And they blame Obama, too. And they are coming to dislike him.
When Obama attempts to recoup this damage to his political base by pushing new legislation on the environment or by resurrecting his cap-and-trade legislation or by bringing criminal charges against BP or by setting up a liability fund for the spill's victims, it does not solve his political problem. With each day, 60,000 gallons gush into the Gulf of Mexico, Obama's equivalent of the body count in Iraq that caused the left to loathe George W. Bush. Rhetoric or programs or visits to the gulf or posturing won't assuage the negatives. Only plugging the hole in the bottom of the ocean can do it.
The right and center of American politics turned off Obama over health care. And now the left is leaving him over the oil spill.
Why can't Obama plug the hole?
Because he has no administrative experience. I often saw Bill Clinton, as governor and as president, call in experts and ask the tough questions when he faced a new disaster. In Arkansas, it was tornadoes or floods or fires. In Washington, it was Oklahoma City. But, each time, he thoroughly familiarized himself with all the technical issues. He took a bath in the science and substance of the hazard and became as knowledgeable as those who had spent a lifetime studying it. So he knew what questions to ask.
Any CEO or COO or manager has similar experience. But a community organizer, law professor, state senator, U.S. senator and president doesn't have the requisite experience. He doesn't know not to trust his own bureaucracy. He hasn't been burned enough to realize that he needs to intervene to waive restrictions, set aside regulations and open up the process to new solutions. He's like JFK during the Bay of Pigs. He doesn't know how to avoid being betrayed by his own bureaucracy and the industry it's supposed to regulate.
Why did he not waive the Jones Act (he still hasn't) to allow foreign vessels to ply our waters to clean up the spill? Not because he was against it. He couldn't have been against so obvious a course as waiving it. It was likely because nobody told him about it, and he never knew to ask.
Why did he let the bureaucracy use only U.S. contractors to dredge the Gulf and build the berms that Lousiana wanted? Why did he spurn the offer of Dutch assistance (half the country has been dredged from the sea and is below sea level)? Not because he wanted the jobs to go to Americans. That would have been an insane consideration in the face of this crisis. It is probably because he never realized that our capacity for dredging needed augmentation. Because he never asked.
To the right and the center, these failings show that Obama is in over his head. But to the left, which bleeds for each drop of water in the gulf and cries over every turtle or shrimp or sea bird, it is an unpardonable sin.
It is the nature of things that presidential mistakes metastasize into presidential character flaws. Bush's inaction over Katrina comes across as insensitivity. Now Obama's incompetence and inexperience is causing liberals to see him as arrogant, aloof, removed, conceited, suspicious of outside advice and even lazy. Long after the oil has stopped spilling, these supposed character defects will haunt the president, just as Jimmy Carter's reputation of timidity and inability lasted long after the Iran hostages came home. These defects will last until 2012 and beyond.