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That Giant Leaking Sound

Let me follow up Nate’s post below by asking some questions about the oil spill and its political-electoral implications. What are the long-term political costs to Barack Obama and the White House, and perhaps congressional Democrats by extension, of the Gulf oil leak disaster? How much is Obama to “blame” and how “responsible” is he to solve the problem? And how much, if at all, will Rep. Joe Barton’s apology mitigate the political damage for the president and Democrats this fall?

To be honest, I’m not really certain about the answers to any of these questions. For one thing, voters tend to blame or credit presidents in indiscriminate and perhaps incoherent ways, for example, giving them more credit than they deserve for good economies and more blame than they deserve for bad economies. Second, blame and responsibility tend to be conflated when they are not, in fact, the same thing. When something goes wrong, sitting presidents tend to suffer criticism at least equal to but often exceeding their contributions to causing the problem (blame) and/or their ability to solve or reverse that problem (responsibility). If you initiate a war against Iraq, you are both responsible to win it and also to blame if things go poorly because, well, you started it. If aliens land from another planet, as president you are responsible to do something about their arrival, even if you are entirely blameless. But polls often do not tease out such distinctions. They ask for simple approval or disapproval of response, which makes it hard to disentangle how much of presidential dissatisfaction is the result of voters blaming presidents and how much is voter unhappiness with presidents living up to their responsibilities to fix problems regardless of whom voters blame for their making.

Of course, over time presidents tend to assume greater blame even for problems not of their making. This is a byproduct of the high public expectations for the office itself. For example, Obama’s disapproval marks on the economy have steadily risen during the course of his now 17 full months in office. But do Americans blame him? Yes and no. No, because a slight plurality of Americans (mostly Democrats and liberals, I presume) still blame Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush more than Obama for the generally bad state of the economy. But yes, because the number who blame Bush has been steadily slipping while the number blaming Obama has been steadily creeping upward. In a way, this makes perfect sense: As Obama’s inauguration day moves further into the past, Obama has accordingly and steadily moved from a position of being largely responsible but not blameworthy for the economy to largely responsible and increasingly blameworthy for the economy.

As of today, according to a new Pew poll, public disapproval for BP’s response to the spill remains higher than for the Obama Administration: 49 percent give BP a “poor” rating, compare to 35 percent for the Administration. However, a new CBS/NYTimes poll also out today reveals that Americans don’t think Obama has a “clear plan” to fix the leak. Sixty-one percent say the president’s reaction was too slow, and 67 percent say the president’s team could do more to clean the spill. But again, a higher share (81 percent) say BP could be doing more on the clean-up.

That said, going after the BP executives and extracting the $20 billion in remediation and compensation is exactly the right political play for the Administration. And Joe Barton’s foolish apology must have brought huge sighs of relief to White House advisers–not because it shifts blame to Republicans, but because it keeps the focus of voter blame on BP more than on the White House.

However, as Nate says above, all bets are off in terms of the political-electoral impact on Obama if the oil is still gushing after Labor Day. That’s when summer vacations end and the ramping up period before the midterms begins. By then, some of those not already frustrated with the Administration’s response will have become frustrated, and some of those already frustrated will have become more so. The point is that time is rarely on the president’s side in such situations, because the natural inclination of voters is to steadily shift not just responsibility but blame onto the shoulders of whoever occupies in the Oval Office. That may not be right or fair, but that’s the political reality.

Yes, Obama’s numbers have flattened out. Yes, Barton’s stupid apology to BP provided a temporary release valve (ok, bad metaphor) for the growing discontent with the Obama administration. Yes, the dumb statements by BP officials have deflected blame away from the White House and to the oil company. But in the long run, the nature of contemporary American politics–especially given the growing, even outsized role and expectations for presidents–is such that most of the responsibility and most of the blame inevitably gravitate toward to the White House. That giant leaking sound you hear is time catching up with the Obama Administration. Tick-tock, tick-tock.