Is the Gulf Spill 'Obama's Katrina'?

The president's job isn't just fixing problems. He has to let people know what he's doing while he's doing it.

Gulf region residents ask for help (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In Thursday's press conference on the federal government response to the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama was asked what he thought of criticism that his administration has reacted slowly to the crisis. His response was, "I'll leave it to you guys to make those comparisons."

Why? Leave it to anyone to draw their own conclusions, and draw them, they will.

Obama pushed back on the perception that his administration has failed to take charge, saying, "BP is operating at our direction" and acknowledged, "It's my job to get this fixed." But 38 days after explosions on the BP/Transocean Deep Water Horizon drilling platform released the oil plumes threatening the Gulf, the damage is done. At a critical time in his presidency, he gave critics—and supporters—reason to question him. Now, as the president heads down to Louisiana, he faces the charge that this is "Obama's Katrina."

Reality Is Perception

You can't compare the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—with estimates ranging anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 deaths—to the crisis in the Gulf.  You can, however, compare Obama's reaction now to President George W. Bush's reaction then.

Bush committed the unforgivable sin of signaling to the country that the people of New Orleans weren't his priority. By contrast, in his presser Obama emphasized that the Gulf crisis has been his top priority since the rig exploded on April 20th—but how was anyone supposed to know?

Even if he's done everything possible, Obama's mostly behind-the-scenes response to the Gulf disaster has fueled the existing critique that he's a detached bureaucrat who "doesn't get it," and in this case, Obama hasn't done enough to combat that perception.

Thursday, Obama delivered a message similar to the one he offered in his May 2nd trip to the Gulf. Back then he said: "Your government will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to solve this crisis."

Sounds good. The problem is that nearly a month later, no one remembers that he was there.

There's no way Obama can be on the scene of every disaster, but in the current political climate, he and his advisors have to stop assuming that once they've said "we're on the case," people will automatically feel secure.