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To stop political damage, stop the spill

By Bruce E. Cain, Special to CNN
  • Bruce E. Cain says President Obama's situation is helpless in the BP oil disaster
  • People don't want to believe America is powerless in the face of crisis. he says
  • Cain: Presidents get more blame, credit than they deserve for events beyond their control
  • Promoting alternate energy policy now presents a timing-of-message problem, he says

Editor's note: Bruce E. Cain is the Heller Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley and the executive director of the UC Washington Center, the university's housing center for students studying in DC.

(CNN) -- Presidents rarely command their fate completely but sometimes they are more helpless than usual. Such is President Obama's situation at the moment. His Nobel laureate Energy Secretary and other government scientists lack the expertise and tools to stop the Deepwater well from leaking oil into the Gulf and must depend on BP to finish the job.

While this is the reality Obama must accept, it is not the image he wants to project. He is constrained by two facts about American public opinion. The first: People do not want to believe that America, the greatest nation is the world, is powerless in the face of crisis.

The second: Presidents get far more blame and credit than they deserve for circumstances that are largely beyond their control, like economic conditions or natural disasters. When events are going well, that is a good thing: but when they are not, it is the ultimate political nightmare.

That is why with the Gulf oil spill, the fate of presidency and party are linked to one thing: Can BP stop the flow by August. If it can't, they are in trouble.

When governments cannot change bad circumstances, the second best strategy is to act and sound like they are trying hard. The president has done this. The administration claims to have deployed 20,000 individuals to clean up and contain the spill. It has consented after some hesitation to building sand berms to protect the coastline and dispatched high ranking officials to the scene to work with BP. But none of this has stopped the gushing oil.

Obama has gotten plenty of unsolicited advice from the media and bloggers about a different tone. And compounding its public relations problem, the administration cannot seem to control its "never let a crisis go to waste" instinct. Yes, the spill offers a teaching moment about alternative energy, but promoting that policy now when so many are suffering in the Gulf economically and environmentally presents a timing-of-message problem. The last part of the president's Oval Office address seemed too much like a politically clumsy attempt to divert attention from the dire problem at hand to a greener future.

The truth is that if the flow cannot be substantially contained by August, and hurricanes make a bad situation worse, the administration's helplessness will be apparent for all to see no matter what rhetorical path Obama chooses and or whether he can muster a more moving speech than the one he gave last Tuesday.

Far more effective was his negotiation of a 20 billion dollar BP escrow fund for relief and damages. This action expressed more clearly than words his estimation of the company's blame and put the government in the enviable position of dispensing money to desperate Gulf residents without increasing the country's deficit or tax burden.

The Republicans were left to fume. Out of government, they can only watch as BP's actions shred any remaining trust in corporate America and the fruits of deregulation. The moment, for them, calls for Bush's pre 9/11 compassionate conservatism, but the habit of hard opposition to all things Obama and the instinct to defend the party's corporate sponsors have surfaced in the unfortunate remarks of Michelle Bachmann and Joe Barton (he referred to the fund as a "shakedown" of BP, later apologizing).

The Republican party leadership was quick to activate the political equivalent of a blowout preventer, but as with the leaking oil the damage will linger into the Fall.

Even so, the Republicans may still hold the final trump card. Putting aside any political advantages the Democrats accrued in the last few days, they will shoulder more than their fair share of blame if BP fails to control the leak. And whatever lessons Democrats have learned about alternative energy policy will matter little after the 2010 elections if the Republicans take control of one or both houses of Congress.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Cain.