How Much Will the Spill Really Hurt Obama?

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Larry Downing / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama surveys oil-spill damage at Fourchon Beach, La., on May 28, 2010

Not so long ago, the notion that a gusher of oil could stall Barack Obama's presidency would have seemed impossible. But now, more than two months have passed since the disastrous Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20 and by almost every measure BP's screwup has done more to force Obama off course than Iran, North Korea, those Somali pirates, Joe Biden's smart mouth, Bart Stupak's health care holdout, Detroit's near collapse and even the financial crisis that threatened to turn the world's economy into dust. But the suggestion that the catastrophe has doomed Obama's presidency or his agenda over the long term is as absurd as Tony Hayward's wan, weasely manner was on Capitol Hill last week.

The Obama Administration is entrenched in the White House bunker, straining to juggle its deliberate plans alongside a barrage of unforeseen catastrophes, much as George W. Bush and his team were forced to manage a string of foreign and domestic crises post–Sept. 11, 2001. In the same way as their predecessors, the Obamans are jumping from one calamity to the next without any existential pause. Whether or not this endless series is caused by black swans, this is the new normal of working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for both parties. And neither the Obamans nor the Bushies have been too happy about the perpetual here-we-go-again rhythms of their lives.

Indeed, both Administrations have manifested a strikingly similar, prickly reaction to their plights: a frustration with the media's obsessive focus on every detail of the Big Story to the exclusion of everything else; an even greater frustration with the press's insistence that White House officials be accountable for each of their statements and actions, while failing to subject the opposition (state, local, Beltway or otherwise) to the same level of scrutiny; and a desperate quest to turn the page on the narrative of their own troubles.

Also similar: a sometimes too delicate handling of a President whose moods and misfortunes demand both sympathy and tough love. Obama, like Bush, has been unwilling to give up his own life because others have sinned. This weekend, he hit the links again and took in a baseball game, even as his aides were joining in the chorus of complaints about Tony Hayward, who spent Saturday watching his luxury yacht, Bob, compete in a race off the Isle of Wight (Bob came in fourth).

In the short term, the oil spill has been an especially difficult story for the White House to manage. The 24-hour news machine is supplied with unremitting, video-friendly horror complete with grave threats to land, man and beast. Every network has invested massive resources of talent and cash in the Gulf, and they have no intention of budging while the oil gushes and the tar balls wash ashore.

But after weeks of listening to complaints that the White House wasn't responding to the crisis quickly enough, followed by intricate scrutiny of Obama's emotional response and the role of a President in massaging the psychological health of the nation, the Obamans have got into the media's game. The White House is now in a full-time politics mode that would make Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer proud. Robert Gibbs did a rapid Twitter response to Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton's startling apology to BP. Vice President Biden took the time to add his own weighty declamation of the tone-deaf Congressman. David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel put on back-to-back pugnacious Sunday show appearances in which they showed no weakness and lashed out at the President's critics.

In the long term, however, the situation in the Gulf, tragic though it may be, is unlikely to really dirty Obama himself. BP is the villain of the piece, after all, and the company's increasingly furtive, fishy behavior and damning paper trail suggest they will bear the blame. Without question, Obama has suffered a string of bad weeks, making real mistakes that have emboldened conservative attackers and paying a heavy price (although his poll ratings are hardly in free fall). But the President's other priorities — financial reform, education, jobs, energy, the Kagan nomination, foreign policy, managing the midterms — are continuing apace. When the leak is plugged, the Deepwater Horizon is no longer the lead story and Obama is no longer a big fat juicy oil-slicked target, Republicans just might look back and feel they overpicked a fight that distracted them from the real wars at hand.