It's Obama's Oil Spill Now, Not BP's

President Barack Obama after meeting with the BP Oil Spill Commission co-chairs
President Barack Obama after meeting with the BP Oil Spill Commission co-chairs

Paraphrasing Thomas Paine, no doubt these are the days that are trying President Barack Obama's soul.

Moreover, you can't blame the president if he's a little exasperated or philosophic these days. Inflation is low, the U.S. economy is growing, earnings reports have been better than expected, job growth appears set to take off -- in other words the Obama Administration is on the verge of seeing the No. 1 problem facing the nation, the economy, finally turn in its favor ... and up pops a new crisis.

'The Buck Stops Here'

Now, some of you may be thinking, "But it's BP's (BP) oil rig that failed, so the spill is BP's problem, not the president's."

Sorry, but as my Washington public policy friend Matt Losak frequently says, it doesn't work that way when you live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Now any reasonable person knows that the Gulf of Mexico oil rig that failed is Transocean's (RIG) property and BP's problem. As a practical matter, a U.S. president has little input into the daily operational decisions of an oil company.

And yet, if the crisis, now in its 45th day, drags on, and the spill -- already the worst in the nation's modern era -- worsens, President Obama will bear the bulk of the blame. President Harry Truman was right about presidential responsibility when he said, 'The buck stops here.' In that sense, the tragedy in the gulf is Obama's disaster.

Paradoxical Expectations of Presidents

To be sure, the American public's stance toward its presidents is a bit of a paradox: We place many demands on the president -- too many for one person -- then we're surprised or disappointed when the president comes up short in one area or another. The truth is, no president can possibly perform at a high level in all domestic and foreign policy roles, and Obama is no different.

There's also an element of unfairness in blaming someone for something that is by and large out of his or her control, but it's a deeply ingrained, long-standing practice by American voters to do so. It's because of the presidency's 'protector of the peace' role that the late, great presidential scholar, Cornell University's Clinton Rossiter, outlined in his eloquent description of the 10 presidential duties.

Will Oil Defeat Another President?

Further, Obama isn't the first president to have an oil problem move front-and-center -- deflecting the administration's attention from other important issues.

In 1990-1991, the build-up to the first Iraq War caused oil prices to soar more than 60%, to about $30 per barrel in today's dollar. That helped push the U.S. economy into a recession -- a big contributor to President George H.W. Bush's loss to Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election.

And of course, in 1979-1980, the oil crisis stemming from the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis caused oil and gasoline prices to more than double, hurting the U.S. economy and triggering long gas lines and high inflation -- major factors in President Jimmy Carter's defeat in the 1980 presidential election.

True, the Gulf oil spill is not yet as big a crisis for Obama as the 1979-1980 oil crisis was for Carter, but it's capable of severely damaging his ability to lead, for two reasons. The first is obvious enough: The longer the spill continues, the more damage that will be done to the ecosystem, various wildlife and marine species, and the livelihoods of those who live in the Gulf region. Failure to end the spill quickly could cause a whole region of the U.S. to look less favorably on Obama -- never a good thing for a president.

Made for the 24-Hour Cable TV News Cycle

The second is psychological: The story is tailor-made for the 24-hour cable TV news networks. It's a running, dramatic saga, complete with "Day 45 -- Oil Spill" subtitles and heartbreaking scenes of innocent birds and other wildlife suffering and dying from the effects of a petroleum bath.

Hence, in addition to its regional impact, the longer the oil flow continues, the more likely it will be viewed by the American people as an Obama administration policy failure. What's more, a lingering oil spill could lower Obama's public approval rating, which Gallup put at 50% as of Wednesday, to below 40% -- something that historically has severely hurt a president's ability to persuade Congress to his agenda and govern.

And of course, the longer the oil spill lasts, the longer the media's attention will be on it, and not on the mounting good news about the economy. With the oil continuing to gush, Obama could hold a press conference every day and shout, "Hey, the economy's creating 300,000 jobs a month! The economy's gaining steam! Haven't you heard the news? Things are getting better!" and few Americans would focus on it.

And that's why Obama has to stop the oil spill, even if requires using half the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet to do it. Obama has to plug the oil leak, for the good of the environment, and his presidency.


Joseph Lazzaro is writing a book on the U.S. presidency and the U.S. economy.