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Oil Spill Tars Dems' Reputation for Competence

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Monday, May 31, 2010

Obama Struggling to Show He's in Control," reads the headline on The Washington Post's story on Barack Obama's Thursday press conference, where most of the questions were about the Gulf oil spill. "Defensive, unauthoritative and equivocal," wrote Congressional Quarterly's Craig Crawford of Obama's performance. "He came across as a beleaguered bureaucrat in damage control."

 Uh-oh. People, even people in the Obama-friendly press, are beginning to say that the oil spill is Obama's Katrina. That it destroys his reputation for competence.

At this point, you may expect a comparison between George W. Bush's handling of Katrina and Obama's handling of the oil spill.

In Bush's behalf, it can be said that state and local officials mishandled their responsibilities and that the Coast Guard's rescue of some 20,000 New Orleanians was unknown to the public because there was no room in its boats and helicopters for cable news reporters and camera crews. 

In Obama's behalf, it can be said that plugging underwater oil wells is not a government responsibility and that the extent of the disaster became clear much more slowly than was the case with Katrina.

All that said, Obama's press conference -- his first in the White House in 309 days -- did not make him look any more in command of things than the photos of Bush's flyover visit to New Orleans. The candidate who told us his electoral victory would be seen as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal" is now the president who seems helpless to prevent the oil slick from spreading.

But if the oil spill turns out to be Obama's Katrina, there's one big difference between him and George W. Bush.

Bush's reputation for competence suffered grievously from Katrina and from the increasing violence in Iraq that voters were seeing on their television screens at the same time.

But Bush never suffered a similar loss on ideology. In 2004, after heated attacks from John Kerry and other Democrats on substantive foreign and domestic issues, Bush came out narrowly but decisively ahead.

In the 2006 and 2008 congressional elections, the Democrats' campaign chairmen Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel fielded candidates well adapted to local terrain in conservative states and districts. They successfully attacked Republicans more on competence and corruption than on substantive issues.

Similarly, Barack Obama rose to national prominence by stressing what Blue America and Red America have in common rather than in how they differed. His attacks on "failed Bush policies" left it ambiguous whether he was objecting to Republican ideology or Republicans' incompetence.

Looking back on all the presidential contests held since Obama as a Columbia undergraduate was parroting leftist criticisms of Ronald Reagan, it can be argued that Republicans have won the elections that turned on ideology and that Democrats have won the elections that turned on competence.

Republican victories in 1984, 1988 and 2004 were clearly endorsements of Ronald Reagan's and George W. Bush's policies. Democratic victories in 1992 and 2008 were indictments of the two George Bushes for incompetence and in 1996 an endorsement of the competence of Bill Clinton.

The one election in this period that is hard to classify was in 2000 and had a split verdict, with the Democrat winning the popular vote and the Republican the Electoral College.

Where are we now? The oil spill puts Obama's reputation for competence in doubt, while the public opinion polls make it clear his ideology is being rejected much more emphatically than George W. Bush's ever was.

Bush's bipartisan education and Medicare prescription drug bills were never rejected and targeted for repeal by substantial majorities, as Obama's partisan health care bill has been. Bush's tax cuts never elicited the dismissive scorn that voters continue to express toward the Obama Democrats' stimulus package.

On foreign policy, Obama gets relatively good marks on Iraq and Afghanistan, where he is arguably following the trajectory of Bush's policies. While Bush was in office, Democrats issued fire-breathing calls for ending America's involvement in the conflicts, but today that sentiment is voiced by only a small segment of the electorate.

Before the oil spill, the Obama Democrats, noting their policies' unpopularity, might have asked voters to decide on "competence, not ideology," as Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis did in 1988. Now, suddenly, that doesn't seem like a viable theme for 2010 or 2012.

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner.

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