Obama’s agenda gets bogged down in oil

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Heading into midterm elections that threaten his party’s control of Congress, President Obama is struggling with an unending environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico that makes it almost impossible to stick with his agenda.

This was supposed to be the season when Obama could make jobs and the economy his central focus — working to convince a skeptical public that he and his allies in Congress are addressing what polls show to be voters’ No. 1 concern.

But the gulf oil spill has intruded on the administration’s plans.

The president’s experience Wednesday drove home the unwelcome point: Appearing in Pittsburgh for a speech at Carnegie Mellon University that was designed to focus on the economy, Obama found himself compelled to turn again to the growing disaster.

“The catastrophe unfolding in the gulf right now may prove to be a result of human error, or corporations taking dangerous shortcuts that compromised safety,” Obama said. “But we have to acknowledge that there are inherent risks to drilling four miles beneath the surface of the Earth, risks that are bound to increase the harder oil extraction becomes.”

In another sign that the oil spill has upended the White House agenda and posed new political risks for both Obama and congressional Democrats, the president may delay or cancel a visit to Indonesia and Australia to keep his focus on the gulf.

Seven days a week, the White House takes part in rounds of conference calls about the spill. Throughout the federal bureaucracy employees are setting aside other projects so they can concentrate on the disaster.

Cabinet secretaries are being deployed to the gulf to help deal with engineering problems. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. was the latest to visit the region, warning Tuesday that criminal charges might be in the offing.

“Presidents are required to deal with situations as they arise,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “But this is certainly something that makes it much more difficult for the administration to execute its own game plan in terms of communicating an economic message.”

“His initiatives have been overtaken by current events,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said. “He’s no longer driving an agenda, he’s responding to it. So unless he gets control, he’s going to have a tough time driving up his approval ratings, which is what Democrats across the country are hoping for.”

By early spring, Obama’s toughest legislative fights were behind him. He had completed a healthcare overhaul, and a bill to strengthen oversight of the financial industry was on track to pass. But this period in the calendar was important to the White House for reasons beyond policy initiatives.

In the run-up to the midterms, Obama had hoped to show an unswerving focus on the economy and the jobless rate. The goal was to bolster the position of Democratic lawmakers who are at risk of seeing their majority thinned.

The White House likes to say that it can “walk and chew gum at the same time.” But the spill has tested that assertion. The need to defend the Democrats’ record on the economy is reflected in polls showing many Americans give them little or no credit for improving conditions.

At the same time, polls also show voters are displeased with the president’s response to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. A recent Gallup poll showed that 53% rated Obama’s performance in responding to the oil spill as poor or worse, compared with 43% who rated it good or better.

Yet even as the administration works to convey an image of a caring president taking charge in a moment of crisis, Obama is tying himself to all the potential downsides of the outcome, including months of oiled beaches and live video images of the spill. Ultimately, that could be a serious drag on his approval ratings and diminish his ability to lead on other issues or help Democratic candidates this fall.

Part of Obama’s problem may be a matter of temperament. Projecting outrage and empathy have not always been his strong suit. Instead, he sometimes gets caught up in technical details. At one point during a news conference last week, the president spent time discussing how chemical compounds react at great depth and low temperatures.

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, said Obama should emulate President Clinton, to whom Begala served as advisor. “Leading with your heart is a big part of the job,” Begala said in an interview. Clinton “really did feel our pain and he acted on it. You always had a sense he was on our side. The president [Obama] has to show a little leg on that.”

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) said in an interview: “He’s known and admired for his coolness under pressure. But that style … at times just seems to be a little out of sync.”

Polls suggest Obama has yet to convince the public that he is on top of the situation. Inside the administration, some contend that the White House has put out a message that has left the public confused: that BP’s role is to plug the leak, but the president is ultimately accountable.

With Obama preoccupied, Democratic analysts are urging candidates to take matters into their own hands and talk about jobs at every turn.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist, said that in this precarious economy, “if you’re not talking about jobs, it’s very hard to convince the voters that you’re, one, in touch with their lives and, two, getting anything done that matters to them.”

Timing has bedeviled Obama since the inauguration. Healthcare negotiations dragged out for a full year, forcing other issues to the side. He was supposed to make his “hard pivot” to jobs in January. Then February. It still hasn’t happened.

With oil flooding the gulf, and Israel on the defensive over its raid Monday that turned deadly aboard ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, it may not happen this year.

“His failure to focus on jobs last year could come back and bite him,” Newhouse said. “Because you know what? Circumstances dictate now that he has to be dealing with other issues. And, overwhelmingly, jobs are still the No. 1 issue facing the country.”