Democrats Cautious On Oil Response

US President Barack Obama speaks about the oil spill following the BP Deepwater Horizon accident.
US President Barack Obama speaks about the oil spill following the BP Deepwater Horizon accident. Saul Loeb

As Obama makes his fourth trip to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some more support in Washington would be helpful. But Democrats in Congress face a political risk by defending the administration's handling of the spill, and they have little incentive to do so.

There's an old saw in the nation's capital: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." President Obama has a dog, but as he makes his fourth trip to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some more two-legged friends would be helpful. Democrats in Congress face a political risk by defending the administration's handling of the spill, and they have little incentive to do so.

When John Breaux was a Democratic senator from Louisiana, the Clinton administration often called to ask him for favors on a particular initiative, bill or policy. Sometimes Breaux would say yes; other times, no. If he were still in the Senate and the Obama administration called asking him to publicly praise the government's response to the Gulf oil spill, this might be a moment Breaux would say no.

"This is something that has now gone on for almost 60 days, and every day people see it and it's not fixed yet," says Breaux, who is now a lobbyist in Washington. "After it's fixed, I think people will perhaps have a greater ability to come out and say, 'Well, thank goodness they did a great job and it's over with,' but until it's over there's not going to be a lot of people willing to pat people on the back for getting something done that hasn't yet been done."

Breaux believes the government is doing a good job addressing the oil spill, but this is a difficult time for Democratic lawmakers to express that sentiment.

Little Obligation To Rally

"This is definitely a solo act on the part of the president and the executive branch," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. Or if not a solo, perhaps a pas de deux with BP, which nobody would choose as a dancing partner right now.

Congressional elections are coming up, and President Obama is not very popular. Neither is the government's response to the oil spill. Now that President Obama has spent two years campaigning and nearly two years governing on an anti-Washington platform, congressional Democrats feel less of an obligation to rally to the president's side.

In addition, Baker says, the White House has already asked Democrats in Congress to take some unpopular positions in the past year, such as voting for health care and the stimulus package.

"A lot of members of Congress have been walking a lot of planks. And I think this particular plank -- where a misstep causes you to fall into a Gulf of Mexico fouled with oil -- is just something they're not looking forward to," Baker says.

For Republicans, the choice is easy: criticize the administration, or sit back and watch. Democrats have a trickier set of options. Some have come to the president's defense. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry told ABC News, "From day one, from the first moment, within hours of this happening, President Obama was notified. The next day he held a principles' meeting in the White House. He's been down there three times. Every major person in the administration has been there."

But this is not a politically risky position for Kerry to take. He does not plan on running for president again, and he does not face re-election for another four years.

Ever-Looming Elections

In the House, elections happen every two years. Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) serves on two of the committees that have been investigating the spill, and she understands that some of her colleagues may feel reluctant to defend Obama.

"It's rather overwhelming when you see it, even if you're watching on your television," she says. "And so you want to strike out, and you strike out at the guy who's in charge, and it happens to be the president."

Still, Capps has not hesitated to defend the president's response.

"I'm really thankful that he's there in terms of his own capacities and also the people he's put in place," Capps says. "I shudder to think if this had been five years ago."

In this political environment, President Obama may be his own best defender. When he returns from his trip to the Gulf on Tuesday, he'll give a prime time speech doing just that. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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