Obama buys time, but raises stakes on spill response 

A sustained push to improve perceptions about his handling of the BP oil spill may have bought President Obama some time -- but the crisis will continue to be a political problem for the White House.

The administration this week won mixed results from back-to-back events aimed at demonstrating a new muscularity in Obama's handling of the crisis.

"I think what he did was stop the bleeding," said George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University. "It was becoming a big problem for him."

In quick succession, Obama made his fourth trip to the Gulf Coast, addressed the nation from the Oval Office and emerged from a four-hour meeting with BP officials with a deal in hand to create a $20 billion compensation fund for victims.

The administration got an unplanned, extra day's boon from the saga when Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, was forced by his own party to retract remarks apologizing to BP and calling the $20 billion a "shakedown."

By most political standards, it should have been a strong week for Obama and possibly a turning point in overwhelmingly negative public opinions about his leadership skills in handling the spill.

But the Oval Office speech was not great, according to many in his own party. And polls taken midweek showed a majority of Americans still critical of Obama's mastery of the crisis.

"I don't think there is any question the speech was not a resounding success," said Keir Murray, a Democratic strategist. "I think this is one of those problems that is just not going to go away for him until they plug that leak."

As part of the public relations push, Obama invited prominent liberal commentators to a private meeting at the White House, including Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, Gail Collins of the New York Times and Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal.

Recent polls released by CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press all showed sharp declines in public attitudes about Obama's handling of the crisis, while his overall job approval rating has remained level.

Whether the administration can turn Obama's management of the spill response into a political asset for the fall campaigns remains problematic, although it's also true that polling numbers tend to lag shifts in public opinion.

Either way, Obama's full embrace of the issue this past week, in large part a response to complaints he appeared too detached from the problem before, greatly increase his political stakes in the outcome -- essentially tying his fortunes to a continuing environmental and economic disaster.

"It's a wild card issue for Obama," said John Fortier, a political scholar at the free market American Enterprise Institute. "It's a difficult position for him because he doesn't look strong, he didn't give a great speech, and while he's still not dramatically hurt by it, there is still a danger hanging over him."

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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