The BP Candidate

Obama and the Democrats try to build a midterm election strategy around the Gulf oil spill.

In his heavily politicized remarks on the BP oil spill last week, President Obama made a point of upbraiding “oil industry lobbyists” for obstructing his efforts to make environmental progress. It was an odd choice of target, coming as it did from the man who, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, was the largest recipient of campaign cash from BP and its political action committees during the 2008 presidential cycle. But Obama’s populist rebuke becomes more explicable when seen for what it is: the opening salvo in the Democrats’ 2010 midterm campaign strategy of attacking BP and its Big Oil brethren and casting Republicans as their unelectable enablers.

Obama pushed ahead with that attack this weekend, assailing Republicans for blocking a bill to “hold oil companies accountable for the disasters they cause.” He was soon echoed by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who took House Energy Committee ranking Republican Joe Barton to task for his now-notorious apology to BP. Barton had earlier apologized for the $20 billion escrow fund for the Gulf oil spill that the company was compelled to create by the White House. Barton’s apology, according to Emanuel, was proof that Republicans were too cozy with the oil industry, allowing it to get away with devastation. Emanuel called Barton’s apology a “political gift,” one that would show voters that Republicans could not be trusted to be in power. Nancy Pelosi also tried to wring some political mileage from Barton’s unmerited contrition. According to the House Speaker, the apology served to demonstrate that Democrats “are trying to rein in Big Oil; the Republicans are not.”

Barton’s apology to BP was indeed stupid – he himself has since apologized for his apology – but it’s unlikely to be the gift that Democrats suggest. For one thing, Barton’s apology hardly elicited cheers from GOP ranks. Leading Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby were quick to condemn Barton’s embarrassing mea culpa, pointing out that the company responsible for the largest environmental disaster in American history is not owed an apology. Democrats’ claim that Barton’s since-rescinded statement is in any way representative of Republican thinking about BP strains credulity.

Casting the midterm election as a choice between Big Oil-friendly Republicans and watchdog Democrats is also likely to backfire. It simply refocuses attention on the uncomfortable fact that the leading beneficiary of BP funds is the Democratic occupant of the White House.

That’s not the only trouble with turning Barton’s statement and BP generally into a campaign issue. Tone deaf as his apology to BP was, Barton’s suggestion that the $20 billion relief fund amounted to a political “shakedown” is more difficult to dismiss. Republicans have raised reasonable concerns about the compensation fund. Overseen by a government-appointed administrator, it is potentially open to political misuse. There are also outstanding questions about whether the fund’s forced creation is even constitutional. No one would dispute that BP should pay, and pay generously, for the devastation it has wrought in the Gulf. But that does not mean that voters will sanction any and all means by the government to hold a private company to account.

Additional pitfalls loom. Making BP the centerpiece of a campaign shines a light on how little the administration has done to cope with the spill. While Rahm Emanuel was ripping BP Chief Tony Hayward for taking time off to watch his yacht race this past weekend, the RNC scored a more significant hit with a new ad that focuses on Obama’s slow response to the BP crisis, complete with footage of the president playing multiple rounds of golf. Both lines of attack are a little unfair: Would the oil stop flowing if Hayward and Obama forfeited all leisure time? But then Hayward is not running for office, while Obama’s popularity is the backdrop to the midterm elections. And given his declining poll numbers – more than half of registered voters say that Obama does not merit reelection, according to a new Gallup poll – the last thing Democrats should want heading into election season is sustained focus on the president’s handling of the BP spill.

That is in large part because what the administration has done has not helped matters. On Saturday, Obama went into campaign mode, claiming that Republicans were blocking his efforts to address unemployment. But it was Obama who ordered a six-month moratorium on offshore oil drilling and eliminated thousands of jobs in the process. Offshore drilling supplies some one third of domestic oil in the U.S., and the oil and gas industry supports some 200,000 jobs off the Gulf Coast, some 32,000 of which could be lost over the next year as a result of the moratorium. Some of those jobs may never return. Already, oil exploration companies like Anadarko and Cobalt International Energy have decided to leave the Gulf Coast and transfer their operations overseas in response to the ban.

There are also questions about whether the administration has done everything possible to contain the oil spill. Despite the president’s assurance that he would listen to all proposals, the administration has pointedly ignored bipartisan requests that it waive the Jones Act to permit foreign ships to operate in U.S. waters and ports to help with the cleanup. Congressional Democrats like Florida’s Corrine Brown have complained that the Jones Act has prevented their states from contracting foreign vessels to skim their coastal waters for oil. Even if the benefits from foreign ships prove minimal, allowing them to help would seem to be a no-lose proposition.

Such missteps by the administion suggest that the politics of the BP oil spill won’t be as straightforward as Democrats think. Painting Republicans as the party of sinister oil interests is a time-honored Democratic tactic. But considering the BP contributions that Obama has pocketed and the government’s failure to deal with the crisis, there are reasons to think that if BP does become an election issue, it will be to the Democrats' detriment.