- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is coeditor of Shadow Government.
History does not repeat itself but it rhymes. I am reminded of this cliché as I watch the Obama administration strive mightily to build a rhetorical cordon to prevent the off-shore oil spill from becoming their "Katrina Moment." The vigorous push-back was necessary because the Obama administration’s early reaction to the oil spill was uneven — as was the Bush administration’s early reaction to Katrina — and even pro-administration media outlets were forced to admit as much.
There is never a good time politically for an environmental disaster of this scope, but the timing is especially delicate for the administration. Not only does it come just a few weeks after the president made a much-ballyhooed compromise to allow off-shore drilling — a move that dismayed this leftwing base — but it is also comes in the same news cycle as two other bad stories: another near-miss attempted terrorist strike on U.S. soil and the visit to American soil of the Iranian troublemaker President Ahmadinejad. With all of this toxicity heading towards the U.S. homeland at the same time, the administration can be forgiven if their spin sounds a bit defensive.
Katrina arrived at a similarly bad time politically for the Bush administration. It came on the heels of a bruising political fight over Social Security reform culminating in August’s cable news faux-crisis of Cindy Sheehan’s vigil outside the president’s ranch in Crawford. And shortly after Katrina, the administration got bogged down in a politically costly battle over a Supreme Court nomination (yet another eerie parallel to present day with Obama’s next Supreme Court pick looming?). Many political veterans of the Bush administration view Katrina and the political damage that ensued as the pivot point in the presidency.
It is too soon to say whether the oil spill will be become Obama’s "Katrina Moment." President Obama has advantages that President Bush did not have, the most important of which are competent state and local leaders. But these advantages will be sorely tested if the damage from the oil spill approximates the worst-case estimates. Likewise, as my new Shadow Government colleague Mary Habeck notes, it is scary to think what would have happened in Times Square if the President’s luck had run out and the car bomb had detonated as the perpetrators had hoped. If the threats emanating from Hakimullah Mehsud, the terrorist who survived a U.S. drone strike several months ago, are credible, this is another sore test that will play out in the coming weeks and months. And Ahmadinejad’s visit is an untimely reminder that the Iranian nuclear forecast remains bleak and getting bleaker by the day.
This would be a lot to handle even for Jack Bauer who can count on his scriptwriters to rescue him at just the right moment. President Obama, however, is writing his own script and so these next several months may prove to be pivotal ones for his presidency.