How Badly Has the Gulf Spill Hurt Obama's Image?

How Badly Has the Gulf Spill Hurt Obama's Image?

By Tom Bevan - June 18, 2010

Some observers have noted that while President Obama has faced intense criticism over his handling of the Gulf Oil spill during the last eight weeks, his approval rating remains more or less unchanged. Indeed, on April 21, the day after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sunk in the Gulf, President Obama’s approval rating in the RCP Average stood at 47.9% and his disapproval rating was at 46.9%.  Despite all that’s transpired over the past two months, today President Obama’s approval rating in the RCP Average is two tenths of a point higher, at 48.1%, and his disapproval rating is five tenths of a point higher at 47.4%.

Much like the spill itself, however, below the surface there are indications that a subtle – and perhaps serious - erosion of the President’s image is taking place. While the most recent batch of polls does show President Obama’s overall job approval remaining steady, approval of his handling of the Gulf spill in particular has nose dived.

Three polls (AP/Gfk, CNN/Opinion Research, and Fox News/Opinion Dynamics) have tracked an  approval rating for the President’s handling of the oil spill over the past month. Here are the trends:



As you can see, while Obama’s overall approval rating suffered no net loss in the AP/Gfk and Fox News polls and just 3 points in the CNN poll, the net loss of approval for the President over his handling of the Gulf Oil spill in those same polls was 18, 21, and 13 points, respectively.

Additional poll questions probing other aspects of Obama’s handling of the oil spill show equally concerning numbers for the President:

In a Gallup poll conducted on June 11-13, 71% said that President Obama has “not been tough enough” in dealing with BP in regard to the oil spill. A nearly identical amount, 67%, said the same thing in the CNN poll.

In the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey, 68% said Obama has not acted “aggressive enough” and another 65% said he has not acted fast enough in responding to the crisis.

Perhaps most worrisome for the White House is a number from the ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week. Three months ago, Obama enjoyed a 30-point net positive margin on the question of whether he was a strong leader or not (65% Yes, 33% No).  Today, that positive gap has been cut in half, with 57% in the current survey saying  Obama is a strong leader and 43% saying he isn’t.

Clearly, then, these numbers demonstrate the public does take issue with the President’s handling of this crisis over the last eight weeks.  And, though many people point to the President’s flat overall approval rating as a positive sign that his image is not sustaining serious damage, it may in fact signal the opposite.

The nation traditionally rallies around its President in a time of crisis.  Though the crisis in the Gulf has unfolded much more slowly than a singular catastrophic event like 9/11 or the Oklahoma City Bombing, it’s nevertheless a gut wrenching catastrophe for the country that is looking to its President for leadership. Had Obama stepped up from the outset of the spill with an aggressive, authoritative response, it’s easy to imagine his approval rating shooting up five or ten points as he took control of the situation.

The fact Obama hasn’t received any bump from the crisis, and that his handling of it is viewed negatively by the American public, suggests that the stability in his overall approval rating is not so much a sign of strength as it is evidence of a huge missed opportunity.  The public still wants to see the President succeed in managing the country through this crisis, even though they’re less than enamored with the job he’s done thus far.

The news Wednesday that Obama had secured BP’s commitment to put $20 billion in an escrow fund to pay claims administered by an independent third party may help stop some of the bleeding in Obama’s numbers in the short term.

But so long as the oil continues to flow - streaming live on cable television and on desktops around the country – and so long as the federal government’s containment efforts appear to be both chaotic and not terribly effective, the President will have trouble keeping the erosion of public support for his handling of this incident from negatively impacting his broader image.

Like the Gulf itself, once this crisis is over the President will have much cleanup work to do to try and restore public confidence in him as a competent leader who is in command.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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