Energy & Environment

Obama Politicizes Gulf Oil Spill

President Obama welcomed the New Orleans Saints to the White House on Monday to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl victory. It’s arguably the most attention he’s given Louisiana since visiting the state in early June.

Obama made three trips to Louisiana during the course of the oil spill. The last came on June 4, six weeks before the well was capped. Despite the fact the Deepwater Horizon explosion resulted in the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — just 50 miles off the Louisiana coast — his administration is instead showering attention on the political battleground of Florida.

Louisiana residents are starting to notice. A front-page story in The Washington Post confirms that the people most directly impacted by the spill fear they’re being forgotten. Local fisherman Robert Phuong Nguyen, speaking at a meeting in Buras, La., summed it up this way: “The cleanup hasn’t been done completely. Who will assure us that the seafood will be safe? If you really care about us, please pay attention. … If the government really cares, please look over our situation.”

It’s not that the White House has lost interest in the Gulf oil spill. Just last week it produced a special Gulf Coast episode of “West Wing Week,” the behind-the-scenes video that spins the administration’s agenda. The nearly 10-minute video trumpeted the “federal government’s historic and unprecedented effort” in response to the oil spill by highlighting the cleanup of Florida’s beaches and a community meeting in Alabama. The impact on Louisiana’s coast or communities, however, wasn’t even mentioned.

That follows a pattern of the Obama administration. When the White House dispatched first lady Michelle Obama to the Gulf Coast, she visited Panama City Beach, Fla., to promote tourism. When critics asked why the Obamas were telling others to vacation there but failing to do so themselves, the White House announced Obama would take time from a getaway planned for Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to spend two days in Florida, not Louisiana.

Perhaps the most glaring snub came last week, when Carol Browner, the top White House aide on energy and climate change, visited Florida’s Panama City, Pensacola and St. Petersburg for meetings with key local officials. As a high-level administration official, Browner’s trip was significant. She has strong ties to Florida from her time leading the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and also served as President Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

This weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when host David Gregory asked Browner about criticism of the administration, she replied, “Later today, [at] the president’s birthday party, he’s going to be serving his guests seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.” How tone deaf. Does Browner think the people in Gulf Coast communities care more about Obama’s birthday menu than about lost jobs, BP’s flawed claims process, and the devastating impact of the president’s drilling moratorium?

Gregory should’ve asked Browner why the administration is politicizing the Gulf oil spill. The White House has clearly shifted its resources to where they’ll be most effective politically. Politico recently revealed the administration’s decision to dispatch political and communications aides to the region amid grumbling from high-profile Democrats. Florida received four of them; Alabama and Mississippi, just one each. Politico didn’t report the number of aides sent to Louisiana.

The mere fact that Browner traveled to Florida probably had something to do with complaints from state Democrats about the White House’s handling of the oil spill response. It’s certain to have political ramifications.

Obama won Florida’s 27 electoral votes in 2008, yet faces a 50 percent disapproval rating in the state today, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. With the odds stacked against him in states such as Indiana (11 electoral votes), North Carolina (15 electoral votes) and Virginia (13 electoral votes), he’ll need Florida in 2012 to have any hope of winning re-election.

With little to gain in Louisiana — a state he lost overwhelmingly in 2008 — there’s little chance of seeing Obama return there anytime soon. Despite the significant damage to the state’s economy and ecosystem, Obama’s actions suggest he’s more interested in purely advancing his own political agenda.

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