WASHINGTON – President Obama is supposed to leave Washington in 10 days for Indonesia, Australia and Guam, but with oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, some in the White House are wondering whether the weeklong trip should be scrubbed.
For now, the trip remains on the schedule. But as the White House tallies up the spiraling price tag of the largest oil spill in American history, the bottom line extends beyond dollars and cents. Also on the line are the opportunity costs for a president who already had a packed agenda before a rig exploded in the waters off Louisiana.
Now that engineers have given up trying to plug the leak and have turned their efforts to containing it until a relief well can be finished in August, Mr. Obama faces at least two more months of crisis management that will complicate his hopes of advancing his agenda in other areas. Every day he devotes to a spill that seems beyond his control, and every day it consumes attention in Washington, is another day that he cannot focus as much energy and resources on his own initiatives.
Mr. Obama had hoped to spend his summer creating jobs, passing financial reform, promoting his health care program, getting a Supreme Court justice confirmed and an arms control treaty with Russia ratified, pressing for international sanctions against Iran and jump-starting the troubled Middle East peace process. While not abandoning any of those goals, Mr. Obama now must find ways to continue pushing them while demonstrating to the nation that he is concentrating on a spill he has called “our highest priority.”
“This has hijacked his entire legislative agenda,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University who has written about Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was consumed by the Iran hostage crisis. “The White House felt they were on a roll. They were looking to be a new New Deal or new Great Society and they were just getting momentum going. Something this awful has sidetracked the agenda.”
Sara Taylor Fagen, White House political director under President George W. Bush, said the failure to contain the spill would make it hard for Mr. Obama to accomplish anything this year. “He’ll likely be managing the fallout for years to come,” she said. “Not until his re-election campaign will he have an opportunity to press reset.”
White House officials reject that, saying the president can still move forward on several fronts. They pointed, as an example, to his effort in a speech on Wednesday in Pittsburgh to push for Senate passage of his energy and climate change legislation. Advisers to Mr. Obama are anticipating a new jobs report on Friday that they hope will show progress in rebuilding the economy, and they expect that new financial regulations will pass regardless of the oil spill.
“The nature of the presidency is you lay plans and you pursue them knowing that there are going to be exigencies that occur,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser. “What you can’t do is, no matter how dramatic the challenge, you can’t concentrate all your energy on one thing and one thing alone.”
Even as the president huddles each day with advisers on the spill, other parts of government grind on. The withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq is on track to be complete by August, despite political uncertainty in Baghdad. The president’s Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, appears likely to be approved, barring unforeseen revelations.
And the oil spill may even have helped in some instances by diverting attention from issues that otherwise might have been bigger fights. For instance, measures intended to ultimately lift the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military advanced in both the House and Senate in recent days with relatively little furor while cable television focused on the gulf.
“The American people are far more concerned about an economy that is still struggling and the oil spill they see every day on their TV screen than they are about the prospect of gays and lesbians being allowed to serve openly in the military,” said Aubrey Sarvis, head of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group.
Still, this crisis has dragged on for more than six weeks and promises to take another two months, setting off “Day 43”-like media attention. History shows that presidents like Mr. Carter have had their agendas overcome by long-running crises. Bill Clinton found it hard to gain traction during the year he was investigated, impeached and ultimately acquitted of perjury in the Monica Lewinsky case. Mr. Bush found second-term domestic legislation like Social Security investment accounts hobbled as violence engulfed Iraq.
Patrick Griffin, Mr. Clinton’s chief Congressional liaison in his first term, said the trick was to organize the White House to wall off the crisis from the rest of the team, so that governing in other areas can continue as much as possible. And yet the crisis is still hard to overlook. “It leaves a wound or a scar on an administration, notwithstanding the cause, that makes you operate with a limit,” Mr. Griffin said.
At the least, Mr. Obama’s schedule for the next month will force choices. After the week in Indonesia and Australia, he is supposed to host President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia in Washington and fly to Toronto for meetings with the Group of 20 major powers. He is loath to cancel the Australia-Indonesia trip because he already postponed it once to focus on health care legislation.
That has become a pattern for a White House that has been buffeted by crisis while sometimes still defying the odds. “One of the things we have learned throughout our time here,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, “is you do not get to pick what events you deal with.”