by Jules Witcover

For a politician who got elected promising change, Barack Obama increasingly finds himself having to deal with what's already happened. The chief culprit no longer is the departed George W. Bush, or even Wall Street. Now it's British Petroleum and Mother Nature herself.

While still trying to undo the past damage of Bush's invasion of Iraq and the recklessness of the banking tycoons, the president is now confronted with potentially the worst environmental calamity in the nation's history, at a most unfortunate political time for him.

The explosion of the BP drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, spewing oil and imperiling the fishing industry and shores of four bordering states, has come on the heels of an Obama reversal of his earlier opposition to wider offshore drilling.

Having thus surrendered the high ground in the environmental and political debate over that issue long defended by the Republican Party, the Democratic president must now back off, at least temporarily. He has to focus now on the frantic efforts to counter the damage, both environmental and, for him, political.

His somewhat tardy visit to the Louisiana coastline to survey the situation has already triggered unfavorable recollections of Bush's damning Air Force One flyover of the punishment inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and environs in 2005.

It's true, the human cost of this latest disaster has not yet begun to approach that of the near demolition of the Crescent City. But the failure of Obama to go to the Gulf region sooner, squeezing in a White House press dinner first, has not gone unnoticed.

Compounding the situation was the near-simultaneous thwarted car bomb plot in Times Square the same night. The president could only comment from Louisiana later that "we're going to do what's necessary to protect the American people, to determine who is behind this potentially deadly act, and to see that justice is done."

As for the huge oil spill, Obama was quick to assert that there would be no government bailout of the sort that brought heavy criticism down on him by Republican leaders and the tea party movement in dealing with the economic crisis in the market and the auto industry.

"BP is responsible for this leak," he proclaimed. "BP will be paying the bill." And his secretary of interior, Ken Salazar, told CNN, "Our job basically is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum." But heavy operational costs to the Coast Guard and other defense elements doubtless will also be involved. The White House has said BP will be billed for those too, but we'll have to see.

Beyond the immediate crisis in the Gulf, and the Times Square scare, last week demonstrated again the manner in which the Obama presidency, for all its promise of change and forward vision, has been the captive of known events of the past, and of the new and unexpected.

Burdened from the outset with dealing with the wars and economic meltdown at home he inherited, Obama's only major initiative from his campaign agenda pursued aggressively in his first year was health-care reform.

For most of that first year, he left to the Democratic congressional leadership the task of crafting and selling the administration plan. Only when it reached the brink of failure did he step in and provide the personal impetus that finally achieved enactment over sharp partisan opposition.

Seizing on that hard-won success, Obama quickly segued to pursuit of sweeping financial industry reform, this time with strong public support that had been lacking in the health-care fight. But as this effort appeared to be moving toward achievement, the massive oil spill in the Gulf intruded as a huge unanticipated diversion from his promised agenda of change.

The black eye that former President Bush suffered from his initial seeming lack of involvement in the Katrina disaster was an object lesson for Obama, and his response to the BP oil spill was an improvement. But it also demonstrated how any president remains subject to demands of the unexpected, no matter what his intentions to pursue his own stated goals in office may be.


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The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being

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The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grassroots to the White House


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