Is Gulf Disaster a Political Problem for Obama? Yes, But Not Everywhere

BY dchinni  June 16, 2010 at 1:33 PM EST

Somewhere in the 50-plus days that raw crude has been spewing from a hole in the floor of the ocean, the Gulf oil spill became a political problem for the White House. But the problems for the president aren’t the same everywhere.

On Tuesday night, President Obama gave an address from the Oval Office about the spill and told the American people: “We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever is necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”

Is that enough for a country where some have become obsessed with watching a black cloud billow out into the ocean on a live camera feed?

Talking to people in our Patchwork Nation communities, the answer to that question in an election year seems to hinge on two things: How strongly do they support the president? And, how close are they to the affected area?

Supporters Remain Supporters

Consider Ann Arbor, Mich. As we noted before the home of the University of Michigan takes great pride in its green credentials. One would imagine it’s the kind of place where the spill would have people up in arms and apparently it does. But like other Campus and Career locales, the community as a whole is strongly supportive of President Obama and he is not seen as responsible.

“People here absolutely do not blame Obama, they don’t see any basis for that. There is widespread belief that BP cut corners,” Mayor John Hieftje wrote in an e-mail. “Regulations need to be tightened if offshore drilling is going to be allowed and people would like to see this done ASAP. Very deep wells like this one should be outlawed.”

On a more close-to-home note, Hieftje also wrote that he thought there would be bans for Great Lakes drilling on the ballot this fall.

But travel to Nixa, Mo., a socially conservative Evangelical Epicenter in the southwest of the state, and the reaction is different. The religious response can be seen in a simple drive around the area – “Pray for the Gulf” reads the sign outside the Asbury United Methodist Church in nearby Springfield.

But some in the community — never a big fan of President Obama — see deepwater drilling as a larger problem with Democratic Party policies, which have opposed drilling in some places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. “Would this have happened if companies were allowed to drill more on land or in more shallow waters?” local businesswoman Kristi Bohannon wrote in an e-mail.

It Depends How Close You Are

Clermont, Fla., is inland from the coast. The aging Emptying Nest community sits west of Orlando where the closest water is Lake Mineola, so even as the state’s ocean shoreline struggles with effects of the spill, “the emotion is not as charged as it is on the coasts,” writes Ray San Fratello, president of the South Lake County Chamber of Commerce.

“It seems that much of the anger is directed at BP, then those who favor offshore drilling for oil, then Obama in a combination Katrina reaction/hate Obama reaction,” San Fratello writes.

Clermont, like most other Empting Nests, is not Obama country. Those communities were split in 2008 and in opinion surveys since then they have turned against him. But even in places that strongly oppose Obama, the spill is not a particularly heavy political topic – or really even much of a topic at all.

Out in Burley, Idaho, a Mormon Outpost full of LDS Church members, the spill in the Gulf simply doesn’t seem to be on many minds. “For the most part, I’m not hearing much at all about the oil spill,” writes Jay Lenkersdorfer, publisher of the local paper, in an e-mail.

“I don’t think our lack of dialogue about this issue is our way of saying we don’t care about other parts of the country, but we have our own discussion topics that are more relevant. We are in the midst of the wettest year in decades in Idaho, and in that this is an agricultural economy, we are worried that the sun isn’t shining.”

And that is something to keep in mind as the Washington and the media turn their intense focus to the spill.

The oil in the Gulf is without question an environmental catastrophe, but the nation’s other struggles – from unemployment to housing to adequate sun for crops – go on. Capping the well and the cleaning the mess would help Obama politically for certain, but the list of issues on voters’ minds for November is long and it varies greatly from place to place.