David Usborne: Disaster is casting dark shadow over President's reform agenda

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The Independent Online

The oil spill in the Gulf Coast is threatening wildlife, tourist beaches and the company responsible for it, BP. But another victim has started to come into focus: President Barack Obama.

The spring of this year had seemed like a time of suddenly rising fortunes for Mr Obama's still young presidency. Healthcare reform was finally done, he was pushing Congress towards sweeping financial reform and the economy was beginning to create jobs again. Then came the blast on the Deepwater Horizon.

To grasp that this has not turned out to be a passing distraction, look at his diary in recent days and weeks. Today, Mr Obama returns to the Louisiana Gulf Coast for the second time in eight days. He speaks of the leak almost daily and at any given time at least one of his cabinet members are somewhere close to the calamity.

When the second year of his first term was meant to be defined by the rebound of the US economy, instead it is smeared with seaborne oil that will not wipe off. The message of renewed growth that should help Democrats in the November mid-term elections is being swamped by news of cutting shears, risers, submersibles and slicks.

"Presidents are required to deal with situations as they arise," Geoff Garin, a prominent Democratic pollster observed this week. "But this is certainly something that makes it much more difficult for the administration to execute its own game plan in terms of communicating an economic message."

On Wednesday, Mr Obama was in Pittsburgh delivering a speech billed as a celebration of returning economic strength. But he was forced to rewrite passages to make mention of the mess in the Gulf.

Supporters of Mr Obama see the crisis as an opportunity, but aren't certain if he will rise to it. He has shown new aggression in recent days, shedding all semblance of partnership with BP, at least in public. At his Pittsburgh speech, he made it clear that he wants to use the crisis to drive Congress faster towards adopting a new energy policy, which will include steps to combat global warming and make the US less dependent on fossil fuels.