11/18/2013 07:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Not Katrina II, But BP Oil Spill II?

I have to begin by saying that I don't really enjoy playing this game, but so many in the inside-the-Beltway chattering class are getting so obsessed with it of late that (against my better intentions) I'm going to reluctantly jump into the fray. Mostly because one metaphor seems to have been ignored by everyone so far, and I think it deserves at least a bit of consideration.

The parlor game of which I speak could be called "match the scandal." The rules are simple: pick a scandal from days gone by and make a comparison to the current scandal unfolding in the news. This time around, the question appears to be: "What can be easily likened to the Obamacare website rollout disaster?" The favored answer so far seems to be: "It's Obama's Katrina!" But I don't think you need to look back even that far -- I think Obama's own previous experience gives a much more useful metaphor for pundits to casually bat around while waiting for the announcement from the White House that the website is (mostly) fixed. Because, to me at least, the last two months are reminiscent of nothing more than watching the seemingly-endless gusher of oil erupt from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, after the Deepwater Horizons drilling rig exploded and caused the BP oil spill.

Those pushing the "Obama's Katrina" metaphor do have a few comparisons on their side which fit well. They also have a very large number of inconsistencies between the two disasters, which others are helpfully pointing out (as Al Sharpton just did, to cite but one example). The biggest mismatch: Katrina was all about the government failing to help people in need (leading to unnecessary deaths) and the Obamacare website's intention is to help people in need (to get health insurance). Right there, that's a pretty big disconnect.

But the "Katrina II" storyline has two big things going for it. The first is the almost-perfect matchup of when in the presidents' terms disaster struck. Hurricane Katrina hit at the end of August in President Bush's fifth year in office (2005). The Obamacare website was launched at the beginning of October of Obama's fifth year in office. That's pretty close. Added to this fact is the eerie parallel (which I've been commenting on for about a year, now) between where Bush and Obama stand in job approval polling. Katrina was where Bush's poll numbers fell off a cliff, never to recover. Bush's approval sank to below 30 percent by the end of his second term -- territory previously only inhabited by Richard Nixon right before he resigned. Obama has not fallen quite this far (he's hovering around 41 percent approval currently), but again, the close comparison has held for the last year or so, so Obama's numbers could indeed follow Bush's path in the next few years. This is the main case people are making: that the similarity in the political fallout is the reason to slap the "Katrina II" label on the Obamacare website rollout.

This viewpoint, however, requires a belief that Obamacare is not going to get any better, or that the public's opinion of Obamacare is going to remain dismal, at best. And that's a pretty pessimistic outlook.

This is why the BP oil spill crisis might be a better metaphor, in the long run. I initially came up with this idea because the waiting seems so similar. There has been a drip-drip-drip nature to the past six weeks, in fact. We haven't quite gotten to the point where the media is calling it "Day 49" (as they did during the BP oil spill), but the feeling of similarity remains. For almost three months during the spring of 2010, America watched the live "gushercam" video feed of the absolute volcano of oil erupting from the seabed. Every night. Over and over again. For three solid months. Nobody could accurately say when (or even how) it was going to end. The oil slick spread further and further, and began reaching land. Oil-soaked wildlife was heavily featured on the news.

The BP oil disaster was a technological and man-made problem, which required even greater amounts of technological wizardry to fix. After the well was finally (finally!) successfully capped, there was an enormous aftermath that went on for a very long period of time. Economic impacts had to be addressed for millions of people. There was also, of course, a blame game to be played. This was the same year the Tea Party gave Obama a "shellacking" in the midterms, it bears mentioning.

During the time the well spewed crude oil into the Gulf, the president looked pretty weak and ineffectual, since he couldn't personally dive down there and plug the leak (as some almost seemed to expect him to, astonishingly enough). Obama was seen as slow to react initially, and insufficiently angry about the problem.

No, that last sentence is not any sort of exaggeration. Here are the three actual questions Chip Reid of CBS News asked during a press conference in the middle of the BP crisis:

"You said earlier that the president is enraged. Is he enraged at BP specifically?"

"Frustration and rage are very different emotions, though. I haven't -- have we really seen rage from the president on this? I think most people would say no."

"Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do?"

This is the historical record, not caricature or satire. This is what passes for a White House press corps these days, folks. Of course, if Obama had danced to the media's tune and gotten really really visibly enraged, then they would have immediately trotted out the "angry black man" storyline.

But ("Gotcha!" media aside) the similarities seem striking, at least to me, between the BP oil spill and the Obamacare website launch. A technological disaster happens, followed by a drawn-out and excruciating (for supporters of Obamacare, at least) period of what seems nothing more than floundering around by the White House, followed by an aftermath which will take years to clean up. Like the "Day 49" period of the BP spill, the nation awaits the news that the main problem has been fixed. Obama now pretty much has to make an announcement at some point that "the website is working -- go give it a try, everyone!" What happens next is an open question, but the interim period will be seen as being over, at least.

The BP oil spill cleanup went smoother than many predicted. There was ecological disaster, but not on the scale that some had foreseen. Eventually, the tourists started coming back and the fishing industry started to recover. Some degree of normalcy returned. This is the optimistic view of the future of Obamacare, too. Once the website is fixed, the discussion will shift to individual aspects of Obamacare itself (rather than the website). The impacts of Obamacare will cause some economic disruption, but if the overall plan works the way it was designed, then after the initial period the benefits will become obvious and the numbers of people getting insurance for the first time will climb.

Obama's poll numbers took a big dive during the BP oil spill -- the first of three periods of scraping bottom he's so far experienced as president (again, see the chart -- the well was capped in July of his second year in office). Obama is just now hitting his third low point in the polls, as the chart also shows. Where you think Obama's chart goes next depends on what you think Obamacare's chances over the long run truly are.

If you believe that Obamacare is just going to get worse and worse, and eventually be an albatross around the neck of not just Barack Obama but the Democratic Party in general, then the "Katrina II" metaphor is the one to bet on. If this does come to pass, then Obama's poll numbers could follow George W. Bush's right down into the lame-duck toilet.

But if you believe the Obamacare website will be fixed on time, and that as more and more people sign up the news will start turning positive for the program, then a better metaphor might wind up being "BP Oil Spill II." Obama eventually recovered from the excruciating period (on "Day 87," mind you) of America watching a massive technological disaster erupt. There was a period of aftermath, and then things started to get better. Which could turn out to be the case for the Obamacare website disaster.

As for people who point out what a cynical game this whole "X is like Y" chattering-class parlor amusement truly is, well, take comfort (small as it is) that at least the media has finally ended its decades-long insistence on slapping a "-gate" at the end of everything bad that happens in Washington. At least we've all been spared such terminology as "Obamacaregate" or "Websitegate." It's something we call all be thankful for, at the very least.


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