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Al Jazeera English

Obama's Albatross and the Pelicans of Louisiana

Nick Spicer

Barack Obama, the US president, heads into the summer with a political albatross around his neck of unknowable proportions: the Gulf Coast oil spill.

It is now the biggest oil disaster in US history, a shape-shifting monster slicking up seabirds – including Louisiana's state bird, the Brown Pelican – and threatening not just a visible gumming up of tourist beaches, and the wholesale destruction of fragile Gulf Coast marshlands, but an invisible, decades-long, undersea strangling of a giant food chain linking plankton to small fish to big fish to the American dinner table.

Death of wildlife will not undo a presidency. But front-page pictures of oily seabirds can move public opinion. And, as the American media moves into the long slow "silly season" of summer, these helpless flailing creatures – the Laughing Gulls, the Bridled Terns, the Magnificent Frigatebirds - are poised to become the poignant symbols of a presidency mired in disaster, not directly of its own making, but a disaster nonetheless.

President Barack Obama knows he's in trouble.

He's cancelled trips to Australia and Indonesia because of the spill, showing he is no longer going to try to keep his distance from the mess, simply because the federal government, as one of his officials said at the beginning of the crisis, has none of BP's "expertise" in deep offshore drilling.

This week, he visited Louisiana for the third time, attempting to direct a growing storm surge of public anger and despair away from the White House and towards BP, the company behind the catastrophe.

After meeting with a local oyster fisherman and a marina owner on Grand Isle, a barrier island befouled by the oil, he let reporters know he was "furious" about the situation. He warned the oil company not to "nickel and dime" the men and women whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the spill, and summoned the firm to pay them compensation quickly:

"I want BP to be very clear, they've got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf, toward the damage that has been done."

But the risk is Obama will have as much success in channelling anger as BP has had in channelling the oil, still gushing into the sea, some six weeks after the explosion which sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.


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His administration's promises to open criminal and civil investigations into the explosion that killed 11 oil workers, and the ensuing environmental disaster, could, for example, turn against it.

It is hard to imagine the lawyers for the five oil and oil-services companies likely to be targeted not pointing out in court that their firms may, possibly, have taken liberties - but above all they took advantage of an entirely permissive regulatory atmosphere created by government overseers who readily accepted gifts, and who generally approved whatever drilling proposal was sent to them.

Another danger for Obama: the oil industry in Louisiana will take a hit. If tourism and fishing are ruined, that leaves the other big employer:  oil and gas.

There are thousands of wells operating off the state's coast, but the new work is in deep offshore drilling.

As this reporter drove around the bayou looking for stories recently, much of the talk on the local radio was what would happen if the giant navigable offshore rigs doing that drilling simply moved away to drill in Brazil, or off of Africa.

Currently they face a six-month ban on any kind of work, courtesy of the White House. Costing about half a million dollars a day to rent, once they leave, they'll likely stay for a few years in friendlier, less regulated waters.

What new jobs for Louisiana then?

The birds dying on the shores of Louisiana are perhaps, then, more than symbols of our energy-mad society here in the US. And perhaps more than signs of the "business is always right" disease that bedevils American governance. With their painful floundering to get out of an inextricable situation, they are omens, possibly, of the near-term future of the Obama presidency.

And no volunteer's gentle soap bath, or tube-fed fish puree, will help the president escape his fate.

Nick Spicer has over 15 years of international reporting experience.

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