The oil is still gushing, lives and livelihoods are being destroyed, and the nation is crying out for answers and leadership. Try as he might — and he certainly tried in Tuesday night's address from the Oval Office — President Obama has left much of the country wanting. And frustrated. And looking for someone to blame.
For much of the crisis, the objects of the scorn — in addition to the folks at BP — have been Obama and the Democrats. Even his admirers conceded the speech fell way short.
If only someone could come to the rescue.
Enter Joe Barton, the Republican congressman from Texas. On Thursday morning, at a congressional hearing where BP executives were on the carpet, Barton apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for the White House getting it to commit to a $20 billion relief fund — a commitment Barton called a "shakedown."
Game, set, match.
Forget Dick Cheney. If anything was going to make the Democrats' argument that the GOP was in bed with the oil industry, this was it. Joe Barton made it for them.
Republicans realized the calamity from the get go. They went to Barton and said you apologize or you're out as ranking GOP member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Barton quickly complied.
But the damage was done. And Democrats and their allies pounced on it.
Ryan Rudominer, the spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his group "will hold these out-of-touch House Republicans accountable who have no shame when it comes to jumping to the defense of BP and Big Oil."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, echoing the DCCC, Tweeted this: "Who would the GOP put in charge of overseeing the energy industry & Big Oil if they won control of Congress? Yup, u guessed it - JOE BARTON."
The Democratic National Committee has gone up with an ad that calls on Republicans to "stop apologizing to big oil" and reminding voters that if the GOP takes over the House in November, Barton, as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, would be in charge of the probe into the oil spill.
The Wall Street Journal's Meckler & Wallsten report that the White House is working to "extend the damage" of Barton's apology, noting that spokesman Bill Burton has "made a thinly-veiled promise that Democrats will make the issue a voting matter this fall." And Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who runs the DCCC, said Barton's comments "will become an issue in the races around the country, because it’s another big piece of the story about how the Republicans have been on the side of the big corporations."
Republicans did not even have time to catch their breath. And even though Barton did offer his mea culpa, many in the GOP still wanted to wring his neck. Politico's Jonathan Allen is reporting that Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL), whose Mobile-based district has been hit hard by the oil spill, has called on Barton to resign his post as ranking Republican on the committee, calling his retraction "at best a half-hearted apology, trying, in my opinion, to save his position on one of the most influential committees in Congress." Bonner said he felt "the damage of his comments are beyond repair":
I hope Joe Barton will think more of those citizens along our Gulf Coast who are struggling with this unprecedented disaster than of his own desire to retain his ranking member seat on Energy and Commerce.
Newsweek's The Gaggle blog sums up the GOP's problem:
When your party controlled the federal bureaucracy for eight of the last ten years and you are the party associated in the public mind with Big Oil, dissatisfaction over the government's response to an oil spill is not the issue you want to run on. But for the Democrats, it is the perfect way to remind the public that while they may not like the team currently in charge, they might dislike the other guys even more.
Remember back in February, during the health care debate, when Anthem Blue Cross, California's largest for-profit health insurer, hiked its rates by as much as 39 percent? If anything, it gave Obama and the Democrats a perfect talking point as to why their health care bill should be passed.
Joe Barton has similarly done the White House a favor.