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We still don't know the full environmental effect of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We do have a better idea of the political cost to the president of the United States.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: There was a time this spring and early summer when President Obama seemed like another helpless shore bird, drenched in oil, unable to fly.�USA Today asked if this latest Gulf disaster was becoming Obama's Katrina. And the New York Times drew ominous parallels to Jimmy Carter, as TV's spill-cam offered a round-the-clock reminder of government impotence.�

During a June meeting with Louisiana fishermen, Mr. Obama could only turn up his hands.

President BARACK OBAMA: Even though I'm president of the United States, my power is not limitless. So I can't dive down there and plug the hole. I can't suck it up with a straw.

HORSLEY: But for all the hand-wringing and breathless forecasts, the oil spill does not appear to have done lasting political damage to the president.�Rutgers analyst Ross Baker says during the spill, people blamed BP more than Mr. Obama.�And most voters just aren't thinking about the spill as they approach the midterm elections.�

Professor ROSS BAKER (Analyst, Rutgers University): Its impact on what happens on the second of November I think is really going to be fairly minimal. And I think that probably a year from now, people may be asking: What oil spill?

HORSLEY: To be sure, on the Gulf Coast, where people were more directly affected, many are still angry about lost business, the slow pace at which damage claims are being paid, and about the government's drilling moratorium, which was only lifted last week.

But elsewhere around the country, the spill does not seem to have been a defining political event.�Mr. Obama's Gallup approval rating when the well was finally capped in mid-July was just shy of 50 percent, exactly the same as before the spill began.

Of course, even if the oil spill hasn't left an obvious stain on Mr. Obama's political standing, there may be hidden costs just below the surface.�Democratic strategist Mark Mellman says every day the president was forced to spend on the oil spill was a day he couldn't devote to his own agenda.�

Mr. MARK MELLMAN (Democratic Strategist): The country and the president was transfixed by this spill for many, many weeks. And those were weeks that, absent the spill, could have been spent talking about the economy, focusing on job creation, and sending a more effective message to the public.

HORSLEY: The spill also forced Mr. Obama to backpedal on plans for expanded offshore drilling - a bargaining chip he'd hoped to parlay into a broader energy and climate bill.�The federal government did reorganize its offshore drilling regulator. But there's been no big push to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the way Three Mile Island affected nuclear power.�

In addition, the time it took to plug the well, the disjointed nature of the initial cleanup, and the faulty estimates of how much oil was actually leaking may have eroded public confidence in the government's ability to tackle big challenges.�

If it takes three months to cap a leaking oil well, voters may wonder, how can the government ever fix health care.�Ross Baker says that's a bigger problem for Democrats, who are in power and who favor a more activist government role.

Mr. BAKER: Any time any government program goes awry, I think the Democrats are going to get blamed for it. Democrats really are, in the public mind, identified with a very expansive scope of the federal government.

HORSLEY: Americans - or at least journalists - haven't stopped looking to government for solutions, though. Just this week, a Bloomberg columnist warned inaction on the foreclosure mess could be the president's next Katrina.�

Scott Horsley, NPR news, Washington.�

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