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Oil spill's danger for Democrats

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger says most people want the Gulf oil spill ended and look to government to help
  • She says administration has sent mixed messages
  • Democrats fear defeat in November, want Obama to bash GOP, Borger says
  • Borger: White House wants to take more of a middle road

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°" and "State of the Union," as well as participating in special event coverage.

Washington (CNN) -- There was a theory, back in the day, that if the president could only pass health care reform, the glow of that victory would spur him on to better things: more wins, more credibility for the governing Democrats, more reasons to keep Democrats in power.

So much for that.

Right now, there's a hole in the Gulf. We watch it every day as it dumps who-knows-how-many-thousands of barrels of oil into the pristine water, endangering everything around it. Maybe the anti-government crowd thinks it's fine to wait for BP to fix it; most folks just want it fixed, period.

Even, it seems, President Obama. When the public started getting testy about it, so did he. "Plug the damn hole," he told his aides, in a political leak meant to reflect the president reflecting our own anger.

Sad to say, the Gulf's black hole tells of a larger political gulf: the one between an angry public and a Washington that doesn't seem to work. Or of politicians who fight to the death to take charge and then, when they win, evade responsibility. Who's in charge of fixing the calamity in the Gulf? Not sure. Who's going to fix Washington? Same answer.

So it's no surprise that our CNN polls show a public much more likely to vote for challengers than incumbents. Sure, the Republicans as the minority party have an edge in this kind of throw-the-bums-out environment. But here's the rub: When asked if the country would be better off if controlled by the Democrats or by the Republicans, 44 percent of respondents chose "no difference." Who can blame them?

The public is rational, which is why it has become anti-Washington. Consider energy policy. In the wake of the Gulf's environmental disaster, polls show that 84 percent of the public believes that, in one way or another, this spill will impact our lives. They're worried and anxious -- but not reflexively calling for an end to all drilling in the future. Instead, 57 percent say we need to continue to drill -- although only 37 percent of them believe that the government can stop another spill.

They're deeply conflicted, and with good reason: They know we need the energy, and that getting it is proving much more dangerous than we may have thought. What do they want from their government? Better choices that will give them more confidence.

Yet as it becomes increasingly clear that the mess was, in part, due to huge regulatory failures at the Department of the Interior, Washington is beginning to do what it does best: Point fingers. As if that will do anything but muddy the black waters.

Trouble is, there's no unity of command at the White House. Mixed messages have been sent daily about whether BP is our ally or the bad guy. Are we keeping "our boot on their neck," as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would tell us, which doesn't sound real friendly. Or do we "trust" BP as an ally, as Adm. Thad Allen says? Hard to decipher -- which does not inspire confidence.

And as the drama in the Gulf plays out daily, there's a Washington drama playing out: the coming midterm election. The Democrats are (rightly) nervous they could be facing a huge wave, one that knocks them out of power in either the House or Senate, or both. So they're telling the White House to draw the lines of good guys versus bad guys: the good Democrats who fixed health care and reformed Wall Street versus the bad Republicans who voted "no" on everything. The good guys who are trying to fix immigration and reform energy policy versus the bad guys who say "no." The good guys who will fix the regulatory lapses that allowed Deepwater to happen versus the bad guys who deregulated in the first place.

Otherwise, Democrats say, the GOP story -- which portrays Democrats as liberal big-government, big spenders -- will stick, and they will lose.

Not so fast, says the White House.

The president can't be seen as hyperpartisan; that would jeopardize his leadership. "People hate hyperpartisanship," says one senior White House adviser, who believes Democrats should point to successes on issues like health care. "We have to point out that Democrats in Congress have worked in a courageous way. They ought to embrace that as a character point."

Not exactly what the congressional Democrats have in mind. They want Obama to use the bully pulpit to pound Republicans as simply naysayers. And their real worry, according to senior House and Senate Democrats, is that Obama will come up with a third explanation -- saying that Washington is broken (which is what the public believes). That storyline, of course, puts Democrats running for re-election in jeopardy, too.

Meantime, the public grows more despondent that its political system is beyond repair. And the murky waters in the Gulf get darker each day.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.