A reflection of public dissatisfaction

A REFLECTION OF PUBLIC DISSATISFACTION…. The initial results from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll came out this afternoon, with results gauging public attitudes about the BP oil spill. Not surprisingly, no one’s happy.

Most of the responses are easy to understand. A whopping 73% consider the spill a “disaster,” with an additional 25% describing it as a “serious problem.” (Haley Barbour is apparently not proving to be especially persuasive.) Likewise, a 51% majority “strongly” wants to see federal officials pursue “criminal charges against BP and other companies involved in the oil spill,” which another 14% also supporting charges, though not strongly.

Some responses are less intuitive.

More Americans have given negative ratings to federal reaction to the BP spill then poll respondents gave to the government’s initial handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Overall, 69 percent of those polled now say the government has done a “not so good” or “poor” job handling the spill. More polled, 81 percent, give low marks to BP for its response. (Some 59 percent give negative ratings to both the federal government and BP.)

Criticism of the government and BP crosses party lines and spans the country. The Democratic discontent with the government’s response today — 56 percent give it low marks — contrasts with majority GOP support for federal efforts a few weeks after Katrina stuck in 2005.

That last point is especially significant. It’s hard to imagine any sensible explanation for the federal response to the spill being worse than that of Hurricane Katrina — substantively, that’s just crazy. Regardless of politics, the federal response in 2005 was pathetic. In 2010, with an entirely different kind of crisis, the federal response was quick and aggressive, albeit overwhelmed by circumstances beyond officials’ control.

But the main reason for the difference is partisanship. As Kevin Drum explained, “[D]uring Katrina, Republicans largely rallied around the federal response because they wanted to defend George Bush from lefty criticism. In the case of the BP spill, Democrats have been much less willing to do the same for Barack Obama. And sure enough, the poll results suggest this is exactly what’s happened.”

Five years ago, most Republicans, responding with knee-jerk partisanship, expressed satisfaction with the federal response to the hurricane. This year, folks from both parties are unhappy, which largely explains the worse poll results — generally speaking, Dems are willing to criticize Obama; Republicans weren’t willing to criticize Bush.

Of course, polls are at their most constructive when they offer policymakers some kind of coherent sense of what they should do to satisfy public demands. To that extent, the new Post/ABC data is interesting, but since the results don’t tell us why the public is unsatisfied with the federal response, or what the administration should be doing differently, there’s far less value.