WASHINGTON — Americans have become just as dissatisfied with President Barack Obama's work on the Gulf oil spill as they were with his predecessor's handling of Hurricane Katrina, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday.
Even so, the catastrophe appears not to have taken a toll on how Americans view the president overall. Obama's approval rating remained steady in the poll and he is more popular than President George W. Bush was two months after the hurricane.
Bush alone took the hit in public perceptions. In the spill, much anger is steered at BP, and the poll suggests Americans do not feel quite the sense of shame that afflicted them in the 2005 hurricane aftermath.
Still, Obama and his administration have struggled to contain the environmental disaster in the Gulf and now, it seems, to convince people that the government is acting effectively.
Most Americans are angry about the government's slow response, the poll finds, with 54 percent saying they had strong feelings about the bureaucracy's reaction. Many doubt that Washington could really help them if they were a disaster victim.
The survey found that 52 percent don't approve of Obama's handling of the spill, a significant increase from last month when a big chunk of Americans withheld judgment. A stunning 83 percent disapprove of BP's performance in the aftermath of the explosion that set off the spill. That percentage of Americans disapproving also was a huge jump from May.
Back then, people seemed to take a more wait-and-see approach.
The survey comes as the president seeks to show more forceful leadership on the disaster and convince a skeptical public he's up to the task. He was wrapping up a two-day visit to the region Tuesday before giving an Oval Office prime-time speech on the spill and meeting BP executives at the White House a day later.
Dealing with the nation's worst environmental crisis in his second year in office, Obama is determined to prevent his presidency from being defined as Bush's was in the aftermath of Katrina. The bungled hurricane response deepened the public's distrust of government and cemented the notion in Americans' minds that Bush's administration was inept.
Obama's overall job performance rating didn't take a hit even though he got troubling marks on the spill; it stayed almost the same at 50 percent. That's consistent with the public's attitudes throughout his young presidency; people generally like him but don't necessarily agree with his policies.
Disapproval of Obama's handling of the environmental crisis is similar to the percentage of Americans frustrated with Bush's handling of Katrina — even though in this case, people have an entity other than the White House to blame. In November 2005, two months after the hurricane hit, an AP-Ipsos poll found 53 percent disapproved of the job Bush was doing on hurricane recovery. And his overall approval rating suffered some, sliding to 37 percent.
"I'd say Obama is doing a better job than Bush, but not by much," said Cassie Carter, 28, of Nauvoo, Ala., which is about three hours from the Gulf coast.
"People are still dealing with Katrina stuff," said Carter, a Democrat. "It took Bush forever to get those people any kind of help. Obama has recognized this is happening and tried to make the oil companies get on top of it. But he should have given them a time limit and if they didn't do it, he should have stepped in."
Still, people don't have the type of emotional response to the oil disaster that they did to the hurricane; 32 percent say they feel strongly shameful about what has occurred since the rig explosion. That's compared with 40 percent who felt that way after the debilitating hurricane that killed at least 1,800 and left countless others homeless, many poor and black.
Initially, the public didn't seem willing to cast judgment on Obama or BP for the spill.
But public attitudes have shifted dramatically as Americans already reeling over a recession and angry at institutions of all types — from corporations to Congress — watched crude continue to gush while both BP and the government struggled to find a solution and clean up the mess.
Far more people are focused on the spill now as oil coats beaches, kills wildlife and cripples the Gulf economy; 87 percent now say the issue is very important to them personally, second only to the economy. And far more rate the environment — 72 percent — as very important than did last month.
More than half doubt that the government's response to the oil spill, thus far, has had any impact, a sense that's spread evenly among people of all political ideologies.
"It became pretty clear a few weeks into this that BP was unable to deal with this magnitude of a problem," said Democrat George Lichte, 52, from Kennebunkport, Maine. "I wish that the administration had been able to muster a greater emergency action right away."
The findings underscore the public's widespread lack of faith in government as well as the task ahead for Obama as he tries to show he's in command of the response. His approach is all but certain to be a political issue, defining his presidency and, perhaps, affecting this fall's midterm congressional elections if not his likely re-election race in two years.
Nearly three quarters in the poll said they thought the spill will have some impact on their own families in the next year; 63 percent said the country would still be feeling the impact in five years while 40 percent said it would be more like a decade.
Trouble for Obama stretches across party lines, and its clear he has problems with his own base with this issue.
About three-quarters of Republicans, just over half of independents and nearly a third of Democrats said they disapprove of how Obama is handling the spill.
But Democrats and those giving Obama overall high marks were angrier about the spill than Republicans and those who give Obama low marks. Also, Democrats were likelier than Republicans to say they feel deep shame and to say that the spill made them feel less confident that the government can protect the environment from companies' actions.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted June 9-14 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. It involved interviews on landline and cell phones with 1,044 adults nationwide, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.