Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Confidence in Crisis: Blame, Media, and the BP Oil Spill

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Confidence in Crisis: Blame, Media, and the BP Oil Spill

Article excerpt

Within days after hitting the Gulf Coast of the United States, Hurricane Katrina had become a powerful symbol of the Bush administration's inability to act. The hurricane marked one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history, and its initial magnitude and subsequent flooding caught government officials at all levels totally unprepared. Nonetheless, it was the executive, President George W. Bush, that experienced the greatest political fallout (Malhotra and Kuo 2008). In the end, Bush's own advisors came to see the event as a pivotal moment in which the president lost credibility with the public. (1) Although reflecting failures at both local and national levels, criticism for the hurricane's stunning destruction was directed overwhelmingly, and without delay, at the executive branch, specifically President Bush.

What drives this sort of political blame? Was it merely the hurricane, or did the nature of the reporting exert an independent effect? Short of randomizing the content of media coverage, we have no way of knowing whether events or news coverage underlie these assessments of blame and accountability. Yet, a growing body of work finds that voters react to negative events by punishing or rewarding specific political figures (Achen and Bartels 2002; Atkeson and Maestas 2012; Bechtel and Hainmueller 2011; Gasper and Reeves 2011; Malhotra and Kuo 2008). Such studies often identify a link between exogenous events and subsequent electoral responses but are less explicit as to when and why individuals connect an issue to the politician. We utilize a unique event, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, to study this intervening step whereby specific events become tied to presidents.

If voters blindly attribute blame for a disaster, then what accounts for the delayed reaction in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Compared to President Bush's experiences with Hurricane Katrina, President Barack Obama's handling of the crisis did not receive widespread criticism until well after the initial incident. Some pundits went so far as to label the spill as Obama's Katrina Moment, yet the explicit connection came over a month after the explosion. This noticeable delay highlights the need for a richer understanding as to how blame is attached to a specific individual. What is more, the peculiar features of this case provide an opportunity to examine the dynamics by which blame is attributed to political actors.

To tackle these questions about opinion shifts directly, we exploit a natural experiment in which roughly half of the General Social Survey's (GSS) respondents were questioned before the April 20 spill, and the remainder were interviewed in the following months. (2) We can then examine how respondents differed in their perceptions of the president depending on when they were interviewed. Rather than looking at this crisis as simply pre- and postspill, as other scholars of natural disasters and exogenous events have done, we break the postevent period into two separate treatment phases. By dividing the period according to the substantive focus of the spill's reporting, we can more accurately examine the extent to which events and media coverage separately influence individual assessments of confidence in President Obama.

We begin with a brief discussion of recent works on blame attribution and media influence, noting a relative lack of attention in the literature to issue applicability. (3) We then examine coverage of the oil spill more closely to show how the media's framing of the spill shifted over time and how these alternative frames influenced public opinion of Obama in turn. Paying attention to the shifts in media coverage, we break the postspill sample into two treatment periods: the Crisis Phase and the Accountability Phase. After addressing the spill's reporting, we then briefly discuss the individual-level data and empirical design we use to test the study's hypotheses. …

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