America’s eyes have turned to Bobby Jindal. The Louisiana governor has seized the spotlight and commanded attention throughout the 53 day BP oil spill that’s ransacked the Gulf of Mexico. Jindal’s rise coincided with the increasing dissatisfaction Americans have with the federal government’s response to the crisis. Voters blame Washington and BP for not acting swiftly to handle the situation. During an emergency, people crave ideas that will fix the problem, look for leadership to guide them through the situation, and want to see someone in charge. So far, the Louisiana governor has provided a calm voice and a clear head. He has found his voice during this turbulent time and helped reassure Louisianans and the nation that he can handle this emergency. This is his moment to craft a national identity and an opportunity to position him for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
Politics is a zero sum game. For every winner, there is a loser. Jindal rose in popularity while the media and the public lashed out at President Barack Obama’s handling of the situation. Obama’s job approval rating hit a new low this week—44% according to the latest Gallup daily tracking poll. Voters became increasingly dissatisfied by the hands off approach the president showed during the crisis. Early on, the president seemed disengaged from on-the-ground reports. In a May 27th press conference, the president seemed unsure whether the head of the Minerals Management Services—the agency which oversees offshore drilling— had resigned or was fired. In addition, the president spent much of May crisis-crossing the country raising money for fellow Democrats in as well as delivering commencement addresses. He looked distracted by other duties and not focused on the oil spill. Critics blamed him for his calm demeanor and blasted his lack of anger at BP for not fixing the problem. Many wonder why he still hasn’t spoken directly to BP CEO Tony Hayward. Meanwhile, Governor Jindal has appeared daily on the Gulf Coast: pleading for additional federal assistance and blasting BP for not acting swiftly enough to fix the leak and its reluctance to begin full-scale clean up efforts.
Jindal wants solutions to expedite the clean up effort. His best idea, so far, consisted of building a line of defense called sand boom. These barriers would create a series of make shift islands which use mud from the bottom of the Gulf to contain the oil and keep it from penetrating farther inland. This week, Jindal went out with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and showed off the practical effects of these ideas. He referred to them as “Cajun ingenuity.” In front of television cameras, the governor used a make-shift vacuum that sucked the oil off the surface of the water and sent it to a vacuum truck back on the barge. This, in addition to the sand booms only offered to suck up a few thousand gallons of oil a day. Jindal said it was a good start.
Americans like this can-do attitude. They also deplore President Obama’s reluctance to tackle the problem. Jindal sucked up oil; the president picked up seashells on the coastline. Jindal begged for more federal assistance; environmentalists and Congress slowed down the sand booms idea because it had not been properly vetted. Jindal proposed an activist government ready and able to tackle the problem; Obama wanted to coordinate relief efforts with BP.
And that’s the irony of it all. Conservatives labeled Barack Obama a liberal president who wanted to use government to solve problems. Now, one of their own proposes to do the same thing.
Bobby Jindal was the wonder kid. He burst on the national scene in 2007 by winning Louisiana’s gubernatorial election. Republicans loved him—he was a whiz kid who defied the traditional conservative label. He wasn’t white: he is an Indian-American; he wasn’t old: he became governor at 36; and he wasn’t stupid; he studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He is a technocrat; a man who used his brain and empirical evidence to get the job done. He also had great experience at all levels of government. At 24, he became the head of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals which oversaw 12,000 employees and 40% of the state’s budget; at 28 he became head of the state’s University System; two years later, he became the assistant health and human services secretary in the Bush administration; three years after that, he became a congressman from the state’s first district; four years later, voters elected him to be the state’s chief executive.
His was a meteoric rise. In 2008, many conservatives urged John McCain to pick Jindal as his running mate on the GOP ticket. Jindal promised to add diversity (in color and age) and energy to the ticket. The Arizona Republican nominee picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin instead.
When the Democrats won convincingly in November, many conservatives pinned Jindal as a rising star and made plans to put him front and center. The party asked Jindal to give the party’s response to President Obama’s Address to Congress (a de facto State Of The Union speech) in February 2009. This was the first great national forum for the governor to make his mark. Instead, his response fell flat. Commentators blasted the address. Conservatives claimed his words were “cheesy” and his message lacked both passion and inspiration. The New York Times summed up the national sentiment with its headline: “Governor Jindal, Rising G.O.P. Star, Plummets After Speech.”
The governor continued floundering throughout 2009. He blasted the president’s stimulus package and labeled the administration fiscal policies “irresponsible.” Then, looking at Louisiana’s budget realities, he accepted $2.4 billion in federal aid to cope with an exploding deficit. This action seemed out of step with the conservative movement, which hitched its wagon to the burgeoning Tea Party. The Tea Partiers wanted fiscal responsibility, spending restraint, and limited government.
The Tea Partiers helped refuel the Right. Jindal, the Right’s former Whiz Kid, seemed out of touch with the movement. Commentators once pegged him as a presidential contender. After his faulty public debut in February 2009 as well as his unorthodox decision to accept parts of the stimulus funds, it seemed like his presidential chances for 2012 were finished.
Political fortunes change in the midst of a crisis. Jindal’s have risen considerably as the oil spill has gone on. Conversely, President Obama suffered a hit. A recent CBS News poll (June 1-3), indicated that only 38% of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the oil spill. When asked if the administration should be doing more, 68% of Americans claimed that the president was not doing enough to tackle the problem.
The 2012 election is still two and a half years away. But, a narrative has begun forming around the president’s mishandling of the situation. Many wonder if this is Obama’s Katrina, referring to the hurricane that effectively ended President Bush’s second term. In recent days, a more apt description has developed. Many point to this as Obama’s Hostage Crisis—alluding to President Carter’s inability to free Americans from a U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Republicans seem poised to win back both houses of Congress in the fall. Democrats are running away from the president. Last month, a Democratic candidate prevailed in the Pennsylvania 12th district special election held to replace the deceased John Murtha. Mark Critz won with a platform that opposed Obamacare, opposed cap-and-trade, and opposed gun-control—all core tenets of the president’s agenda. Right now, the president seems politically vulnerable.
Conservatives continue positioning themselves for a run a presidential run. None have the national platform Jindal possesses at the moment. Mitt Romney is the front runner—but is out of office and struggling to stay relevant. Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin, and a series of others are second tier candidates struggling to find their voice and a message to run on.
The Louisiana governor has an opportunity to cement his legacy by handling the Gulf oil spill prudently. He can create a legacy of “courage under fire” like Rudy Giuliani did while handling the aftermath of 9/11. Term limits kept “America’s Mayor” from pursuing a third term and halted his political momentum years before he could pursue a presidential run. Jindal won’t have that problem. He will continue serving in office after this momentous event and can build a political platform that expands upon his reputation as technocrat-in-chief and crisis manager. His ability to handle this environmental disaster will stay in people’s minds and offer a sharp contrast to the way Obama handled the situation. His is a message that says: Government can work. I am a conservative that knows the limits of government and will rule accordingly. I will handle the challenges thrown with the same tenacity that I demonstrated during the oil spill.
The Louisiana governor will offer a fresh face and a new vision for the Republican Party. The GOP lost its way during the eight years of the Bush administration. Power corrupted the Right; Republicans betray their core tenets when they controlled Congress and the White House from 2001-2006. 2009 was the year of the Tea Party. Conservative activists went around thumping their chests and extolling their principles. Meanwhile, back in Baton Rouge, Gov. Jindal tackled the challenges facing his state. He remained out of sight for most of the year. Now, a natural disaster has put him back in the national consciousness. His management of this crisis has won him many new fans. This is his second chance. This opportunity will allow him to rehabilitate his image and gives him the opportunity to situate himself for a presidential run in 2012. This is his moment to shine.