Plucky Louisiana governor takes on White House and wins

HOUSTON Fri Jun 4, 2010 6:03am BST

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - Midway through a news conference to lambaste the Obama administration for dragging its heels on approving a plan to fight a massive oil spill on Wednesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal chalked up a political victory.

Standing at a podium in Venice, Louisiana, an aide handed Jindal a piece of paper informing him that the White House had approved to a plan requiring BP Plc to spend $350 million (239 million pounds) to build five barrier islands. The sand islands hopefully will shield the state's fragile coastline from an onslaught of oil.

Over the past few weeks, the barrier islands have become a flash point between the White House and Jindal, the 38-year-old son of Indian immigrants with national political ambitions.

With criticism of President Barack Obama mounting, Jindal has buffed his political credentials by vilifying both London-based BP and the Obama administration, political analysts said.

"Our federal government does not need to be making excuses for BP," Jindal said during the news conference, only moments before he received word that the White House had approved his request. "Every day they make us wait, we're losing our battle to protect our coast."

After Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana in 2008, the Oxford-educated Republican governor proved his mettle as a savvy crisis manager who could reel off detailed information on the number of ice bags and power generators on hand.

Now the oil spill has allowed Jindal to display his grasp of fine details while portraying both BP and Obama as ineffectual, said Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media and Opinion, a Baton Rouge polling firm.

"Jindal has clearly run circles around (Obama) in being out in front on the issue," Pinsonat said. "You can see the tread marks all over Obama, up and down his back."

THE POLITICS OF DISASTER

Hurricanes and other natural disasters have been the downfall of more than one U.S. politician. A fumbling response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has been cited as the political undoing of Jindal's Democratic predecessor, Kathleen Blanco. Former President George W. Bush also was roundly criticized for reacting too slowly to Katrina.

"I guess the only one who wasn't paying attention to that episode was Obama," Pinsonat said.

Political analysts mention Jindal as a possible presidential candidate in coming years and see him as the Republicans' answer to Obama: a smart politician who can appeal to younger voters.

But as he seeks to work with Washington now, critics are reminding him of a March 2009 address in which he said: "There has never been a challenge that the American people, with as little interference as possible by the federal government, cannot handle."

Jindal's political career has not always been smooth sailing, although recent polls showed his support buoyant at over 60 percent. In 2009, Jindal's high-profile response to Obama's first State of the Union speech was panned as off-mark.

In taking a confrontational tone towards the White House, Jindal appeals to conservative voters who distrust Washington, said Robert Hogan, an associate professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

"He's been dogged with this (barrier island) issue and has utilized it to his advantage," Hogan said. "Now that the federal government has cried uncle, where does he go next?"

Jindal likely will shift his focus towards extracting funds and aid from BP, Hogan said.

The prediction seemed to bear true on Thursday when Jindal heaped criticism on BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward for making "idiotic statements" in various media about wanting "my life back."

Hayward has since apologized for the statements and on Thursday said BP will clean up "every drop" of oil.

Such apologies were little solace for Jindal, who used the word "idiotic" three times to describe BP during a news conference in Grand Isle.

"Let me just be blunt, they sound idiotic to us," he said. "I'm sorry for inconveniencing him. I don't know what he'd be doing. Maybe he'd be on a summer vacation."

For Louisiana residents, Jindal's strategy appears to be a winner.

"Everybody is rallying around the governor," said Mike Frenette, the head of the Venice Charter Boat and Guide Association. "His pleas and demands and concerns are about as truthful as you can get."

(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Bill Trott)

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