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With Katrina comparisons inevitable, Obama plans oil spill visit

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IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

After the White House said Friday the President will stick to his weekend plans, the sudden decision to travel to the Gulf is an acknowledgement that natural disasters are historically a key indicator of presidential leadership.

"You can see how people are putting a spin on this, calling it a very serious situation, but they won't use the word disaster," says Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.. "Yes, they don't want people to panic, but [it also] adds to the perception that our government … could care less about the American public."

The Deepwater Horizon is President Obama's first major domestic disaster, and the stakes are high as the spill threatens the fragile ecology and economy of the Gulf Coast. To be sure, Obama hasn't had a "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie!" moment that came to define the Bush administration’s outwardly out-of-touch response to hurricane Katrina.

(Bush visited the disaster zone five days after Katrina hit. If Obama arrives in Louisiana on Sunday, nine days will have passed since the Coast Guard announced the leak.)

Republicans in Congress have so far stayed criticisms of the White House response. And so far, the administration has pushed back hard against all such comparisons from the media.

"I guess I'd want to remember that 1,800 – more than 1,800 people died in Katrina," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "We were there ... right after the incident happened," he continued, referring to the oil spill. "This notion that somehow we're playing catch-up is badly uninformed."

Indeed, the federal response is now unprecedented, says Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen.

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