Obama seeks control of ‘heartbreaking’ crisis
FREMONT, Calif. – Struggling to seize control of a disastrous oil spill on his watch, President Barack Obama is rolling out tougher rules for oil rigs, accepting questions about his own leadership and heading back to the Gulf Coast to reassure the country of every effort to “put a stop to this thing.”
Even as the White House insists it has been engaged in halting the crisis since it began, Obama is raising his public profile in an attempt to show he is in command. He has been pounded not just by Republican critics but by Democrats as well as the mess spills into a sixth week of pollution and hard feelings.
Televised images of oil gushing from a broken underwater pipe have sent frustration levels soaring toward the BP oil giant and now the government, which is ill equipped to fix the problem the way many people want.
“We’re going to bring every resource necessary to put a stop to this thing,” Obama promised Wednesday in California, where his stop at a solar energy plant was overshadowed by the latest efforts to cap the leaking oil well. “But a lot of damage has been done already.”
He was referring to the real costs so far: 11 rig workers killed and mounting destruction to the environment, animals and the fishing-rich economy. But lurking is also the risk of political damage to any leader involved in the crisis, and chiefly Obama.
The government’s attempts to help stop the leak, contain the spill and provide aid to businesses have been intensive. But solutions are elusive.
As Obama put it himself during a fundraiser on his California trip: “Nobody is more upset than me, because ultimately, like any president, when this happens on your watch, then every day you are thinking, ‘How does this get solved?” In a separate money-raiser for Democrats the same night, Obama spoke more broadly about the public perception perils that come with his job: “People expect you to solve problems. And when things go wrong, they’re definitely going to blame you.”
Whether analogous or not, all federal disaster efforts are now seen through the prism of the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, one which took a devastating toll not just on the Gulf region but also on the public standing of then-President George W. Bush.
Polls shows that public attitude about Obama’s handling of the Gulf incident is turning worse. For the president, the next steps come Thursday.
He is expected to announce stricter safety requirements for offshore drilling and stronger inspection rules after getting the safety review he ordered from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The crisis began on April 20 when BP’s leased Deepwater Horizon rig caught fire and later sank.
Obama is also expected to take questions from a White House press corps that itself has grown frustrated by the shrinking number of presidential news conferences. He held 12 full blown news conferences last year. He has held two so far this year, and none since the oil spill began.
On Friday, Obama will head to Louisiana, the kind of hands-on visit that can lend a boost of support to the region’s people – and help the president too.
He last visited on May 2, when he talked of an ongoing, aggressive federal response to “a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.”
James Carville, the boisterous, Louisiana-raised political pundit from Obama’s own party, gave voice Wednesday to those who wanted Obama back sooner.
“I have no idea why they didn’t seize this thing,” Carville told ABC. “I have no idea of why their attitude is so hands-off here. It’s just unbelievable. I hope he sees it now.”
Obama has, in fact, been expressing dismay and citing his government’s efforts repeatedly. He stood in the Rose Garden almost two weeks ago, in just one example, to share the exasperation felt by people in the Gulf. “And let me tell you,” he said then, “it is an anger and frustration that I share as president.”
The difficult reality for the public to accept is there is only so much the government can do.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the official charged with heading the federal response to the spill, said the government can forcefully oversee the effort, but “BP or the private sector are the only ones that have the means to deal with that problem down there.”
That, in turns, leads to constant questions about who is in charge – ones that ultimately turn back on Obama. When it was a Cabinet secretary, Salazar, who appeared to raise the prospect that BP might be replaced if it could not do the job, Allen said to reporters seeking answers: “Replace them with what?”
Patience is about gone in Washington. Congress is holding five more hearings on the oil spill on Thursday alone, including four in the House.
As for the president, an AP-GfK Poll conducted early this month showed the public giving Obama a lukewarm endorsement for his handling of the spill, with 42 percent approving and 33 percent disapproving of his performance.
Polls in recent days, however, have shown people growing more negative toward the president and the oil company.
Surveys conducted last week by CBS News, CNN and the nonpartisan Pew Research Center all showed more people disapproving than approving of Obama’s handling of the spill, while those expressing negative feelings about BP ranged around seven in 10.
BP on Wednesday launched it latest attempt to plug the leaking well in the sea, forcing down dense mud in a maneuver known as a “top kill.”
Meanwhile, in California, Obama sought again to cast the crisis in personal terms, calling it “heartbreaking.” He also raised questions about the viability of deepwater drilling, citing the increased risks and costs of going after oil in a nation that long has come to rely upon it.
Feller reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Mark S. Smith, Matthew Daly and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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