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Obama Tries to Avoid Katrina Comparison in BP Spill

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, speaks at the daily briefing in Washington, D.C., last year. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Obama administration is trying to head off criticism over its handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a two-pronged strategy: Showcasing every move in its response and pinning blame squarely on BP Plc.

President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, yesterday dismissed complaints from a Republican lawmaker as “badly informed,” and the White House released a 6,300-word compendium of presidential briefings, actions by Cabinet officials, and daily deployments of personnel, ships and booms.

BP, which leased the oil rig that exploded and sank to start the spill, is referred to as the “responsible party” five times in the White House document, a message that has been repeated by the president and his aides.

In the background are memories of Hurricane Katrina and the bungled reaction that dogged President George W. Bush.

“The White House rhetoric has been profoundly aggressive,” said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis-management strategist who heads Washington-based Dezenhall Resources Ltd. “What it tells you is the White House fears that Obama can be held accountable for this spill in the same way that Bush was held accountable for Katrina.”

While Bush’s ill-timed praise in 2005 for Michael Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for doing a “heck of a job,” came to define his administration’s inaction, this White House is seeking to define its response as keeping the “boot on the throat” of BP.

Putting on Pressure

A presidential adviser said the rhetoric is aimed at putting pressure on BP to cap the leak and act in good faith toward Gulf Coast residents.

BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward said on May 4 the economic cost of the spill would exceed the $75 million federal limit on damages, and told lawmakers that all “legitimate” claims would be honored. He said the company would “have the resources to deal with” the costs of the cleanup, which aren’t covered by the liability cap. The administration and some lawmakers support a “significantly” higher cap.

The House will consider raising the limit on damages to $10 billion, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said today. “This spill can do great ecological damage,” affecting fisheries and tourism, she said, adding that “this $10 billion goes a long way” to address such damage.

The Deepwater Horizon rig, which BP leased from Geneva- based Transocean Ltd., sank on April 22, causing three breaches in the well that have been leaking 5,000 barrels of oil a day. While the company stopped one of the leaks yesterday, the spill estimates haven’t changed. By the third week of June, the leak could surpass the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

From ‘Day One’

Administration officials say there has been a full-scale response since “day one” when the rig exploded on April 20. Still, a hastily assembled meeting of top advisers and a call to the president aboard Air Force One on April 28 to discuss a new breach in the well mark the moment of the response’s escalation.

Cabinet and White House officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, were gathered in the Situation Room for an update when Coast Guard representatives told them about the additional breach.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and Gibbs were pulled from a staff meeting to join the others in the Situation Room. Over the next several days, the president spoke publicly on the spill, Cabinet officials were dispatched to the Gulf Coast, and federal officials began to brief the press.

‘Pretty Good Job’

Obama told his advisers he wanted to travel to the area and was prepared to cancel his appearance at the May 1 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, advisers said. Personnel on the ground said it would be better if he visited May 2.

Former government officials, engineers who have studied the spill and crisis-communication strategists give the administration credit for its response so far.

“They’ve done a pretty good job,” said Admiral James Loy, former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and now a senior counselor at the Cohen Group in Washington. “I think it’s quite clear that the responsible party here is BP.”

The government’s response depended, in part, on information from the companies involved in the spill, which didn’t appear to know the magnitude of the problem right away, said Turgay Ertekin, a professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.

“I do not know whether the government itself could do anything else,” Ertekin said.

‘Slow to Respond’

Republican leaders yesterday criticized the administration’s actions, while questioning whether BP should shoulder all the blame.

Representative Mike Pence, the House Republican conference chairman, said the administration has been “slow to respond” with equipment. Gibbs called the Indiana lawmaker “badly informed.”

Marina Ein, a crisis communications strategist and president of Ein Communications in Washington, said the administration is likely to find itself on the defensive for inadequate regulations to ensure necessary backup for such a spill.

“It was stunning for most of us to read how little was in place to prevent this kind of a calamity,” she said.

Still, she said, the administration’s “acting tough and providing as much backup information as they can to the media and the public, I think, is doing the right thing.”

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