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Obama Pressed on ‘Who’s Running Show?’ in Gulf Spill

Obama Pressed on Oil Leak
U.S. President Barack Obama is facing pressure on his actions to handle the BP oil spill. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama faces growing pressure from fellow Democrats who say he should take stronger action to stem the BP Plc oil spill that has been fouling the Gulf of Mexico for more than a month.

“It’s inexplicable,” Louisiana native James Carville, a Democratic consultant who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said today in an interview. “Why do we still not know how much oil has been pumped out? Why did it take us over 30 days to get the pictures? Who’s running this show?”

Obama on May 27 will announce new permitting procedures for oil rigs and tougher inspections to ensure safety and environmental rules are being followed, an administration official said on the condition of anonymity before the official announcement. That’s the day the president is scheduled to receive a report from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the cause of the BP spill.

Later this week, Obama will make his second visit to the region since a rig drilling a well for London-based BP exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off the spill that’s hit Louisiana shores and threatens Florida and the East Coast. He is “still frustrated” that the leak remains out of control, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday.

Taking Charge

What’s missing is a sense that Obama has taken charge, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

“Obama has yet to have his ‘bull horn’ moment on the Gulf catastrophe,” said Brinkley, a professor at Rice University in Houston, invoking the image of President George W. Bush speaking to New York firefighters after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The more the images of oil in marshlands, and dead birds washing ashore, the angrier the American people are going to get,” Brinkley said. “Largely, it’s been directed toward BP. But as the weeks turn into months you can feel, almost on a daily basis, the public’s furor start heading toward the White House.”

A poll released today by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found a public critical of the administration as well as BP. It found 26 percent of those polled rated the administration’s response poor and 31 percent called it “only fair.” The poll said 31 percent gave the administration an “excellent” or “good” grade.

The administration says it’s taking a tough line toward BP and won’t rest until the well is capped and the mess cleaned up. Obama has ordered a bipartisan commission to investigate the spill and take steps to ensure a similar disaster won’t happen again.

Largest Response

“This is the largest incident response to an oil spill ever in the history of the United States,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters at a news conference in Louisiana yesterday. “We have over 22,000 personnel working on this spill; literally hundreds of thousands of feet of boom have been laid. There are over 1,000 vessels that are on the water.”

Administration officials have emphasized both that they are pressing BP to perform and that they are depending on the company because only it has the equipment, expertise and legal responsibility to stop the leak and repair the damage.

Salazar repeated yesterday that the administration intends to “keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum” and that he would “push them out” if company workers didn’t perform effectively.

Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral who is coordinating the federal response, contradicted that yesterday, saying that pushing BP aside isn’t practical.

Pushing BP Out

“To push BP out of the way would raise a question: to replace them with what?” Allen said at a White House briefing. BP is “exhausting every technical means possible” to deal with the leak, he said.

The dependence on BP has raised the ire of Democrats such as Donna Brazile, a political consultant and commentator.

“The Obama administration is following BP’s lead and not pressing them harder on contingency plans that should have already been in place,” she said in an interview. “It’s past time the Obama administration put all hands on deck in helping BP cut off the massive oil spill, contain what is gushing to our shoreline, clean up the mess and compensate those impacted immediately.”

Brazile, who is from New Orleans and was Democrat Al Gore’s campaign manager in the 2000 presidential race, said the commission examining the spill also should look at “how the administration handled this catastrophe.”

‘Too Little’

Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, standing alongside Salazar and Napolitano yesterday in Louisiana, described the federal government’s response as a “disjointed effort” providing “too little, too late to stop the oil from hitting our coast.”

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist, said he foresees political dangers for Obama unless the White House mounts a more vigorous response.

“In some part, because of the slow-motion nature of the crisis, the government was never really on top of, or driving, the response,” Lehane said in an interview. “In fairness, the government really had no choice but to let BP take the lead, given they were there, had the equipment and seemed to have plans.”

So far, Obama has relied largely on surrogates, such as Allen, Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Brinkley said.

Who’s In Charge?

“It’s unclear who’s in charge, there are six agencies holding press conferences every day,” Walter Isaacson, historian and president of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington, said in an interview.

The administration is acting “like the only issue is capping the well,” Isaacson, a New Orleans native, said. “But they’ve got to be mobilizing the cleanup.”

Charlie Cook, a Washington-based political analyst, said it’s “hard to imagine any president” emerging from such a disaster unscathed.

“It’s more a question of how bad they are going to look, how much damage will be done, and whether they handle it competently,” Cook said.

The White House likely will need to recalibrate its response, Brinkley said.

“If the well is not capped this week, the president has to get into a new kind of leadership zone, because we’re looking at maybe two to three months of that oil gushing out,” Brinkley said. “A truly national catastrophe and not an industrial accident.”

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