Obama pledges to lead on Gulf

TV speech stresses what BP must do; cites oil disaster in climate bill push

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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WASHINGTON — President Obama vowed last night to make BP pay for the damage its oil disaster has wrought on the Gulf Coast’s people and environment, using a national address to assure an angry public that the victims will be compensated and the ravaged area restored.

In his first address from the Oval Office — an event that marked the gravity of the situation and Obama’s desire to show leadership on it — the president said he would insist that compensation be awarded by an independent entity, not controlled by the multibillion dollar oil company whose rig explosion killed 11 people, injured 17 others, and caused widespread economic and environmental damage to the coastal region.

“I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness,’’ Obama said, jabbing his finger in the air. He is set to meet chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and chief executive Tony Hayward for the first time at the White House today.

“Make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy,’’ he added.

As part of that effort, the president named Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi, to lead efforts on developing a plan to “restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region.’’

The president also announced a new head of the agency charged with regulating the oil industry, naming a former Justice Department official, Michael Bromwich, to revamp the Minerals Management Agency. The government entity has been attacked for being too cozy with the industry it is supposed to oversee, effectively letting oil companies monitor themselves and develop their own emergency plans for handling spills.

And Obama acknowledged that his decision a few months ago to expand offshore drilling may not have fully addressed concerns on safety, as he said he had been assured.

“That was obviously not the case on the Deepwater Horizon rig, and I want to know why. The American people deserve to know why. The families I met with last week who lost their loved ones in the explosion — these families deserve to know why,’’ Obama said.

A national commission will examine what safety and environmental standards are needed to make sure such a disaster does not recur, he said.

Obama sought to tie the spreading disaster with a need to reshape the future of energy in America, renewing his call for sweeping legislation. “The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now,’’ he said in a passionate appeal. “Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.’’

As he did in the health care debate, however, Obama offered few details of what he wants the legislation to include. And he did not specifically endorse the climate bill languishing in the Senate.

Senators John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, co-authors of the Senate climate change bill, hailed the president’s speech. “This could be a historic leadership moment,’’ Kerry, a Democrat, and Lieberman, an independent, said in a joint statement.

Kerry said he has not yet secured the 60 votes to overcome an expected filibuster of the legislation but is meeting with Democrats and Republicans to cobble the votes together. “We’re within striking distance,’’ Kerry said in a brief interview before the speech. “I think that what it’s done is, it’s rekindled in people the urgency of getting a strong energy policy. People are really rethinking, anew, of what the mix is to get it done.’’

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth, both environmental organizations, applauded the president for his stated commitment to go after BP.

Representative Edward Markey, Democrat of Malden and a leader in the congressional inquiry into the Gulf disaster, also commended the president. “I think he was persuasive in assuring the American people that he is going to make BP do everything within their power to seal off the well, clean up the Gulf, and to compensate the victims,’’ Markey said in an interview after the speech.

Republicans derided what they characterized as Obama’s slow response to the crisis. “It’s puzzling it took President Obama so long to address a waiting nation regarding a tragedy that he has compared to Sept. 11,’’ said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “While he spent two months searching for someone to blame, residents of the Gulf Coast have been searching for answers and looking for help.’’

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele accused Obama of trying to exploit the disaster to win support for an energy bill. “Manipulating this tragic national crisis for selfish political gain not only demonstrates President Obama’s inability to aptly lead our nation out of a disaster, but also reveals the appallingly arrogant political calculus of this White House,’’ Steele said in a statement.

Polls show the public is also questioning the president’s approach: 52 percent of Americans disapprove of how Obama is handling the oil spill crisis, according to an Associated Press survey released yesterday. That is nearly as bad as the 53 percent who were unhappy with President Bush’s handling of Katrina in November 2005, two months after the hurricane hit.

Much of the speech recapped efforts the administration has made — and the president has recently hailed — since the leak began and its promises that it would ensure that the region recovers, economically and environmentally. But with his prime-time remarks, the president sought to convey he recognizes the gravity of the situation, amid ever-higher estimates of the rate of gushing oil. The leak and the foundering response by BP and federal agencies have channeled a barrage of criticism at Obama, not only for the perceived lack of a coherent and unified response to the spill but also for his shifting positions on offshore drilling and, to some, his inability to connect with the public emotionally.

“Obama’s most admirable characteristic, grace under pressure, is also his greatest defect,’’ said William Leuchtenberg, a presidential scholar and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina. “He’s not able to convey that he really feels what it means to the jobless to be out of work, and this unhappiness with him in this regard has reached a peak on the response to the Gulf.’’

“I think he’s been getting this from all sides, and felt he had to speak out,’’ Leuchtenberg said.

Obama, who with quiet pride accepted the “no Drama Obama’’ moniker during his campaign, has avoided overtly dramatic displays of control as president. That absence of public emotion has, fairly or unfairly, made the professorial president appear detached, political specialists say.

“We certainly don’t want a boss or father or president or anchor person on the news who seems completely unengaged, or sees all problems as technical problems,’’ said David Perlmutter, a University of Iowa professor and a specialist in political communication. Still, “I don’t think we just want the crybaby in chief,’’ he said.

Susan Milligan can be reached at