WASHINGTON — President Obama uttered three words yesterday that many of his 43 predecessors twisted themselves into knots trying with varying degrees of success to avoid: “I was wrong.’’
He strode into the East Room to mount a robust defense of his handling of the largest oil spill in American history, reassuring the nation that he was in charge and would do “whatever is necessary’’ to stop and clean up the
He was wrong, he said, to assume that oil companies were prepared for the worst as he tried to expand offshore drilling. His team did not move with “sufficient urgency’’ to overhaul regulation of the industry. In dealing with BP, his administration “should have pushed them sooner’’ to provide images of the leak, and “it took too long for us’’ to measure the size of the spill.
“In case you’re wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility,’’ Obama said as he concluded the news conference. “It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen right away or the way I’d like it to happen. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to make mistakes. But there shouldn’t be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.’’
The mix of resolve and regret served to erect a political berm that advisers hope may contain the damage from a five-week-old crisis that has challenged Obama’s presidency.
Amid deep public frustration and criticism from both sides of the political aisle, the president sought to assert leadership in response to a slow-motion disaster emanating from a mile beneath the sea.
As part of that effort, he announced a series of measures to rein in new offshore drilling sites, including extending a moratorium on new leases for deep water drilling and suspending already approved plans for exploratory drilling off Alaska and new leases off Virginia.
But critics were not mollified, and Republicans kept up their efforts to equate Obama’s problems in the gulf with President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A Web video posted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee spliced Obama’s own “never again’’ words about Katrina together with liberal commentators demanding that he do something about the oil spill.
“And he just looks like he is not involved in this,’’ James Carville, the Democratic strategist and television pundit, said from Louisiana in the video. “Man, you got to get down here and take control of this and put somebody in charge of this thing and get this thing moving. We’re about to die down here.’’
Obama brushed off the Katrina comparisons, arguing that the government has made “the largest effort of its kind in US history’’ and was in charge of BP’s response.
“Those who think we were either slow in our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts,’’ he said. “This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred.’’
Indeed, he said, he too is “angry and frustrated’’ about the spill, and constantly thinks about it.
As he shaved yesterday morning, he said, his 11-year-old daughter, Malia, popped into the bathroom. “Did you plug the hole yet?’’ she asked.
Still, there were uncomfortable echoes of Katrina. Just as Bush cast aside Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Obama addressed reporters just hours after Elizabeth Birnbaum, his director of the Minerals Management Service, resigned under pressure.
Just as Bush was criticized for being on vacation in Texas when Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Obama has been criticized for golfing, fund-raising, and, on last night, heading to Chicago for a holiday weekend while oil laps up in the marshes and beaches of Louisiana.
Obama will try to defuse that by interrupting his Chicago homecoming today for his second day trip to Louisiana. And he pointed a finger at the Bush administration for allowing the Minerals Management Service to get too close to the oil industry, citing an inspector general’s report on activity before 2007 “that can only be described as appalling.’’
But the president’s concessions of missteps were striking. Admitting fault, after all, is not a common presidential habit and happens only under great duress.
The passive voice has been a favorite technique.
President George Bush said “mistakes were made’’ during Iran-contra. President Bill Clinton said “mistakes were made’’ during campaign finance scandals. And President George W. Bush said “mistakes were made’’ during the firing of federal prosecutors.