Analysis: Obama making more promises on oil spill

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June 16, 2010
— President Barack Obama's vow to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than before the oil spill sounds familiar. It eerily echoes President George W. Bush's pledge after Hurricane Katrina to rebuild New Orleans "higher and better."

Bush wasn't able to keep that 2005 promise. And Obama probably won't be able to keep his either.

If Americans were looking for details on how Obama would meet such goals and a plan for action, they didn't get much from the president's first speech to the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday.

He used the address to try to assure people that he has a plan for a problem that didn't exist two months ago, to suggest that this crisis proves he was right about energy legislation and that, in spite of all of this, he hasn't forgotten that recovery from recession is still his job No. 1.

Part of Obama's predicament may be of his own making. He has consistently set high expectations for his own performance, first in his presidential campaign and now in office.

But his eagerness to take "responsibility" has run into a wall of reality with three crises that defy easy resolution: an ocean floor oil gusher neither BP nor government scientists can stop, a nearly decade-long war in Afghanistan that Obama can't seem to end and a fragile economic recovery that isn't creating new jobs.

In each instance, Obama has responded by balancing expressions of hope with cautions that the road ahead is a long and difficult one.

But patience is running short.

A majority of Americans 52 percent disapprove of how Obama has handled the spill, up significantly from last month when many more Americans were reserving judgment, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

Heading toward fall elections that will determine who controls Congress, the administration and lawmakers are attempting to deflect as much political blame for the spill as possible.

Obama's choice of the Oval Office for Tuesday night's prime-time address to the nation was a piece of presidential stagecraft designed to emphasize the seriousness of the situation, while projecting strength and engagement. It was an attempt to show him fully in charge and sympathetic to people along the Gulf Coast and to try to counter any remaining impressions of aloofness and detachment.

"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," Obama told the nation.

The day before, Obama said during a stop in Alabama, "I am confident that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before."

Obama used a large portion of his speech to promote his energy legislation, which encourages a "transition away from fossil fuels" and a transition to clean energy.

Republicans immediately accused Obama of trying to use the crisis to build support for new taxes on carbon-based fuels that contribute to climate change.

Even some Democrats called the speech a missed opportunity to send a message of competency and urgency.

Presidents have long used the Oval Office format in times of crisis. Bush spoke from the Oval Office on the night of Sept. 11, 2001. Ronald Reagan used the Oval to talk about the space shuttle Challenger explosion. John F. Kennedy spoke from there about the Cuban missile crisis. Richard Nixon announced his resignation from the famous room.

Obama was swept into office on promises of change.

As a first-term senator representing Illinois, he promised to be different. He sought to raise confidence in what government could do and campaigned against the failures of his predecessor.

He took particular aim at Bush's handling of Katrina, scoffing at the Republican president's promise to "do whatever it takes" to help New Orleans.

Obama's presidential campaign was a model of efficiency, innovation and bold can-do gestures, and he continued to raise expectations in office by putting forth an overflowing agenda from antirecessionary stimulus spending to health care overhaul, financial overhaul, major energy and education legislation.

He said passage of his health care bill was proof that government "could still do big things." And success seemed imminent on his proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of financial regulation. Then came the oil spill.

After a fitful start dealing with the spill, Obama has worked intently to convince Americans that he and his administration are in full control in the response and were from the beginning. He has taken responsibility for stopping the leak and for the cleanup.

The oil spill is "almost impossible to control from the presidency," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. "But you can certainly react to it and respond to it and try to crate ways to mitigate its impact, at least financially. And I think he's done that."

But Obama might be trying too hard to show he's in charge, said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "I think the amount of fault on his part is limited. So why suddenly start taking the blame for what government doesn't do or hasn't done in the past or shouldn't do?" asked Hess.

Still, Obama has increasingly found himself on the defensive as he faces growing public anger over the spill. In the nearly two months since the disaster, BP and government scientists have failed at nearly every effort to plug the well.

If it's any solace to the president, disapproval of BP's handling of the spill is now up to 83 percent. That suggests that Americans have someone other than their president to blame.


EDITOR'S NOTE Tom Raum covers economics and politics for The Associated Press.

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