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Obama navigates tricky task surrounding Gulf Coast oil spill

By Michael D. Shear
Saturday, May 1, 2010; 4:30 PM

As President Obama prepares for a Sunday morning visit to the gulf coastline, where a massive oil spill threatens environmental devastation, his administration faces the politically tricky task of appearing in control of the response while avoiding the blame.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 proved how debilitating a disaster can be for a presidency if the public perceives that the administration did too little -- either before the incident or after -- to protect people, the environment or the economy.

The gulf oil spill is no Katrina, in which 1,836 people died amid the near total devastation of one of America's great cities. In the case of the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 11 people perished, but the worst impact of the oil on animals and shorelines have yet to be fully felt.

Still, the Obama administration woke to the political dangers of the crisis Wednesday night, as oil company executives and government agencies in the gulf informed them of the changing nature of the accident. What had appeared at first to be a tragic but limited incident could grow to become one of the worst ecological disasters on the seas if the oil keeps leaking.

The White House had informed the media of an Oval Office briefing for Obama two days after the explosion at the rig. But, the change of circumstance Wednesday prompted a furious shift in gears at the White House, which reminded reporters of the president's personal attention late Wednesday, as he returned to Washington from a two-day trip to the Midwest. On Thursday, the government's most senior officials held a high-profile news conference at the White House to communicate that the administration was fully on the case.

But nothing says "I'm on the case" like a personal visit from the president. And so Sunday's trip, which was first discussed inside the White House on Friday morning, is a clear indication that the West Wing wants the country to see Obama at the helm of the response.

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton said the president will travel to the gulf on Sunday morning with a "very small footprint," suggesting that the White House is also aware of the downsides of such a trip.

The arrival of the president and his security entourage inevitably disrupts the activities at the scene. Some amount of pomp and circumstance is always required, which often appears jarring amid the somber work to battle the crisis. And as President George W. Bush discovered in 2005, the act of offering praise to the hard-working government employees can seem disconnected from reality if things are not going well.

And that is the problem for Obama right now: Things are not going well in the 11-day battle to contain the oil spill.

On the surface, efforts to contain the spread with booms is being hampered by rough seas and quickly changing winds. Below the surface, the problems are even more grave: Oil is continuing to gush out despite fail-safe mechanisms that were supposed to stop it, and potential solutions being considered by company executives and their government overseers have never been tried at these depths.

As a result, Obama's administration is being confronted with difficult questions about preparedness. Was the government in place quickly enough? Had regulators gone too easy on the oil company? Did high-paid lobbyists convince lawmakers and administration officials to weaken safety systems that might have prevented the crisis?

Unlike Katrina, there has been no obvious failures of government, no images to compare to the Superdome or the flooded streets of St. Bernard Parish. And unlike Katrina, there is an easy target for blame in the current oil spill: the oil giant BP, which by law is the "responsible party" and must pay for all of the costs of the cleanup.

It is also the case that the oil rigs in the gulf today were not approved by Obama's administration, and are the result of regulations and oversight that long predated Obama's arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But Obama is in charge now, and so the public's assessment of the outcome in the gulf will inevitably become an assessment of his performance. The White House knows that, and is working very hard to make sure the public knows everything it is doing.

Officials point out that Coast Guard and Navy vessels were on the scene of the explosion almost immediately. By the time the scope of the possible devastation was clear, they say, more than 16 agencies were involved in helping the company and state officials try and plug the leak and confront the environmental damage.

Obama sent several Cabinet members and other top officials to the Gulf to coordinate the effort. His EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were supposed to attend Saturday's White House Correspondent's Association dinner but will stay in the gulf instead to attend to the incident.

Will it be enough? That will likely depend on three things: how quickly the spill is contained and cleaned up; the extent of the devastation; and the answers to questions about government oversight of the oil industry in the months and years before the accident.

As White House aides attempt to shape the public's perception of the president's handling of the crisis, they must also deal with a parallel issue: Obama's announcement just last month that he would allow vast new areas of the country's coastline to eventually be opened to drilling.

In his announcement of the policy on March 31, the president glossed over the technicalities, describing his decision in broad strokes as a key part of the nation's energy security. This week, top aides sought to describe in detail the long, complicated procedures that are in place to ensure the environment is protected from expanded drilling.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters in his office Friday that it would literally be years before that new drilling takes place, and only after environmental studies and public hearings. And, he promised that whatever lessons are learned from the current crisis will be considered before any new rigs are built in the deep ocean.

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