Obama tours Gulf Coast while following failed NYC bombing

President Obama visited the Gulf coastline on Sunday, emphasizing that BP was responsible for the massive oil spill but that his administration would do everything possible to respond.
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010

VENICE, LA. -- Driving through the marshy lowlands southeast of New Orleans on Sunday, President Obama got his first glimpse of the fallout from a huge oil spill moving in from the Gulf of Mexico -- an event that has teetered on the verge of crisis as the administration has rushed to demonstrate the situation is under control.

But even as Obama visited a Coast Guard station and took a helicopter tour, another near-disaster was unfolding in New York, after a car packed with explosives smoldered in Times Square on Saturday night. That left Obama little choice but to open his remarks in Louisiana with a statement on Midtown Manhattan -- delivering a discordant message on twin crises that were unrelated except by timing.

"We will do what's necessary to protect the American people, to determine who's behind this potentially deadly act, and see that justice is done," Obama said of the attempted car bombing as he stood in a parka in front of a Coast Guard cutter on a rural estuary.

The moment underscored the very nature of the presidency, which is unpredictable and always requires juggling multiple major events simultaneously. But it also demonstrated how challenging it has been for Obama to get his timing right. By the time he reached Louisiana -- 12 days after the initial oil-rig explosion and just two days after the White House insisted Obama had no plans to alter his schedule and go -- the focus of most headlines had shifted to the next day's news, in this case a potential terrorist attack four miles from Ground Zero.

Even without unexpected calamities, Obama is managing as many touchy subjects as he has at any point in office. He is preparing to pick a Supreme Court nominee and has begun, by several accounts, inching toward a decision. He is planning to host Hamid Karzai, the sometimes difficult Afghan president, in Washington next week.

He is also pressing for financial regulatory reform on Capitol Hill and keeping close watch over a new immigration law in Arizona, with his Justice Department leaning toward taking action. He spoke with the Greek prime minister Sunday about the country's new economic reform program.

For a White House that was focused on health care for many months, it has seemed, at moments, as if the floodgates have opened.

"You come to expect the unexpected," David Axelrod, his senior adviser, said in a phone interview Sunday. "This is what he signed up for. And he's certainly had enough experience in the last year and a half to know that it is what you expect." Axelrod added: "You have to have a lot of bandwidth."

The busy schedule is such that Obama canceled a planned trip Wednesday to New Jersey, with the economy the subject. But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the logistics of going both to Louisiana and northern New Jersey were too difficult to manage, given how much complicated advance work the Sunday trip required.

In between Obama spoke at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on Saturday night -- with an interruption, at 10:45 p.m., for an update on the car-bomb situation in New York.

Obama was briefed on that matter again Sunday morning by his top terrorism adviser, John Brennan, as they flew by helicopter from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base. Upon landing in Louisiana, Obama spoke with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) about the incident during his two-hour motorcade drive to the Coast Guard station in Venice, a town that is expected to feel the direct impact of the oil slick soon after it hits the coast.

Once he arrived, Obama received an hour-long briefing from Coast Guard officials, including Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is overseeing the federal effort. Afterward, Obama visited with several local fishermen, updating them on the attempts to stop the oil spill and also protect the estuaries and prevent environmental damage.

Obama assured the fishermen that the government will provide ample resources and also hold the oil company, BP, responsible for all compensation. One of the most concrete accomplishments of the trip, Gibbs said afterward, was having the Coast Guard commandant, Allen, talk to local parish presidents about streamlining compensation from BP and help from the federal government.

Many comparisons have been made over the past few days between Obama's response to the oil spill and that of President George W. Bush to Hurricane Katrina, which was widely criticized as too slow and poorly planned. White House officials have rejected the comparisons between the two situations, saying -- one is an environmental threat and the other led to the destruction of much of New Orleans and the loss of thousands of lives.

But on Sunday, Gibbs said. he was "happy to compare the response."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company