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Obama struggling to show he's in control of oil spill

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010; A01

A defensive President Obama sought Thursday to quell doubts about his handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, insisting that his administration has been "in charge" from the moment it began and bristling that critics who accuse it of being sluggish to react "don't know the facts."

But at times during a 63-minute news conference in the East Room of the White House, the president seemed to undercut his own argument. He enumerated a litany of fumbles and lapses: that the government lacks resources and "superior technology" to respond to the disaster; that he personally had assumed oil companies "had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios"; that his administration "fell short" with its acceptance of BP's inaccurate estimate of the size of the gusher; that reforms of the corruption-plagued government agency that oversees offshore drilling "weren't happening fast enough."

At one point, Obama said he did not know whether Elizabeth Birnbaum -- the director of the Minerals Management Service he blamed for allowing the oil industry to overrule environmental and safety concerns -- had resigned or been fired hours before.

The news conference marked a sharp departure in tone from the first days after an oil rig explosion caused the spill, when the White House seemed determined to fix the blame and keep the public outrage directed at the oil company involved. "In case you were wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility," Obama said Thursday. "It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down."

This is the familiar Obama: resolute and in charge. But six weeks after the spill began, those words seemed to highlight the difficulty he has had in convincing the country that he is on top of the situation. As oil continues to foul the gulf, the conflicting signals coming from the president and his team have imperiled his reputation for competence and coolness in the face of crisis.

Only three weeks before the explosion, Obama had proposed opening up 167 million acres to offshore oil exploration, as a means of finding more oil and more votes on Capitol Hill for comprehensive energy and climate legislation. In defending that plan, he had cited advances in drilling technology that he said made it significantly safer than it had been in the past.

White House aides say that as oil continued to spew from the floor of the gulf, the president -- who described himself as "angry and frustrated" -- privately expressed dismay about the faulty assurances he received from the oil industry that exploration was safe. "For so long, we didn't have accidents in the gulf, and we took the oil and gas industry maybe a little too much at their word," said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Obama announced new steps that he said would help "ensure that a catastrophe like this never happens again." Deep and far-reaching reform will come, he promised, after a commission he is appointing finishes a six-month investigation of the causes of the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig and measures that might have prevented it.

In the early weeks after the rig sank, polls showed the public saw a clear villain -- BP -- and approved of the administration's approach to the situation, which emphasized ensuring that the oil company would bear the cost of stopping the spill, cleaning it up and repairing the damage. Some in the White House were so confident of their ability to stay ahead of the crisis that they welcomed comparisons with George W. Bush's bungling of the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But the latest surveys show that public confidence in Washington's handling of the spill has dropped sharply. And there has also been a fraying of what had begun as a relatively smooth working relationship among the government, BP, and state and local officials in the region. "The president has not been as visible as he should have been on this," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told Politico, "and he's going to pay a political price for it, unfortunately."

Gulf Coast residents are furious; images of the oil's sheen on the water have given way to ones of black beaches and dead animals.

On cable news broadcasts of Obama's news conference, he had to share the screen with a live shot of that painfully familiar underwater pipe spitting out brown gunk.

Even as the president laid greater claim to the handling of the disaster, he distanced himself from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's frequent boast that the administration has a "boot on the neck" of BP.

"I think Ken Salazar would probably be the first one to admit that he has been frustrated, angry and occasionally emotional about this issue, like a lot of people have," Obama said. He added: "I would say that we don't need to use language like that."

Indeed, Obama seemed most sensitive to suggestions -- made with increasing frequency by such critics as Democratic strategist James Carville -- that the oil company is calling the shots.

BP is the "responsible party," with access to resources, technology and expertise that the government lacks, Obama said. But all its actions, he insisted, are done "under our supervision, and any major decision that they make has to be done under the approval of Thad Allen, the national incident coordinator."

Although he acknowledged that the government's performance before and since the spill began has been far from perfect, Obama insisted that it should not be faulted for lack of effort. "This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred," he said, and later added, "We are relying on every resource and every idea, every expert and every bit of technology, to work to stop it."

Obama spoke of the toll the crisis has taken on him, an unusual turn for a president who is sometimes faulted for being too intellectual and aloof.

"This is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about," he said. He cannot escape questions about the spill, even at home. As he was shaving Thursday morning, he said, 11-year-old daughter, Malia, peeked in and asked, "Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?"

Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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