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Obama's oil spill response: Too much culpability, too much passivity

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By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

For eight years we had a president who refused to accept blame. Now we have one who seems to enjoy it.

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In the hour President Obama spent at the podium in the East Room last week holding a news conference on the Gulf oil spill, he practiced every form of self-flagellation short of bringing out a cat-o'-nine-tails.

"The culture had not fully changed in MMS" -- the agency that polices oil drilling -- "and absolutely I take responsibility for that," he said. "There wasn't sufficient urgency."

The administration, he explained, "was in the process of making these reforms. But the point that I'm making is that obviously they weren't happening fast enough. If they had been happening fast enough, this might have been caught."

He decorated the East Room with wuddas, cuddas and shuddas: "We should have busted through those constraints. . . . pre-deploying boom would have been the right thing to do . . . I do think our efforts fell short. . . . They should have pushed them sooner. . . . I think that it took too long. . . . Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together."

No wonder Americans are growing dissatisfied with his handling of the spill. Even his daughter holds him responsible. "When I woke this morning and I'm shaving," he said, "Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?' "

"In case you were wondering who's responsible," he added, "I take responsibility."

That's very clear, sir. But why not share some with the guys at BP who actually are responsible for the spill?

In a sense, it's refreshing to have a president who is candid about shortcomings. Yet Obama's news conference may have been the weakest hour of his presidency.

As I sat in the fourth row on Thursday, I was struck by the weirdly passive figure before me. He delivered lawyerly phrases and spoke of his anger about the oil spill but showed none in his voice or on his face. He was, presumably, there to show how aggressively he has handled the disaster, but he seemed cool, almost bloodless.

CBS's Chip Reid asked about the resignation hours earlier of Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the MMS, or Minerals Management Service. "I found out about her resignation today," Obama replied. Interior Secretary "Ken Salazar has been in testimony throughout the day, so I don't know the circumstances in which this occurred."

An incredulous Jackie Calmes of the New York Times wanted to know "how it is that you didn't know about Ms. Birnbaum's resignation/firing."


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