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

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; A15

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

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."

"Come on, Jackie, I don't know," Obama said with a smile.

He also retreated from the tough talk his administration has used on BP. Asked about the White House's vow to keep its "boot on the neck" of BP, Obama replied: "I would say that, you know, we don't need to use language like that."

Yes we do! And we need tough deeds to match the tough talk.

Louisianan James Carville exploded Wednesday on "Good Morning America" about Obama's "political stupidity" in the spill. "He could be commandeering tankers and making BP bring tankers in and clean this up. They could be deploying people. . . . It just looks like he's not involved in this. Man, you got to get down here and take control of this."

Instead, Obama rhetorically took the boot off BP's throat. His Republican critics like to call him a socialist, but in this case he hasn't been enough of one.

True, Obama needs BP's technical expertise to plug the leak. But questioner after questioner at the news conference pressed the president on why he doesn't take on BP. "How do you explain that we're more than five weeks into this crisis and that BP is not always doing as you're asking?" inquired the AP's Jennifer Loven. NBC's Chuck Todd skipped the usual "thank you, Mr. President" before asking, "Why not ask BP to simply step aside on the onshore stuff?"

In reply, Obama was passive.

"If BP's contractors are not moving as nimbly and as effectively as they need to be, then it is already the power of the federal government to redirect those resources," he argued. "I guess the point being that the Coast Guard and our military are potentially already in charge."

Potentially in charge? Maybe it's time to put them actually in charge.

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