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With oil spill, White House struggles to assert control of the unknown

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Obama has also called in some of the many scientists on the federal payroll, led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Chu at one point pushed the unusual idea of using gamma rays to peer into the blowout preventer to determine if its valves were closed, a technique he experimented with in graduate school while studying radioactive decay.

The suggestion at first elicited snickering and "Incredible Hulk" jokes. Then they tried it, and it worked. "They weren't hot on his ideas," a senior White House official said of BP's initial reaction to Chu's suggestions. "Now they are."

The president has pressured other oil companies to step up. At a May 3 dinner at the White House with business executives, says one official who was there, Obama bluntly told Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson that he expected the entire petroleum industry to dedicate its engineering talent to fixing the spill and preventing others. It is a question of duty, Obama told him -- and also of the industry's own financial interest.

But Obama and his team are still feeling their way, and it is not at all clear what this vast marshaling of resources will accomplish. Despite all its efforts, the government is still depending on BP to plug the leak. That is not likely to happen until August at the earliest.

The administration is focusing many of its resources on the cleanup operation, which will continue for years, and on mitigating the effects on the environment, which could be felt for decades. The Coast Guard has taken over the enormous effort to restore oil-blackened beaches.

"There's the acute, and there's the chronic," Browner said. "We have moved very much into 'How do you manage this, a difficult situation, over an extended period of time?' "

Obama has at times expressed frustration that the government continues to rely on BP for basic information about the spill. He has insisted that Washington develop its own, more accurate estimates of how much oil is flowing out of the hole.

BP spokeswoman Anne Kolton said the company has tried to "give our best estimate" and to be "open and honest and transparent." Yet whatever trust there was between the administration and BP has seemingly all but disappeared.

The White House has worked to keep the focus of public anger on the company -- and with it, give reassurance that there will be consequences and restitution. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has launched criminal and civil investigations, and the government has presented BP with a first bill for $69 million in cleanup costs. On his visit to the region Friday, Obama warned the firm against "nickel-and-diming" people and businesses harmed by the spill.

Kolton said the company's relationship with the federal government remains one of "coordination and cooperation." Yet she acknowledged: "The frustration is growing on their part. It's growing on our part. It's growing on the part of the people in the gulf."

The White House has also prospected for political opportunity in the crisis. Obama has tried to direct some of the public outrage toward reviving climate-change legislation, a key part of his agenda that is suddenly showing glimmers of life in the Senate.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of drilling is no small concern in a region so heavily dependent on the oil industry.

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