In Fla., Obama visits troops, talks oil spill ahead of tonight's address

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; 12:47 PM

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- President Obama matched his tone to his audience Tuesday in speaking about war and the Gulf oil spill at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, using unvarnished martial language to describe the severe environmental threat facing the region and his administration's response.

"This is an assault on our shores, and we're going to fight back with everything we've got, and that includes mobilizing the resources of the greatest military in the world," Obama told a cheering crowd of naval airmen, Marines and others gathered in a hangar here.

The speech concluded his two-day swing along the Gulf Coast and served as a pivot to his Oval Office address Tuesday evening on what he described here as the "greatest environmental threat in our nation's history."

The spill is challenging an administration that prides itself on its cool competence, but Obama has struggled to manage both the practical aspects of the vast spill and the political ramifications for failing to do so. White House advisers say he will use the roughly 15-minute speech to outline the government's response and how he intends to proceed, including a push for a new national energy strategy.

The Gulf Coast visit, which included stops in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, has given Obama a look at some of the staging areas being used in the response. It also brought him in touch with local officials and business owners worried about the enormous slick offshore.

He traveled by helicopter, ferry and motorcade along a seaside highway bordering white-sand beaches, booms floating offshore along much of the route. He spoke hopefully to many of the people he met, delivering a variety of presidential pep talks, while also warning that the Gulf Coast faces "painful" times ahead.

"People have every right to be angry," Obama said here. "Those plumes of oil are off the coast. Fishing grounds are closed. Tar balls are coming ashore. And people are bracing for more."

This air station, among the nation's oldest, has been central to the oil spill response. Navy sailors and Marines have placed sand bags on the beaches, operated helicopters and skimmers, and even processed claims for damages.

Obama said his administration would do "whatever it takes for as long as it takes" to respond to the spill and ensure that those who have suffered financially are compensated. He said his role includes "making sure BP pays for the damage it caused."

"Because this isn't just an environmental disaster," he said. "For many families, it's an economic disaster."

After telling the audience that "I am with you, my administration is with you, for the long haul," Obama urged the military to continue with the same resolve in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military presence in Iraq is winding down, he said to cheers, while in Afghanistan the war plan that Obama adopted remains a work in progress.

Offering assurances as their commander in chief, he told the service members that since "you have taken care of us, we will take care of you."

He outlined a series of new military health and leave benefits that he has implemented since taking office. And while warning that he would "not hesitate to use force" to protect American interests," he said he would "not risk your lives unless it is necessary."

Obama said that "any one" of the difficulties facing the country -- from the pair of wars to the economic troubles to the Gulf spill -- would unnerve a nation.

Facing all of them, he said, has presented a special challenge that he told the audience he was confident they would meet.

"Our nation will emerge from these trials stronger than before," he said.

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