This week, the Obama administration has attempted to make a break from BP, keenly aware that mounting American anger at BP's handling of the oil spill could begin to threaten its own standing, as well.
So far, the separation has been mostly symbolic and rhetorical. The federal government has not seized any authority from BP in the company's efforts either to contain the gushing well or protect shorelines and wildlife from its impact.
But it ceased joint news conferences this week, sending the message that the government was no longer interested in presenting a unified front with BP. And cabinet officials – with President Obama in the lead – have taken any opportunity to express their outrage at BP's inability to contain the slick.
It is a difficult balancing act. Politically, Obama needs to distance himself from BP. Legally, his administration needs to investigate the company and not only pursue civil and possibly criminal charges related to the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, but also to press for BP to pay every cent of the cleanup. It sent a $69 million bill to BP Thursday.
But practically, Obama still needs BP, which has technology and offshore-drilling know-how that the federal government does not have, and is therefore better placed to stop or contain the leak than is Washington.
Comments Thursday by Obama's incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, suggest that behind-the-scenes cooperation is continuing. But this week offered the first signs that the strain of public frustration is beginning to tell within the Obama administration.
"It looked like a good idea at the beginning for [BP and the government] to stand shoulder to shoulder, but it put their spokespersons in a box after a while," says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, a corporate public-relations consultant, in Louisville, Ky. "It's hard to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who's screwing up – and you're talking about how they're screwing up. It gets awkward."
BP a political liability
For example, BP's early flow estimates turned out to be dramatically low. The company has insisted that its kerosene dispersant is not creating underwater plumes of emulsified oil – despite reports to the contrary from some US scientists. And BP essentially ignored an Environmental Protection Agency mandate to change from that dispersant to a less toxic and more effective alternative.
More recently, reporters have complained that BP is calling the shots at polluted sites along the Gulf Coast, shooing the media away from scenes that could further hurt BP's corporate image. "This is BP's rules, not ours," a CBS news crew was told recently.
The Coast Guard denied that it was taking orders from BP. "Neither BP nor the US Coast Guard, who are responding to the spill, have any rules in place that would prohibit media access to impacted areas, and we were disappointed to hear of this incident," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Rob Wyman told the Washington Post.
Such awkwardness has led to a garbled and inconsistent message from the White House so far, says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "The administration and BP seem to have done a remarkably poor job of showing the efforts they're putting into the cleanup and the stoppage," he says.
The administration's new tone
In part to change that dynamic, Allen on Thursday promised a "frank discussion" with the American people about the spill. Holding his own press conferences is a part of the administration's new efforts to appear more assertive and independent, says public-relations consultant Mr. Smith.
"When you have to be cooperative, it's hard to take charge," he adds.
Yet Allen refused to take the media's bait and repudiate BP entirely. "When I deal frankly and openly with [BP CEO Tony] Hayward and make a request, I get an answer, and when I ask for action, it is taken."
Allen points specifically to his request for "live video feeds from the well, technical briefings about things like dispersant plans associated with the failed 'top kill' maneuver, questions about logistics, ordering booms and how fast they get there, how we coordinate and … create unity of effort" as examples of BP's responses to his requests for action.
For its part, BP said it is not trying to manage what the media sees, pointing to 400 reporter ride-alongs to see the spill and the efforts to contain it as examples of its good faith.