Obama White House still trying to get BP oil spill right

There’s been an improvisational tone to the White House response to the BP oil spill. But given the magnitude of the disaster, that may have been inevitable.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
President Barack Obama walks with Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change, and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen in Louisiana last month. Adm. Allen’s assignment as national incident commander has heightened the sense of “adult supervision” over the federal government’s response to the spill.

Nearly eight weeks after an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico launched the worst environmental disaster in US history, President Obama is still calibrating his response.

The president now says he’s trying to figure out “whose a** to kick” for the BP oil spill, after weeks of criticism for not appearing angry enough over the mess. Next Monday and Tuesday, President Obama will return to the Gulf to survey disaster response and meet with residents and officials in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, his second visit in a little over a week and fourth overall since the spill began.

And on Wednesday, the White House will receive senior BP executives for a meeting, at the administration’s request, after previously defending Obama’s decision not to speak directly with BP CEO Tony Hayward. It’s not clear if Mr. Hayward himself will attend the meeting.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

All these moves suggest an improvisational tone to the White House response; critics call it slow and reactive. But given the magnitude of the disaster – and the continuing upward estimates of the oil flow into the Gulf – that may have been inevitable.

“Almost no one believed in the first days after the explosion that we would be two months into this thing with marginal control over the wellhead,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “They recognized that it was a big deal to which they had to respond early, but they did it in a technocratic way, really, for the month, five or six weeks, even.”

It is Obama’s wont to approach a problem methodically, to devise a strategy and then execute it. But as time went on, and popular reaction heightened, the White House clearly decided that Obama needed to step up his public strategy. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen’s assignment as national incident commander has also heightened the sense of “adult supervision” over the federal government’s response to the spill.

“It may not change the trajectory of this a great deal, but you want to know that a guy like Thad Allen rather than some of the White House crew is actually calling the day to day shots,” says Mr. Jillson. “I think that gave [Obama] a little bit more time.”

The federal government is still getting better grades than BP for its response to the spill – but it’s all shades of negative.

Some 81 percent of Americans rate BP’s response negatively, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released June 7. The federal government gets a 69 percent negative rating, a month and a half after the spill began. That’s worse than the 62 percent negative rating the federal government got two weeks after hurricane Katrina in August 2005, per ABC News.

Obama’s pressure on BP to defer its quarterly dividend to shareholders appeared to bear fruit, as the online edition of the Times of London reported Friday that BP will defer a payment of $2.5 billion in second-quarter dividends until it has determined its full liability from the Gulf disaster. The dividend money is to be put in escrow in the meantime, the Times reported, citing unnamed sources. BP officials have not publicly confirmed the report.

Obama is scheduled to speak with the new British Prime Minister, David Cameron, on Saturday, amid British concerns that Obama’s tough talk is hurting BP’s financial stability. On Monday, the board of BP meets to discuss whether to suspend or reduce its scheduled dividend.

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