Obama’s Oval Office moment: Now he owns Gulf oil spill

President Obama will address many audiences in his Oval Office speech tonight – from Gulf Coast residents to BP to Congress. His goal is to show that he has a handle on the Gulf oil spill.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama greets military personnel at Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., Tuesday. The visit was part of Mr. Obama's tour of the region affected by the Gulf oil spill.

Fresh off a two-day tour of the Gulf Coast, President Obama will use the solemnity of the Oval Office tonight to convey a sense of moment as he outlines a multidimensional plan for dealing with the BP oil spill – and the future of US energy policy.

Mr. Obama faces many audiences tonight: the people of the Gulf Coast states directly and indirectly affected by the disaster; the nation as a whole, which has watched in horror for weeks as oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico; the British energy giant BP, which faces a multibillion dollar price tag for cleanup and restitution; and Congress, which Obama wants to move toward action on energy legislation.

At heart, this Oval Office moment – the first such address of Obama’s presidency – means that Obama now owns the oil spill disaster. BP still comes in for more public blame than Obama for how it has been handled, but as president, Obama enjoys more levers of power. Now, the challenge is to reassure the American public that he has a handle on the situation, and that there’s a workable plan going forward.

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

Obama intends to discuss several points in his speech tonight:

  • A plan for an independently administered escrow account, funded by BP, that will handle claims against the company. Details of the fund are still being worked out, as BP seeks to limit its liability. Senate Democrats are demanding $20 billion. Obama will meet with BP executives in the White House on Wednesday.
  • An update on containment and cleanup in the Gulf. BP on Monday announced a plan to increase the rate of oil capture from 630,000 gallons a day now to 2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons a day by mid-July.
  • A restoration plan for the Gulf Coast region. In a speech to US military personnel in Pensacola, Fla., Tuesday, Obama promised to deliver the help needed “to protect this beautiful coast and to rehabilitate the damaged areas, to revitalize the region, and to make sure that nothing like this happens ever again.”
  • Plans to reform the regulation of offshore drilling.
  • A push for Congress to pass energy legislation before the end of the year, focused on supporting renewable energy and dropping the focus on climate change.

A so-called “cap and trade” regime, aimed at reducing carbon emissions, is likely not to be included in any Senate bill, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota, a top member of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee said Tuesday.

In his speech at Naval Air Station Pensacola, in the Florida panhandle, Obama summoned Americans’ sense of exceptionalism in addressing all the nation’s challenges – Iraq, Afghanistan, and economic distress, in addition to the Gulf disaster.

“As Americans, we don’t quit,” Obama said. “We keep coming. None of these challenges we’re facing are going to be easy. None of them are going to be quick, but make no mistake, the United States of America has gone through tough times before and we always come out stronger. And we will do so again."

Republicans didn’t wait for Obama’s speech, scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern time, to react. Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, the top House Republican, put out a statement Tuesday warning against inclusion of cap and trade in energy legislation, which opponents view as a tax.

“President Obama should not use this crisis as an excuse to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses,” Congressman Boehner said. “Americans want the president focused on stopping the leak and finding out what went wrong, not on twisting lawmakers' arms on Capitol Hill to pass more costly, job-killing legislation.”

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on the return trip from the Gulf Coast, Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton dismissed Boehner’s comment: “I think that no matter what we say, Republicans will continue to have their opinions.”

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


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