Obama To Address Nation On Oil Spill

President Obama is set to deliver a prime-time address on the Gulf oil spill Tuesday night from the Oval Office. Michele Norris talks to NPR's Mara Liasson.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

President Obama woke up this morning in Pensacola, Florida, not far from the troubled waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The BP oil spill poses a looming threat to the region and the president met with military personnel and toured beaches with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen and Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Mr. Obama said he would hold the BP energy company responsible.

P: I want every businessperson here in Florida to know that I will be their fierce advocate in making sure that they are getting the compensation they need to get through what is going to be a difficult season.

NORRIS: Later this evening, President Obama will take this issue to the nation in an address from the Oval Office. Joining us to anticipate that speech is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, what should we expect to hear the president say tonight?

MARA LIASSON: I think you're going to hear him lay out his plan for going forward. If that press conference he had a couple weeks ago was all about accepting blame for what had gone wrong and the deficiencies in the federal response, this is going to be about what happens next, how to make sure this kind of spill doesn't happen again, how to contain the oil, how to restore the Gulf environment to its prior state.

And you're going to hear him give more details about this new streamlined claims process that he wants to set up, funded by BP, administered by an independent body that would make people and businesses who suffered economic damages from the spill whole.

I think he has two big challenges tonight. One is to show that he's on top of this and, at the same time, he has to lower expectations for any quick and easy solution.

NORRIS: Seems the venue here is very important. This is the first time the president will use the special platform of the Oval Office. We have not seen him in that kind of historic or even more intimate setting. What are the stakes for him and why did they choose to do this in the Oval Office at this moment?

LIASSON: The Oval Office is where presidents go when they speak about big crises. That's why he's there tonight. The stakes for him are very high. Presidents are judged by how they respond to crises, the things they can't anticipate or control. And although President Obama's approval ratings have held pretty steady through the spill, they haven't changed much, the public does disapprove of his handling of the oil spill.

And I think his image as a strong and effective leader is at stake. So is the public's trust in the basic competence of government. It's very difficult because the government has so little power to control this or fix it immediately. But what people want in a crisis is immediate government action, even people who are otherwise skeptical of government intervention.

NORRIS: Given the stakes, does it make sense for President Obama to try to widen this discussion beyond the spill and beyond the Gulf and even oil itself, to talk about the overall problem of energy, the global issue of climate change when the country is so fixated on what's happening in the Gulf and holding BP responsible?

LIASSON: Well, you know, there are people - some people believe that if you have a problem that's difficult to solve, make it bigger. And I think tying this crisis to the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel is something that the president has decided to do. I think you'll hear him talk about it tonight. He wants to use the spill as leverage for a climate bill. And while the spill does underscore the need to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels, foreign and otherwise, the details of a bill and how to get bipartisan support for it remain very, very difficult and there is a risk.

He's going to put a lot of presidential attention and capital into finding the votes for this bill. He's going to spend less time talking about jobs and the economy, which is still the number one issue for voters, as you know.

NORRIS: Now, we will no doubt hear a lot of reaction after the speech from Republicans and other critics of the president. Do we have a sense of what they might be saying?

LIASSON: Well, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell went to the floor today. He gave a prebuttal of the president's speech. He says the president has failed to unite the country in the wake of this crisis. He said to the president, stop the spill and clean it up but don't use the crisis to push for a new energy tax, which is how Republicans described the cap and trade bill. So, I think you'll hear more of that.

NORRIS: All right, thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

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