Obama Addresses Disaster In Japan

The news from Japan prompted an early-morning wake-up call for President Obama. He was alerted at about 4 a.m., Washington time — and quickly offered assistance to Japan. The disaster also changed the script for a White House press conference Friday — which was scheduled to focus on rising gas prices.

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The news from Japan prompted an early morning wakeup call for President Obama. He was alerted at about 4 a.m. Washington time, then quickly offered assistance to Japan.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the disaster also changed the script for a White House press conference today, which was scheduled to focus on rising gas prices.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The president's news conference, which was supposed to start late this morning, was pushed back more than an hour. Mr. Obama telephoned Japan's prime minister to express condolences and offer any assistance that's needed. One American aircraft carrier is already in Japan, a second is on the way.

Mr. Obama said throughout the morning the White House kept close tabs on the tsunami as it made its way across the Pacific towards Hawaii and the West Coast of the mainland.

President BARACK OBAMA: Here in the United States, there hasn't been any major damage so far. But we're taking this very seriously and we are monitoring the situation very closely.

HORSLEY: The president said he's confident, with U.S. help, Japan will come back from this disaster stronger than ever. Mr. Obama was also asked about the fighting in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi's troops have been waging a counter offensive against rebel forces. Secretary of State Clinton is set to meet next week with opposition representatives and NATO is meeting on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone.

Pres. OBAMA: Across the board, we are slowly tightening the noose on Gadhafi. He is more and more isolated internationally, both through sanctions as well as an arms embargo.

HORSLEY: But even as Mr. Obama said all options are on the table in Libya, he expressed considerable caution about the use of military force. He said the U.S. and the international community have a moral obligation to try to prevent another massacre like the ones in Rwanda or the Balkans, but added, any commitment of American forces must be weighed carefully.

Pres. OBAMA: It's going to require some judgment calls and those are difficult ones. But we have sent a clear warning to the Gadhafi government that they will be held accountable, particularly when it comes to assaulting civilians.

HORSLEY: The unrest in Libya and the possibility it could spread to Saudi Arabia, have rattled oil markets and sent the price of gasoline climbing sharply. At the same time, consumer confidence has nosedived in the last month. Mr. Obama said he doesn't believe higher gas prices will derail the U.S. economic recovery. But he expressed sympathy for those families who are feeling the pain at the pump.

Pres. OBAMA: The American people feel this pretty acutely. I mean, you know, we can talk all we want in the abstract about world oil markets. What they're concerned about is, this is money out of my pocket.

HORSLEY: Republicans and the oil industry has seized on higher gas prices to call for more domestic drilling. And they've accused the Obama administration of deliberately squelching oil production. Here's Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Americans looking at the price of gas at the pump these days are justifiably upset. What they may not realize is that some in the administration are actively working to prevent us from increasing our own oil production here at home.

HORSLEY: The president denies that, noting domestic oil output last year was the highest in seven years.

Pres. OBAMA: So any notion that my administration has shut down oil protection might make for a good political soundbite, but it doesn't match up with reality. We are encouraging offshore exploration and production. We're just doing it responsibly.

HORSLEY: The administration did halt new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for months after last year's Deepwater Horizon spill. But it's slowly begun to issue new permits. Mr. Obama said today he's exploring prospects for additional drilling in Alaska and off the eastern seaboard. Even though he says stepped up oil production won't solve the country's energy needs in the long run.

Eventually Mr. Obama hopes to tackle the country's long-run budget challenges. But for now he's just trying to keep the government's lights on past next Friday. That may require another stop gap spending bill. Mr. Obama says that should be the last one.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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