White House Criticized For Moving Slowly On Spill

President Obama went to the Gulf Coast Sunday to see in person the effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That spill could become the biggest environmental disaster to hit the U.S. coast. Obama's administration is facing some criticism for not moving quickly enough to respond to the disaster.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama's visit to the Gulf Coast over the weekend reminds us that this is a political situation, as well as an environmental disaster. The administration is facing some criticism for not moving quickly enough to respond to an oil spill in the Gulf. Joining us now, as she does most Mondays, is NPR's Cokie Roberts.

Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Some people are asking if this disaster is President Obama's equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. Is that a fair comparison?

ROBERTS: Well, the White House has rejected that comparison, but - in saying that one was a devastating natural disaster where hundreds of people were killed, this other's an environmental hazard. But, look. It's in the Gulf region, so that invites comparisons. And the way each of them unfolded with the news getting worse and worse over the course of days also makes you think of the Katrina disaster.

The administration says, look, this is BP Oil's problem. But also, they want to show that there is a government response, which is, of course, why the president went yesterday.

It is interesting to me, Steve, that some of the people who are calling for that response - including Louisiana's Republican governor and one of the senators - are the same people who've been saying the federal government does too much these days. So, you know, it all depends on where you're sitting.

INSKEEP: Also, we've got a dilemma, I suppose, because the people who've been saying drill, baby, drill - the president's critics are now the people who would be criticizing him for the response to this.

ROBERTS: Well, that's right. In fact, for this to come right after the president had talked about drilling - opening more offshore drilling - is a problem for him politically. And one thing we do know is that public opinion -which has been strongly in favor of drilling, we historically have seen shifts away from that after an oil spill.

But, you know, the president is now trying - he had his Secretary of Interior, Homeland Security, Thad Allen from the Coast Guard out assuring everyone yesterday that the government is doing everything - the Department of Defense, Interior, Environmental Protection, NOAA, along with the Coast Guard, 1,900 federal workers out there. So they are really trying to get out the story.

INSKEEP: And what does this spill mean for this region to which you have very close ties?

ROBERTS: It's actually heartbreaking, Steve. Today is the inauguration of the new mayor in New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. And - excuse me - that's been designed as a celebration of the city coming together: blacks and whites, an interfaith ceremony at St. Louis Cathedral.

But now you've got this looming question of how is this going to affect the economy, and - which is coming back after Katrina. It's already affected the fishing. 60 percent of the fisherpeople had returned after Katrina, but now it's already stopped.

And some analyses of the possible economic impact are absolutely devastating. That's the reason, by the way, that this government study of the accident is so important, because we did learn after Katrina the fact that the levies failed was a man-made cause. And people have been able to collect money as a result of that. So a study in the cause of this accident will be terribly important to the people of the region.

INSKEEP: Do people along the Gulf Coast have a big of a love-hate relationship with the energy industry?

ROBERTS: Well, sure, because a lot of people work in the energy industry and need it to survive and have good pay and good lives. But then when you have something like this, you've got the tremendous danger to the fisheries, to the beaches, to - and some analyses say to the whole country, that if the spill gets into the Gulf Stream, that the whole country can be affected.

INSKEEP: So will the oil industry become the new bad guys, replacing perhaps the finance industry?

ROBERTS: Well, I think oil and energy as a whole - don't forget the mine disasters that we've just had in West Virginia and two people killed in a Kentucky mine. I think that you could be starting to see the energy industry as the new bad guy, particularly as the oil companies are making record profits and the administration is stressing their responsibility.

Secretary Salazar said yesterday that we have to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum. It could have an impact on the energy bill that has been languishing in the Senate, Steve. So, you know, the affect of all of this is really going to be a long time assessing.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. Always a pleasure to hear from NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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