Obama Takes New Steps To Deal With Gulf Spill

President Obama released his administration's 30-day environmental safety review of deepwater drilling on Thursday. NPR's Mara Liasson reports on how the administration has responded to the environmental crisis.

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Today, President Obama took a number of steps to address the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf as well as the political fallout. He extended his existing moratorium on deepwater drilling for another six months. He accepted the resignation of the head of the Minerals Management Service. And he held a rare press conference at the White House, where he tried to correct the impression that his government wasn't doing enough to stop the oil from coming ashore.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was there. She has this report.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama made it crystal clear why he was standing solo in front of the White House press corps for the first time in 10 months. There shouldn't be any confusion here, he said, the federal government is fully engaged and I am fully engaged. He even invoked his 11-year-old daughter.

President BARACK OBAMA: My job right now is just to make sure that everybody in the Gulf understands this is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about: the spill. The - and it's not just me, by the way. When I woke up this morning, and I'm shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?

LIASSON: The public seems to understand that only BP, not the federal government, can plug the hole. But Louisiana officials have been scathing in their complaints that more could've been done to stop the oil from reaching the shore. And that containment effort is, as the president said today, the federal government's responsibility.

In a new USA Today/CNN poll, 60 percent of the public thinks the government has done a poor job on the spill, 53 percent think the president has done a poor job.

Pres. OBAMA: Understandably, people are frustrated because, look, this is a big mess coming to shore. And even if we've got a perfect organizational structure, spots are going to be missed, oil is going to go to places that maybe somebody thinks it could've been prevented from going.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama did acknowledge some of the government's shortcomings. He admitted, for instance, that some clean-up resources could've been deployed better. But the president's task was to both acknowledge what Americans see on TV every day, while at the same time convincing them he and his government were doing all they could.

But on one crucial matter, the president gave the impression he wasn't on top of things. He said he didn't know whether the head of the Minerals Management Service, Elizabeth Birnbaum, had resigned or was asked to leave. Mr. Obama was also asked if he regretted his announcement just weeks before the BP spill to expand offshore drilling. On April 2nd, the president said this.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

Pres. OBAMA: It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.

LIASSON: Today, the president said he still believes offshore drilling has to be part of the energy mix until the U.S. transitions to alternative fuels. But he admitted he had changed his mind on some things.

Pres. OBAMA: Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.

LIASSON: And that's why the president said he wants his oil spill commission to determine how to prevent future spills before offshore drilling can begin again. As for his administration's performance, the president said he was confident it was doing everything it could as urgently as it can.

Pres. OBAMA: And when the problem is solved and people look back and do an assessment of all the various decisions that were made, I think people can make a historical judgment. And I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis.

LIASSON: Historians may eventually agree with President Obama, but right now people are making judgments about how he's handling the crisis in real time. Tomorrow, Mr. Obama heads to the Gulf to see the spill firsthand.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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