Obama Takes Responsibility For Gulf Oil Spill

President Obama heads to the Gulf Coast on Friday to inspect the damage caused by the oil spill. In the 37 days since the rig exploded, killing 11 people and sending a continuous stream of oil into the ocean, Obama has been under pressure to take charge. The president announced several steps on Thursday to address the fallout.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene, in for Steve Inskeep.

In the Gulf of Mexico, it's still not clear whether BP's latest effort to cork the leaking oil well is going to work. BP says the answer could come over the weekend.

MONTAGNE: Throughout our program this morning, we're reporting on the spill, its impact on the environment and on the people living along the Gulf Coast.

President Obama flies to Louisiana this morning to inspect the damage. Yesterday, he defended the administration's efforts in dealing with this disaster.

NPR's Mara Liasson begins our coverage.

MARA LIASSON: The president announced several steps to address the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf and the political fallout. He extended his moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling for another six months. He accepted the resignation of Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the Minerals Management Service, and he held his first solo press conference in 10 months. The goal of the president's appearance in the East Room was to send the message that the buck stopped with him, and to correct the impression that his government wasn't doing enough to stop the oil from coming ashore.

President BARACK OBAMA: The purpose of this press conference is to explain to the folks down in the Gulf that ultimately, it is our folks down there who are responsible. If they're not satisfied with something that's happening, then they need to let us know.

LIASSON: But the public disapproves of the president's response to the spill. Louisiana's Republican Governor Bobby Jindal has complained bitterly about the lack of timely assistance from Washington as the oil oozes on to his state's shores and marshes. Even the state's Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu said the president hasn't been visible enough, in that he would pay a political price for it.

Yesterday, the president said the frustration was understandable, and he acknowledged that some cleanup resources could've been deployed better.

Pres. OBAMA: Even if we've got a perfect organizational structure, spots are going to be missed. Oil's going to go to places that maybe somebody thinks it could've been prevented from going. There's going to be damage that is heartbreaking to see.

LIASSON: But even while the president acknowledged mistakes, he was adamant that he and his government were doing everything they could. Those who think that we were either slow in our responses or lacked urgency, he said, just don't know the facts. Asked whether he regretted his announcement three weeks before the spill to expand offshore drilling, the president said he still thinks drilling is necessary, at least until the U.S. can transition away from fossil fuels. But he did back away from comments he made before the accident that oil rigs generally don't cause spills.

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. Now, that wasn't based on just my blind acceptance of their statements. Oil drilling has been going on in the Gulf, including deepwater, for quite some time. And the record of accidents like this we hadn't seen before. But it just takes one for us to have a wake-up call.

LIASSON: And that's why the president said he's asked his oil spill commission to come up with a plan to make sure something like this never happens again. Mr. Obama was asked the question that's been on the minds of many in Washington and Louisiana: Would the BP spill turn into Obama's Katrina, the politically damaging equivalent of the natural disaster that helped undermine the presidency of George W. Bush? Mr. Obama sidestepped the questions about Katrina, saying he would leave it to others to make those comparisons. The former president's political adviser Matthew Dowd knows just how a natural disaster poorly handled can be a president's undoing, as it was for George W. Bush.

Mr. MATTHEW DOWD (Political Consultant): That was basically the tipping point of the problem, and he never recovered after that. It was not wholly Katrina, but Katrina was the tipping point of it. The question is: Is this a tipping point in that basically people no longer trust the president to be able to do things competently and well? I don't think it's that point, but I think the White House is probably worried about that.

LIASSON: The problem for President Obama, says Dowd, is that now, five weeks into the spill, there's just not much the president can say anymore to make a difference.

Mr. DOWD: Maybe at the beginning of it, statements and more activity and more passion and all of that would've been helpful for him politically. At this point in time, since the well has been spewing out oil and now it's damaging the eco system of Louisiana, I don't think anything but fixing the problem and cleaning up the mess and showing he can do that well will fix this political problem that's developed for him. So no words, no press conferences, no trips, none of that at this point in time.

LIASSON: President Obama heads to the Gulf today, his second visit to inspect what government scientists now say is the largest oil spill in U.S. history. And BP says it won't know till this weekend whether its latest attempt to cap the underwater well has been successful.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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