NPR logo Crisis Control: Obama's Oval Office Address Is Key


Crisis Control: Obama's Oval Office Address Is Key

As thousands of barrels of oil a day from a damaged BP well continue to despoil waters off the Gulf Coast, President Obama has launched an aggressive effort to turn a growing political liability into a gain.

A two-day, shirtsleeves trip to the Gulf Coast. A renewed push for a comprehensive energy bill on Capitol Hill. A planned face-to-face meeting with BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and CEO Tony Hayward.

Monday, the president toured a facility in Theodore, Ala., where workers are repairing oil booms. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Monday, the president toured a facility in Theodore, Ala., where workers are repairing oil booms.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

And, most significantly, his first-ever prime-time Oval Office address to the nation Tuesday, when he will attempt to assure angry and alarmed Americans that he's on top of the eight-week-old environmental and economic catastrophe, and that BP will be held financially accountable. The address is scheduled for 8 p.m. EDT.

It's an ambitious political gambit for a president who has faced stiff criticism over his leadership since BP's deep-water-drilling rig exploded off Louisiana's shores, killing 11 workers and spewing oil into Gulf waters.

But most politicos and presidential scholars say that Obama, who early in his presidency characterized offshore drilling as crucial to the nation's energy policy, has an opportunity to salvage the issue — and his political reputation — even as efforts to cap the well continue to fail, and oil has begun hitting the coastline.

Make It Real

"The first thing I hope he accomplishes Tuesday night is to make very clear to the American public the dimensions of this catastrophe — the feel, the smell, the touch of it," says Joseph Persico, a presidential historian and former speechwriter for Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

"What I also hope is that he sends the message that we're fed up and we're not going to take it anymore," says Persico, who wants to see "less of the law professor and more of the outraged leader."

Near Grand Isle, La., on Monday, a pelican flies low over oil-fouled waters. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Near Grand Isle, La., on Monday, a pelican flies low over oil-fouled waters.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's a criticism that has been repeatedly leveled at the characteristically contained president as the disaster has continued, and as reports emerged about BP's past safety problems, its low estimates of the leak's dimensions, and a perception that the company — not the administration — was driving the leak response.

"It was pretty obvious by Week 4 that delegating to BP was not working," says presidential historian Lara Brown, "and the administration was getting blamed." It's still difficult to believe, she adds, that president hasn't yet met with BP's CEO (Obama's face-to-face with Hayward is scheduled for Wednesday).

The White House Monday indicated that it has taken a more muscular approach with BP, announcing that the British petroleum firm would establish a multibillion-dollar fund, overseen by a third party, to pay for future economic damages caused by the oil disaster. The company is already obligated to pay cleanup costs.

That move, and others by the administration in recent days, suggest to Brown that the White House is finally in tune with the expectations of the American public.

"When something like this happens, Americans say to themselves, 'if I were president, this is what I would do,' " says Brown, a Villanova University professor. "Most of it is about rolling up your sleeves and digging into the problem while marshaling as much command and control of the government as a president can."

Democratic strategist James Carville, a Louisiana native who in recent weeks has been angrily calling for Obama to step up more forcefully on the issue, said Monday that the president has the opportunity to "hit the reset button" with his new effort.

Oval Office Message

The president, in choosing the Oval Office as a setting for his televised speech, has given the oil spill the imprimatur of a serious crisis. Presidents in the past have used the setting to, for example, announce war, respond to national tragedies like the attacks of Sept. 11, and, in the case of Richard Nixon, to resign.

Obama is expected to focus largely on the road ahead: what the administration is doing to hold BP financially accountable, what it is pursuing in the form of energy legislation, how it is working with agencies to minimize the possibility of similar disasters, and an inventory of work the government has undertaken to help residents of states affected by the leak.

"It's a good time for an Oval Office speech," says political scientist Mary Stuckey of Georgia State University. "The oil hasn't fully hit yet, and the criticism of him — while growing — is not really loud yet."

But don't expect Obama to cloak himself in feel-your-pain emotions.

"We probably overestimate the extent to which a president's rhetoric and manner of presentation makes a difference," says Fred Greenstein, Princeton University professor emeritus of politics and author of The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama.

But this week the White House clearly has decided that the president needed to double down on that manner of presentation and to, as Persico says, "get in that bully pulpit, use it and take the opportunity to turn adversity to advantage."