He came, he saw, he ate shrimp. Can he conquer? Tonight will tell. President Obama's fourth trip to the Gulf Coast, beginning Monday morning in Gulfport, Mississippi, and wrapping up Tuesday afternoon in Pensacola, Florida, has been one part charm offensive, one part listening tour and one part training session. His 24-hour visit to assess the impact of the spill on local economies and the latest on cleanup efforts will no doubt provide background for his address tonight from the Oval Office -- the first of his presidency.
But whether Obama can succeed in laying the case for the federal government's competency in handling the spill -- and use this to push for a comprehensive energy reform bill in Congress -- remains to be seen. On Monday in Mississippi, Obama threw down the gauntlet, saying, "I promise you this: Things are going to return to normal. And in the end, I am confident that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before." Tonight's speech will be pivotal in determining whether he can gain the confidence of the public. (A new poll shows most Americans believe he hasn't been tough enough on BP.)
Obama's trip has provided him with experience that will come into play tonight. He has now seen firsthand the claims process in action: In Mississippi on Monday, Obama hinted at an expected White House announcement regarding BP's establishment of an escrow account -- run by an independent third party -- that will pay out claims for damages resulting from the spill, saying, "We're gathering up facts, stories right now so that we have an absolutely clear understanding about how we can best present to BP the need to make sure that individuals and businesses are dealt with in a fair manner and in a prompt manner."
On Tuesday morning, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced that the federal government would take over management of the claims process from BP if the company did not set up an independent entity to do so. Gibbs said, "The best way to prevail upon BP is to take the claims process away from BP." The energy company's officials, including chief executive Tony Hayward, will meet with the president at the White House on Wednesday to presumably put the icing on this arrangement -- which the president will no doubt make note of in his address tonight. Senior White House officials on Tuesday night did say, however, that the president would not specify who the third party is until after his meeting with BP officials.
Obama can also speak directly to the spill's impact on the regional economy. In Theodore, Alabama, on Monday afternoon, he announced "a comprehensive, coordinated, and multiagency initiative to ensure that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat." He did his best to lead by example, spending a good part of the day sampling local cuisine. (In Gulfport, Mississippi, it was mini crab cakes and fried shrimp, in Orange Beach, Alabama, there were crab claws and crawfish tails, and in Pensacola, Florida, it was a stop at the Fish Sandwich Snack Bar.)
Also in Florida on Tuesday, Obama outlined additional steps that would be put in place to aid local businesses, including naming local deputy incident commanders for each state affected by the oil spill. The president explained, "This is designed to make sure that on the federal response we are able to work and make decisions at a local level in response to the suggestions of people who know the communities best and know the waters best." On Tuesday evening, a senior White House official added that Obama would also announce a long-term plan for restoration of the gulf, determined by local officials and community leaders.
To those who have criticized Obama's lack of involvement in the spill effort, the president can claim some success in his speech tonight, having now spent hours empathizing with local officials and business leaders about the effects of the disaster. As Mayor Tony Kennon of Orange Beach, Alabama, said: "I feel like he understood our pain, the sense of urgency we have down here. But more importantly, he understood that this runs deeper than money. This is a culture, a way of life down here that is being threatened. And the only way to know that is to get down here and see it firsthand."
Criticized for showing a lack of emotion over the spill, Obama used strong, combative rhetoric at a speech Tuesday at the naval air base in Pensacola to describe the government's response to the spill, saying: "This is an assault on our shores and we're gonna fight back with everything we've got. And that includes mobilizing the resources of the greatest military in the world." He channeled the soaring language of speeches past, promising: "Make no mistake: The United States of America has gone through tough times before. And we always come out strong. And we will do so again. This region . . . will thrive again."
Finally, several hours before the president's speech on Tuesday night, the White House announced the appointment of Michael Bromwich to head the Minerals Management Service bureau. The appointment, made after the resignation of MMS head Elizabeth Birnbaum, comes amid broad criticism regarding regulatory failures within the federal government, which may have contributed to the BP disaster.
According to the official press release, Bromwich, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Justice Department inspector general, "will develop the plans for a new oversight structure, replacing long-standing, inadequate practices with a gold-standard approach for environmental and safety regulation." Senior White House officials said that the president would make note of Bromwich's appointment as proof of long-term planning to ensure that a disaster on the scale of the BP spill will not happen again.
Despite these proactive measures, on some "big ticket" items, the president will still face an uphill battle tonight. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the gulf cleanup "effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials, as well as BP. As a result . . . the damage to the coastline and wildlife has been worse than it might have been if the response had been faster and orchestrated more effectively." The article outlines numerous failures on the part of the federal government, especially in the areas of contingency planning, risk assessment, disaster response and coordination.
Obama will have to fend off this latest round of arrows in his address as he makes the case for his handling of the spill, which he has characterized as a "slow-motion disaster." Whatever its speed, tonight's speech will be critical in determining how soon Obama and his administration will be able to outpace the catastrophe.
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