Barack Obama Retakes Center Stage. But Can He Stop The Spill?

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When it comes to the gulf oil spill, President Obama has been taking criticism from all sides: Democratic strategist James Carville has been shouting into cable news cameras for the president to man up and take control of the situation. The Governor of Louisiana says the White House can to do more. The American people, in opinion polls, are consistently voicing disapproval for Obama’s handling of the crises.

Then there is his daughter, Malia. “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?’” Obama offered this anecdote at the end of an hour-long press conference in which he repeatedly declared that “I take responsibility” for capping the underwater plume of oil, and minimizing the affect on wildlife. He also fought back against the suggestion that his government had failed to react. “Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts,” he said. “This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred.”

In the end, Obama described his own government’s efforts so far as frustrating, and he admitted, in part, to their initial futility. If, as he suggested, he has responded effectively but failed to solve the problem, there was no other explanation. “Every day I see this leak continue, I am angry and frustrated as well,” he said. He spoke of birds with oil on their feathers and dying turtles. “I grew up in Hawaii where the ocean is sacred,” he said.

He also, grudgingly, admitted to some mistakes. He said “our efforts fell short” in not initially demanding that footage of the leak be released publically by British Petroleum, which delayed an accurate estimation of the scale of the leak. He also admitted that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose work was praised by the president, had not moved fast enough to bring reforms to the Minerals Management Service. “If they had been happening fast enough, this might have been caught,” he said.

Obama’s intent was to place himself visibly back in the center of the crisis. He discussed in some detail the requirements of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and the complexities of drilling for oil through a mile of water and three miles of ear four miles beneath sea level. On Friday, he plans to visit the Louisiana coast for a second time, delaying a planned Memorial Day vacation to Chicago.

As a goal, the Obama strategy is politically sound. People want to see a president in charge, one who is candid about his own limitations. But none of it will count for much if the oil leak continues at this pace for another two months, as the incident commander Thad Allen has speculated it might. (Early signs are that the “top kill” effort to cap the leak was proceeding well on Thursday.) People want a president in charge. But a president in charge won’t matter much if his efforts continue to be a failure.