The US president gets tough over the oil spill crisis but still faces mounting criticism.
Even by the standards of the 58-day-old gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, it was a rollercoaster 24 hours for United States President Barack Obama.
Television viewers saw the president criticised for failing to rise to the occasion of his first Oval Office address and failing to take full control of the oil spill disaster.
By lunchtime in Washington, when news broke that the White House had wrested a $20-billion down payment from BP for an independent claims fund, Obama was on his way back, but it will be a difficult climb.
“That’s fine, but we asked for a six-month payment and they started to nickel-and-dime us to death,” Byron Encalade, leader of Louisiana’s oystermen, told MSNBC television on Wednesday in reaction to the deal. “We have to now make sure this fund is there. We have to make sure we have oversight of these funds.”
The deal itself came after three hours of discussions in the White House. It was the first time Obama had sat down face to face with the much-maligned BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, and the chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, despite the president having made four trips to the Gulf. The oil bosses were permitted by the White House to enter by a side entrance, allowing them keep the press—and any awkward questions—at a distance.
But Obama did not go so easy on them in extracting the $20billion from BP, which even the most ferocious critics in the Republican camp had to acknowledge was a win for the president.
“Absolutely, BP ought to be paying,” said Eric Cantor, a Republican member of Congress from Virginia.
But he said the federal government continued to fall short in deploying resources to fight the spill on the coastlines of the Gulf.
The rebound is crucial for Obama, who is struggling to assert his command over events in the Gulf nearly two months after the oil spill began.
Tuesday night’s strategy of devoting his first Oval Office address to his plan was widely criticised for failing to give the sense of occasion demanded by the environmental catastrophe.
The reaction from Washington commentators to Obama’s take-charge speech was brutal. “He looked awkward and robotic,” said Lynn Sweet, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times who has chronicled Obama’s rise since the early days.
“Obama said the right things for the situation, but deeds and accomplishments matter, not words. For starters, the underwater gusher is either contained or it is not. And right now it is not,” she said.
Even fellow Democrats said Obama had failed to rise to the occasion. John Dingell, a veteran member of Congress from Michigan, said in a statement: “I was disappointed President Obama did not call for an increase in the liability cap.”
From the Gulf states on the frontline of the oil spill there was a qualified welcome of Obama’s characterisation of a battlefield approach to the crisis. “I certainly want to see that translated to the federal response on the ground,” David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana, told CBS television. “Unfortunately — there’s not the absolute sense of urgency among many of the federal agencies that is clearly required.”
Some suggested the White House may have inadvertently set Obama up for the negative response by relentlessly promoting the speech and his swing through Gulf states as a turning point. After all that build up, he failed to offer any new solutions to the spill, and frustrated environmentalists by failing to back proposals already on the table in the Senate for climate-change legislation.
“An Oval Office address is a terrible thing to waste and I think he wasted it,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for George W Bush. “It’s too late for Barack Obama.”
Some reports hinted that the White House would try to make up for the lack of specifics on energy and climate change by coming out with a new push for legislation next week.
Environmentalists had been looking to Obama to make a strong push for climate-change proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put a price on carbon—proposals that are currently stalled in the Senate. But Obama made no specific reference to the Bill and did not utter the words “global warming” or “climate change”.
But Republicans still accused him of trying to exploit the crisis to advance his energy agenda. “Somehow he thinks he can use the tragedy in the Gulf as a reason to pass cap-and-trade,” said James Inhofe, the Oklahoma senator who has dismissed global warming as a hoax. “There is no relationship between the oil spill and cap-and-trade.”—