WASHINGTON – Thrown on the defensive, President Barack Obama acknowledged his administration could have done better in dealing with the biggest oil spill in the nation’s history and misjudged the industry’s ability to cope with a worst-case scenario. Obama will make his second tour of the battered Gulf Coast today.
“I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down,” Obama declared in a lengthy news conference at the White House on Thursday. As he spoke, well owner BP struggled anew to plug the blown well that exploded five weeks ago, killing 11 workers and sending millions of gallons of polluting oil gushing out.
Obama’s words marked a clear shift of emphasis for an administration that previously had said it was generally “in charge” but there were limits to what it could do – and that oil giant BP was responsible for stopping the flow and cleaning up the disastrous damage.
“Those who think we were either slow on the response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts,” said Obama, who also announced new restrictions on offshore drilling. Separately, Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the Minerals Management Service that oversees offshore drilling, resigned under pressure.
Obama’s move to take responsibility and accept accountability was a gesture few politicians are eager to make. But with each passing day, frustration with Obama’s administration has grown, and his poll numbers on the matter are dropping. The news conference and his trip to the coast represent a more aggressive public effort by the president.
New estimates Thursday showed the spill has already surpassed the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska as the nation’s worst.
The president announced new steps to restrict drilling, including continuing a moratorium on drilling permits for six months, suspending planned exploratory drilling off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and ordering a halt to 33 exploratory deep-water rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama’s news conference was his third this year, but just his first scheduled question-and-answer session at the White House since a prime-time East Room session in July of last year.
Even Democrats described Obama as defensive in his meeting with reporters.
“The president and White House are arguably facing their first crisis without a partisan foe, and that makes for difficult press conferences and unforgiving politics,” Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said.
Obama said he regretted not pushing BP sooner to release underwater video footage of the leak and not realizing that oil companies did not have “their act together when it came to worst case scenarios.” Though he said the government was giving the orders in the aftermath, he acknowledged that BP hasn’t always done what officials have asked, for instance ignoring directions to fully explore less-toxic alternatives to the chemical dispersant being used now on the oil.
Meanwhile, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said two different teams of scientists calculated the spill has grown to nearly 18 million to 39 million gallons over the past five weeks. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska in 1989, nearly 11 million gallons were spilled.
Thursday evening, BP PLC said it had resumed the pumping procedure known as a top kill. Officials said it could be late today or the weekend before the company knows if it has cut off the oil that has been flowing for five weeks.
Over and over, the president sought to counter criticism that the administration was giving too much leeway to BP PLC. “Make no mistake, BP is operating at our direction,” he said.