THEODORE, Ala. — Kicking off a week of high-stakes maneuvering around an oil slick threatening to bog down his first term, Barack Obama returned to the Gulf Coast on Monday, touring the oil-stained waters by boat and warning of hard times to come, but touting the region's continued viability for tourists.
"There's still a lot of opportunity for visitors to come down here; a lot of beaches that are not yet affected or will not be affected," Obama said after a meeting with Republican governors Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana in Gulfport, Miss. "And we just want to make sure that people who have travel plans down to the gulf area remain mindful of that, because if people want to know what they can do to help folks down here, one of the best ways to help is to come down here."
That balancing of boosterism and acknowledged tragedy is not the only delicate calibration facing Obama this week, as he plans a first address to the nation about the disaster from the Oval Office tonight and prepares to meet face-to-face with BP leaders on Wednesday after his trip through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Many Americans may want Obama to be harder on BP, but many others are alert to any hint of antibusiness sentiment amid high unemployment.
The administration must pressure BP to repair lives, business and wetlands — but not so hard as to put it out of business, leaving behind a whopping cleanup and compensation bill.
"You don't want this horse to collapse in the middle of the race," said Fadel Gheit, an energy analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. "You want a healthy BP, not a crippled one."
The president's visit, the fourth since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, comes amid mounting calls, even among allies, that Obama appear more in command. It also comes amid mounting pressure on BP, from both the administration and Congress, to do more to fix the well and compensate the victims.
The administration has taken a more aggressive stance toward the company of late, announcing Sunday that it hopes to force BP to create an escrow account to fund compensation claims.
For much of the past two months, the focus of the response to the spill has been a mile underwater, 50 miles from shore, where successive efforts involving containment domes, "top kills" and "junk shots" have failed, and a "spillcam" shows tens of thousands of barrels of oil hemorrhaging into the gulf each day.
Closer to shore, the efforts to keep the oil away from land have not fared much better, despite a response effort involving thousands of boats, tens of thousands of workers and millions of feet of boom.
From the beginning, the 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, officials and experts say, 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 present system is not working," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said last week at a hearing in Washington devoted to assessing the spill.
"The information is not flowing," Nelson said. "The decisions are not timely. The resources are not produced. And as a result, you have a big mess, with no command and control."
BP's cleanup operation includes more than 100 companies and has already cost $1.6 billion, but has drawn criticism.
Cleanup workers on Queen Bess Island, La., have been spotted trampling pelican nesting grounds and tossing around pelican eggs.
In remarks on the coast Monday, however, Obama refrained from chastising BP.
A significantly more fiery reception may await BP CEO Tony Hayward on Thursday, when he appears before a House panel investigating the company's actions before the April 20 well blowout that killed 11.
BP directors met Monday in London to explore a number of options, including the possibility of deferring a $10.5 billion dividend to shareholders.
In a letter to Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. Watson, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the company had revised its oil-capture plans to allow it to collect more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day by the end of June.
The company has been collecting about 16,000 barrels per day from the broken well using a containment cap that funnels the oil to a processing ship. But federal experts have estimated that the well has been spewing at least 40,000 barrels and up to 88,000 barrels per day.
Information from the Tribune Washington Bureau and the New York Times was used in this report.