WASHINGTON — Using his first Oval Office speech to underscore the severity of the gulf disaster, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday night to hold BP accountable for its "recklessness" and urged Congress to pass a broad energy plan to break the nation's dependence on oil.
"Make no mistake," Obama said. "We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."
The 18-minute address came as Americans have grown increasingly dissatisfied with Obama's handling of the crisis. It was delivered hours after he surveyed the damage in Pensacola, his fourth trip to the gulf region and first to Florida since the spill.
"You know, for generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water. That living is now in jeopardy," Obama said Tuesday night.
He called on BP to set aside "whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of this company's recklessness."
Obama, who will formally call for the escrow account during a meeting with BP executives today, wants the fund to be overseen by a third party.
Obama also called for a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan designed by federal and state officials, scientists and conservationists, along with the fishermen, hoteliers and other people who ply their trade in the bountiful but delicate region. Overseeing the effort will be Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy and former governor of Mississippi.
He reaffirmed a pledge to tighten regulation of the oil industry and called for ways to make drilling safer — the underlying charge he gave a commission co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Bob Graham.
Through it all, Obama needed to convey the toughness the public clearly demands with the steady persona he is known for, and he seemed to meet that balance. Trying to bring the nation together, he invoked past challenges and American resolve.
He threw in some optimism, saying additional containment measures should capture up to 90 percent of the oil pouring out of the sea floor while BP finishes a relief well. Obama said 30,000 people are working across four states and 17,000 National Guard members are at the disposal of governors. He pointed to "millions of gallons" of oil collected through skimmers and booms.
But past optimism has not always materialized and oil continues to spill. The government now believes 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day are flowing from the well, far more than the original 5,000 barrel estimate.
Logistical and political challenges remain. Some from the affected region complain the recovery effort is still poorly coordinated and ill-equipped.
Even before he spoke, Republicans accused Obama of "exploiting" the crisis by calling for energy legislation they said would have a "job killing" tax.
"Manipulating this tragic national crisis for selfish political gain not only demonstrates President Obama's inability to aptly lead our nation out of a disaster, but also reveals the appallingly arrogant political calculus of this White House," Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said afterward.
Obama avoided a direct mention of the greenhouse issue other than referencing a package passed by the House. Yet he devoted much of his speech to energy policy. He said he was open to ideas from either party, "as long as they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels."
"But the one approach I will not accept is inaction," he said. "The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet."
Despite a still struggling economy, a two-front war and other sweeping concerns, Tuesday was Obama's first address from the Oval Office. Presidents typically reserve the solemn setting to speak to Americans about grave concerns. George W. Bush addressed the nation on Sept. 11, 2001. Bill Clinton discussed the peace agreement in Bosnia-Herzegovina on Nov. 27, 1995.
Obama was trying to show how critical he views the calamity, now in its 57th day. His administration has been involved from the start, but not as forcefully or decisively as many have wanted.
A recent Quinnipiac poll found just 37 percent of Floridians approve of his handling of the oil spill, and 54 percent disapprove.
A USA Today/Gallup Poll released Tuesday showed 71 percent think Obama has not been "tough enough" on BP.
"The bottom line is, it's been many weeks where it appeared to the average person that not much has happened except more and more oil coming out of the ground. He's got to cross that hurdle," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
Reaction was characteristically partisan.
"The American people don't want more speeches or photo ops," said U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers. "They want someone who can lead and achieve results."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., applauded the call for an independent compensation fund and a move away from oil, saying, "It's time to take this tragedy and turn it into an opportunity."