When President Barack Obama travels to the Gulf Coast today he will need to do a better job convincing the people suffering there that help is on the way. At Thursday's midday news conference, the president finally started showing a sense of anger and urgency. He took responsibility for making sure the mess was cleaned up. His team announced the embattled head of the federal agency that oversees drilling had resigned. And Obama pledged to do everything in his power to prevent a future calamity by freezing new and active drilling operations in the deep gulf and canceling or suspending new lease sales off the coasts of the western gulf, Virginia and Alaska until safety studies are complete.
But his assurances also came just hours after the government announced the spill had become the largest in the nation's history, adding to the frustration over Washington's failure to manage BP's response to the April 20 disaster. Obama must demonstrate over the coming days that he will oversee the cleanup and ensure that BP pays for all lost income and property.
The president needs to find his bullhorn moment when he visits Louisiana today for the second time since the disaster. He was right Thursday when he said BP — not the government — had the equipment and technology to cap the well. But the president struggled with the disconnect that while government had little choice but to rely on BP, that trust was betrayed by the company's failure to promptly cap the well, contain the slick or effect any meaningful cleanup of the 100 miles of Louisiana coastline already fouled by oil and tar balls.
Residents in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida want to hear what the federal government plans to do about cleaning up the oil that has already spilled and is damaging tourism, fisheries and other industries that are their livelihoods.
Obama repeated assurances Thursday that BP had the contacts in the gulf to manage the cleanup and the responsibility to pay residents for damage to their incomes and property. But such promises ring hollow amid continuing revelations that the federal government failed in the first place to properly regulate the offshore drilling operation or to ensure that BP was prepared to handle a runaway well.
Plus, the U.S. Geological Survey released new estimates Thursday that between 19 million and 39 million gallons of oil have flowed into the gulf since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded — that's potentially three times the 11 million gallons spilled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez and 12 to 25 times what BP initially claimed was leaking on a daily basis. BP's credibility is shot. The question is whether Obama can restore the government's.
The national commission that Obama created to examine the BP disaster needs to propose a robust regulatory framework for offshore drilling. Freezing deep-water exploratory drilling in the meantime only makes practical sense. But the administration's pullback Thursday still leaves thousands of wells in operation in the shallow gulf. If the investigating commission needs more than six months to make its recommendations, Obama will need to broaden his moratorium.
The president should turn his attention now to moving more federal resources to help in the cleanup effort. Several federal agencies and universities in the gulf states have ramped up their monitoring of the impact the spill and BP's cleanup effort are having on the environment. The federal and state governments also need to take more of a role in helping affected residents obtain payments for lost income and other damages from BP. The president brought some drama to the stage with his White House appearance Thursday, but he was unconvincing that the federal government is and has always been calling the shots.