In his first address from the Oval Office, President Barack Obama promised Tuesday night to battle the devastating gulf oil spill "with everything we've got'' and hold BP accountable for the damage. While not particularly inspiring, he accepted responsibility for the massive cleanup and signaled he understands this is a serious test of his administration. Now that needs to result in better performance along the Gulf Coast.
Obama offered more than rhetoric. Most importantly, he proposed that BP pay into a special compensation fund for businesses and workers who have been ruined by the spill. The fund would be administered by an independent third party, which would evaluate the claims and determine the amount of damages. That stops short of the federal government taking over the claims process, the most streamlined approach. But it is far better than the frustrating process now, where BP controls the application process for help and generally limits awards to $5,000 — grossly insufficient for small businesses and families struggling to survive.
The president talked of short-term goals such as capturing most of the leaking oil and dispatching thousands of workers and ships to the site. He also looked ahead, promising to embrace a long-term restoration plan that would be developed by local communities and the states — and paid for by BP. He pointed to the commission co-chaired by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham that will investigate the causes of the disaster, and he named a former federal prosecutor to take over the troubled agency that oversees oil and gas exploration.
Yet the president is playing catch-up. The estimate of the amount of oil gushing into the gulf has dramatically increased again, to up to 60,000 barrels a day. There are renewed complaints in Pensacola and elsewhere about a lack of coordination on the cleanup, a lack of equipment along the Florida shoreline and a lack of urgency in the BP claims process. Until those situations improve, speeches offer little comfort.
The 18-minute speech offered ammunition for Obama's critics and high points for his supporters. His vow to battle the oil spill was firm but often lacked emotion. His pitch for legislation pushing clean, renewable energy was more passionate and engaging. Somehow, this president has to better connect with people when they are most desperate for help.
The president pledged Tuesday night that his administration will meet the challenges posed by the nation's greatest environmental disaster and not leave Florida and other gulf states to fend for themselves. So far, it has fallen disappointingly short. For Obama's presidency to regain its momentum and win back a skeptical public, the promises have to be followed soon by better results.