Monday, June 14, 2010

Obama makes play to look 'tough enough' on spill

On his fourth visit to the region in two months, President Obama will get his closest look yet at the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Later this afternoon, he's scheduled to tour the oil-ravaged Alabama coast by ferry.

It's a trip driven by political optics. The White House wants to counter critics who say the administration isn't doing enough to facilitate the spill cleanup and hold BP accountable. By being on the ground in the region, Obama hopes to roll back the longstanding media narrative depicting him as personally too aloof in his handling of the disaster. As that perception has taken hold with the public — 71 percent of respondents in a new USA/Gallup poll say that they don't believe that Obama has been "tough enough" in dealing with BP and the oil spill — the White House has been more determined to persuade the public that Obama is showing a firm hand in the Gulf crisis.

Speaking to reporters at a staging center in Theodore, Ala., Obama defended his administration's response and vowed to help return the region to the "gulf way of life." Still, he allowed, it wouldn't happen overnight. Unlike Hurricane Katrina, Obama said, the spill is "simply not one catastrophic event" but an "ongoing assault" that has to be "constantly watched, constantly tracked." "It's going to be painful for a lot of folks," Obama said. "But I promise you this, we are going to do everything we can... to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before."

The question in the short term, however, is how close Obama will actually come to the devastation. This afternoon's boat ride will mark the first time the president has actually been close to the sludge itself. Two weeks ago, the president was photographed holding a tar ball that had washed ashore near Port Fourchon, La. — but that beach had been cleaned in advance of Obama's arrival by dozens of BP workers.

So far, Obama has not gotten close enough to the epicenter of the spill to see beaches blackened in sludge or oil-covered pelicans — something that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal escorted reporters to see last week. Nor is he likely to get much closer to that sort of devastation today. Kicking off his two-day tour of the region, Obama spent the morning in Gulfport, Miss. — where beaches have largely escaped the spill's effects. Tomorrow, he'll tour Pensacola, Fla. — a city preparing for sludge to stain its beaches later this week.

[Photos: Haunting images of the oil disaster]

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told Yahoo! News that Obama's focus on this trip is touring regions that are, or are about to be, affected by the spill. And Gibbs emphasized that the president is mainly intending to speak to local officials in the region. "Thankfully there isn't a ton of damage in Mississippi, but it's still a state impacted by the spill," Gibbs said in an email. "(The) Alabama barrier islands are a bit of a mess today, and over the next few days, Pensacola will be fairly bad."

Still, Obama is likely to come under criticism for avoiding Orange Beach, Ala. — a city dubbed "ground zero" in the latest cleanup efforts, as waves of oil have washed ashore in recent days. Local officials there, including Mayor Tony Kennon, have been critical not just of BP but of the federal government's handling of the crisis, saying the Coast Guard didn't do enough to prevent oil from moving toward the beaches.

— Holly Bailey is a senior political writer for Yahoo! News; Brett Michael Dykes is a national affairs reporter for Yahoo! News.

No comments:

Post a Comment