Obama takes on responsibility for response to oil spill

President Barack Obama on Thursday defended — and assumed full responsibility for — the federal government’s response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, even while conceding “we can always do better.”



In a midday press conference at which he extended a ban on new offshore drilling, Obama said he is “angry and frustrated” by the spill but insisted that the government has been fully engaged from the very first day on what he called “my top priority.”

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“In case you were wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility,” said Obama, who will travel to the Gulf on Friday for the second time since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. “It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down. … But there shouldn’t be any confusion here: The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.”


A senior official had expressed optimism earlier Thursday that BP’s effort to stop the flow of oil using a procedure known as a “top kill” was working. But the president claimed no success on that front, saying only that the procedure “offers no guarantee of success.”

He said his administration is exploring “any reasonable strategies to try and save the Gulf from a spill that may otherwise last until the relief wells are finished.” That would likely be August at the earliest.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, the administration’s point man on spill response, Adm. Thad Allen, stopped short of calling the effort a success, saying it is ongoing.

Obama’s hourlong news conference in the White House East Room came just hours after the head of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), Elizabeth Birnbaum, resigned. In his remarks, the president conceded that the federal government should have moved more quickly to address the “scandalously close” relationship between industry and its federal regulators.

He credited Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for beginning to clean up MMS after he took office, but acknowledged that more needs to be done.

“Salazar came in and started cleaning house, but the culture had not fully changed in MMS,” Obama said. “And absolutely I take responsibility for that. There wasn’t sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place.”

Obama admitted several other mistakes, or misjudgments. He said he was “wrong” to have believed that the oil companies “had their act together” when it came to planning for a worst-case-scenario spill.

And he said the government should have pushed BP harder on its claims about the extent of the flow. New estimates by government scientists released Thursday indicate far more oil has leaked than initially thought, and that the spill could ultimately be twice the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster.


Fully aware that the potential political ramifications of the spill could rival the environmental ones, Obama announced a six-month extension of a ban on new deepwater offshore oil-and-gas drilling permits while a bipartisan independent commission probes the spill and safety and regulatory improvements. Planned drilling in shallower waters off Alaska’s coast will also be delayed pending the commission review, though other shallow-water permits will now be able to proceed with new safety conditions.

The president also suspended 33 active deepwater oil-and-gas drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico.

A Gallup poll released Thursday morning showed that 53 percent of those surveyed think the president’s response has been “poor” or “very poor,” and the administration has become increasingly sensitive to comparisons to Hurricane Katrina.

Obama balked at commenting on such comparisons himself, saying he would leave that for the news media and commentators, but he stressed his administration’s engagement.

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“The day that the rig collapsed and fell to the bottom of the ocean, I had my team in the Oval Office that first day,” he said. “Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred.

“This notion that somehow the federal government is sitting on the sidelines and for the three or four or five weeks we’ve just been letting BP make a whole bunch of decisions is simply not true,” Obama said.



Paul Light, a political science professor at New York University and an expert on the presidency, said Obama waited too long to accept full responsibility for the spill and the subsequent cleanup.





“One could make the case that [Obama] should have done it sooner,” Light said. “But congratulations on stepping forward and saying, ‘I’m the president of the United States and this is my responsibility.’


“I think it’s great he stepped forward, the recrimination being, ‘Well, what about two weeks ago?’”



Light gave credit to Obama for taking responsibility, something he said “the Bush administration did not do,” but he thinks early during the spill, “the White House made a deliberate political calculation to stand off.”



“The White House made a political decision early on to sort of distance themselves from BP, and they’ve been hammered on that,” Light said.



Obama did travel to the Gulf for a briefing on May 2, and he will return to Louisiana on Friday, interrupting his Memorial Day weekend vacation in Chicago.



Republican strategist Kevin Madden, former spokesman for then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, said Obama hedged too much even as he claimed he was taking responsibility.



“In this instance of increased scrutiny of his actions, the president insists that he and his administration are in total control, but then proceeds to offer a litany of excuses and point fingers across the spectrum,” Madden said. “Stating that he was unaware of the details of the removal of key personnel involved with the response is emblematic of this problem. He’s basically saying, ‘I’m in charge, I’m responsible, except when I’m not.’ ”


Ben Geman and Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.