By Sam Youngman - 05/27/10 06:39 PM EDT
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
“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?’”
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
“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.
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
Ben Geman and Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.