WASHINGTON — Fresh from admonishing BP before the world, President Barack Obama now gets his moment with the oil company’s leaders. It will be on his turf and, he vowed to an angry nation, on his terms.
“We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused,” Obama declared in his first Oval Office address, a venue often reserved for matters of war. That is now how Obama describes the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — a “siege” on the shores of America.
Obama’s showdown at the White House today with BP executives will be his first direct encounter with them since one of their oil wells blew out off the Louisiana coast nearly 60 days ago, killing 11 workers and releasing a so-far unstoppable geyser of oil. BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg was invited and encouraged to bring other officials; BP chief executive Tony Hayward, the beleaguered face of the BP response, is expected to attend, too.
For the president, the tough diplomacy with a few officials behind closed doors is a bookend to his attempt to reach millions at once. Using a delivery in which even the harshest words were uttered in subdued tones, Obama did not offer much in the way of new ideas or details in his speech to the nation last night. Instead, he mainly recapped the government’s efforts, insisted once again that BP will be held to account and tried to tap the resilience of a nation in promising that “something better awaits.”
Now, at the White House, Obama said he will tell the chairman of the British-based oil company that it must set aside “whatever resources are required” to compensate the Gulf Coast people whose lives have been upended because of what he called BP’s recklessness.
What’s more, Obama said this new damages fund, used to pay claims to workers and business owners, won’t be run by BP. He said an independent third party will be in charge to ensure people are paid in a fair and timely way.
The cost of such a fund would be enormous. The White House insists is has the legal authority to make it happen.
Still, administration officials also acknowledge a negotiation is at play here, and key issues remain unsolved.
Among them: Who will oversee the escrow fund, who will make that decision, how large will the fund be and whether BP will pay the salaries of oil workers idled by a six-month moratorium on new deep-water oil drilling.
BP declined to offer details about what proposals it would bring to the meeting or any reaction to Obama’s biting words.
The company said in a statement that it shares Obama’s goal of “shutting off the well as quickly as possible, cleaning up the oil and mitigating the impact on the people and environment of the Gulf Coast. We look forward to meeting with President Obama tomorrow for a constructive discussion about how to best achieve these mutual goals.”
The president expects to be able to announce a deal quickly to an impatient nation. He planned a Rose Garden statement after the meeting. He was to attend a portion of the BP session while his aides handle the rest.
Obama devoted a major portion of his talk to pushing the goal of enacting wide-ranging energy and climate change legislation, a key domestic priority of his presidency that had become a long shot.
But while Obama urged action, he was subtle about what he was calling on lawmakers and the public to rally behind. For instance, though Obama supports placing a price on heat-trapping carbon emissions, he did not directly state that.
“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now,” he said. “I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy – because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.”
Also, Obama announced that former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus will develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan — to be funded by BP — in concert with local communities.
Obama’s forceful tone about BP’s behavior shows how far matters have deteriorated. The White House once had described BP as an essential partner in plugging the crude oil spewing from the broken well beneath nearly a mile of water. Now Obama says BP has threatened to destroy a whole way of life.
“I refuse to let that happen,” Obama said in his televised address.
Yet even as Obama pledged not to rest until the Gulf Coast region is restored, he didn’t detail exactly how he would keep that promise.
Meanwhile, the frantic effort to stop the leak and contain the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history plods on. So does the venting and search for answers on Capitol Hill, with three more congressional hearings set for today.
The president is straddling a line. He must show he is a leader not a shouter, yet also one who can relate and respond to the intense emotion of this catastrophe. And public confidence is slipping with every day the oily mess keeps pluming away.
An Associated Press-GfK poll released yesterday showed 52 percent now disapprove of Obama’s handling of the oil spill, up significantly from last month. Most people — 56 percent — think the government’s actions in response to the disaster really haven’t had any impact on the situation.
Obama’s Oval Office address was the most prominent sign yet that the oil spill response has become his agenda; everything else must compete for his time. He managed to use the forum to extensively plug his effort for a massive clean-energy bill.
Already forgotten was that Obama wasn’t supposed to be in the White House yesterday night but rather in Indonesia as part of his outreach to the Muslim world. He scrapped that trip to deal with this crisis, using his time to tour the Gulf cleanup once again, address the nation and call in BP officials for direct talks.
The damages are huge. A government panel of scientists now says the well is spewing even more oil than previously thought. The total spilled so far could be as much as 116 million gallons.