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Obama’s Spill Response Examined Following Oval Office Address

June 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The President acknowledged discontent over his administration's handling of the Gulf oil leak in his Oval Office address to the nation on Tuesday. Gwen Ifill talks to analysts about whether that speech could help bolster confidence in the response to the disaster.
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GWEN IFILL: The president has received mixed reviews for his handling of what has become an unprecedented and chaotic tragedy, with no end or clear solution in sight.

He acknowledged as much last night.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.

GWEN IFILL: As polls show confidence in the president fading, and after today’s BP apology, does last night’s speech and today’s announcement represent a pivot point in the ongoing crisis?

To explore that question, we turn to Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire, Cynthia Tucker, columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush

Ellen Fitzpatrick, I want to start with you.

What about that pivot point question? Did tonight and today — last night and today feel like a pivot point to you?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, professor of history, University of New Hampshire: I don’t think so, Gwen, in the sense that it may be a pivot point in President Obama’s handling of the crisis.

I think his follow-up today and the arrangements that he’s made with British Petroleum are very important to secure the promises he made last night. But many previous presidents have had to deal with absolutely terrible environmental disasters. And virtually all of them have suffered and struggled with the same kinds of responses, the frustration, the anger that President Obama is facing today.

And he is proceeding, it seems to me, and is — in a constructive manner, as have most of these presidents attempted to.

GWEN IFILL: Give me an example, Ellen, of what you mean when you say other presidents have dealt with disasters like this.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, we could go back to the 1930s, and look at the decade-long Dust Bowl, the drought that devastated this country that Franklin Roosevelt had to cope with.

And what struck me in President Obama’s speech last night was how much his plan resembled the three R’s of the New Deal, relief, recovery, and reform, which is what President Roosevelt attempted to carry out as well.

In 1969, a week after his inauguration, President Nixon faced an oil spill off the coast of California near Santa Barbara that ultimately led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Twenty years later, George Herbert Walker Bush faced the Exxon Valdez crisis, in which his response was widely condemned as late and lame and that also led him to pursue regulatory reforms as well.

So, this is not new, by any means.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Gerson, you were working for George W. Bush when he had to deliver these big kind of Oval Office speech moments, especially in times of national disaster. How did last night compare? How does the entire handling of this compare?

MICHAEL GERSON, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush: Well, I was a little bit concerned about last night. I mean, using the Oval Office as a setting is a high-profile setting, the kind of hottest-spotlight presidency.

And, in the past, you had presidents like Eisenhower announcing the troops going — federal troops going to Little Rock, OK, or John Kennedy announcing a quarantine of Cuba.

And, last night, the president seemed much more passive, much more input-oriented. He announced a czar. He announced a commission. When I was you know in the White House, we viewed these things as fairly weak policy inputs. You always want to push back, do something more active, do something more executive-oriented as far as actions are concerned.

And I thought the president had a pretty bad day yesterday, although actually a pretty good day today. I think the BP announcement was a good follow-up to the speech, but the speech itself was quite weak.

GWEN IFILL: When you were working for President Bush, you were the author of the speech he delivered in Jackson Square during Katrina, which was also widely, how shall I say, not embraced as being a successful evening.

MICHAEL GERSON: Mm-hmm.

GWEN IFILL: How do those two things compare from the inside and the outside?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, they compare, you know, I think, in a lot of ways.

The reality is, during that process, for example, we had people within the bureaucracy proposing a commission to study the problem. I pushed back hard against that. Presidents don’t go on national television at — in an evening address to the nation and announce commissions.

There was a kind of absence of active verbs in the speech that I thought was a real — a real challenge. And — but, you know, I think you have to have some empathy for the president. This is a technical problem, you know, the spill itself that the government has minimal competence in dealing with.

And, you know, sometimes, you’re faced with these kind of insoluble problems as president. That’s part of the job.

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia Tucker, is it an insoluble problem? And was last night’s speech and even today’s announcement, was that the way to try to get back some sort of credibility on the issue for the president?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, editorial page editor, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution: Well, Michael and I agree in thinking that last night’s speech was a weak one. It wasn’t a very good speech.

I think the very idea of a speech was a bad idea. I think the timing was bad. I think the setting was bad.

GWEN IFILL: Timing? It should have happened sooner or later?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Later.

I think that pivot point will come when the oil stops, when the well is finally plugged. That will happen. It will happen in August. That’s a natural pivot point. The president should have waited until then.

And, if he’s going to use the Oval Office, it ought to be a big, inspirational address to say, we have fixed that problem. The environmental crisis continues. We will be working on that for decades. Let’s pitch forward and talk about ending our addiction to petroleum.

And he didn’t do nearly enough of that. Let me also say, however, I — I feel sorry for the president. He’s facing a huge challenge here. He is getting reams of advice from foes and allies alike, most of it in the neighborhood of do something.

And he — there is not a whole lot the president can do here. This is a crisis that is — he didn’t create. It is beyond his control. The government has no capacity to plug an oil well a mile beneath the ocean.

But it is in the portfolio of the presidency to somehow — sometimes have to deal with outsized expectations from voters. And, so, for good or for ill, fairly or not, he does own this crisis now.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, let’s talk about these outsized expectations that so many people seem to have. For instance, there’s a new Pew poll that shows most people think that offshore drilling is still a good idea. However, they also think that limiting carbon emissions is also a good idea.

How does a president, not just only this one, but presidents over time, how do they handle these kind of competing desires on the parts of the public?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think it’s extremely difficult to deal with these issues, and particularly for President Obama, who is dealing on the one hand with demands that the federal government do something very concrete, not only to stop this spill, but to compensate people who, rightly, have been deprived of their livelihoods, and to address the long-term social and environmental impact of this catastrophe.

So, there’s that. But, at the same time, there are people who are very critical, and some of the very same people, of the over-reach of the federal government in the Obama administration. So, it’s a time of very complex attitudes towards the federal government, per se, that President Obama is having to deal with as well.

Fifty-two percent of the public soundly, resoundingly disapproved of George Bush’s handling of Exxon Valdez as having been inadequate. They wanted him to federalize the whole problem, and he refused to do so. So, presidents face these expectations.

They face the limits of the presidency, and they do their best, for the most part, within that to try to address the long-term consequences. Obama has actually done more than his predecessors already in that regard.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both briefly, in the end, to, I guess, wrap all of this up, is this a — for the president a political dilemma? Is it a practical dilemma? Is it a leadership dilemma that overrides everything, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think that you can — certainly, there’s a practical dilemma that he doesn’t control very much of.

GWEN IFILL: Unless he gets a Superman cape. Right.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right. Exactly. I mean, that’s the reality.

But I do think there’s a leadership element to this, that the president wasn’t early. He didn’t seem on top of these — these issues. And, you know, they — I think that there’s a cost to that.

But I would say the political dilemma is a quite serious one as well. I mean, the president faces some bad narratives on the political agenda right now, the economy, views of the health care bill. He’s got to do some things between now and November to decisively break that narrative, to change the narrative.
And the oil spill actually makes that harder going forward.

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: The oil spill makes that harder only because it forces the president to spend time on an issue, when he wanted to be talking about the economy and jobs. And I think that bothers Democrats more than anything else.

As far as it affecting his presidency, the polls show — this crisis has been going on now nearly two months. The Deepwater Horizon blew up on April 20, sank two days later, but the president’s approval ratings have been more or less holding steady at about 50 percent.

So, this crisis has not, in that sense, affected his presidency negatively. Does he need to move on, to turn the page? Yes, he does. Again, he will have the opportunity to do that in August, when the well is finally plugged.

GWEN IFILL: If the well is finally plugged in August.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: If the well is finally plugged.

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia Tucker, Michael Gerson, Ellen Fitzpatrick, thank you all very much.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you, Gwen.