The vocabulary of oil drilling is so colorful—junk shot, top kill, poor boy degasser—that there must be a name for the trick President Obama was trying to pull off at his press conference Thursday. He was trying to take responsibility and show that his administration is in control of efforts to stop and contain the massive oil spill in the Gulf. At the same time, he had to admit that the government hasn't always been competent, lacks resources, and is only kinda sorta in charge. Whatever the term would be, it would include mud.
"In case anybody wonders, in any of your reporting, in case you were wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility," said the president in his concluding remarks. But it's responsibility with an asterisk: BP is the only entity that can solve this problem, which is like none anyone has seen before. The government can stare harder over the oil company's shoulder—order a second relief well to be drilled, tell it what kind of chemicals to use—but overall the relationship is not unlike that between a frustrated user and his computer. The federal government is stuck on the phone, and BP is tech support.
Having responsibility without control is always a horrible situation, no matter what job you hold. But Obama and his aides know it is a special gift of the presidency. The dynamic is part of what keeps the "This is Obama's Katrina" story line alive, and the sense of confusion that dogged the Bush administration after Katrina was only heightened at the press conference when Obama said he didn't know whether the director of the Minerals Management Service had been fired or had resigned.
When asked directly about the Katrina comparison, Obama deferred to the judgment of history, sounding like his predecessor did when he was asked those kinds of questions. "When the problem is solved and people look back and do an assessment of all the various decisions that were made, I think people can make a historical judgment," he said. "And I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis."
Katrina was so damaging for Bush because he seemed so disconnected from the emergency he faced. This was exacerbated by the famous photo of him flying over the disaster. More damaging, but less remembered, is video footage of a pre-storm planning meeting in which he did not ask a single question of his briefers as they told him of the approaching disaster.
Obama's intent today was to show that the government was doing whatever it could, and had been from the start. After learning of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, Obama asked that departments respond quickly to help with rescue efforts and determine the environmental fallout. "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."
He outlined administration efforts to close the well, clean up, and put pressure on BP to pay claims. He announced a series of regulatory changes to prevent similar disasters. He ordered work suspended on exploratory drilling in the gulf and cancelled or deferred some future wells elsewhere around the country. "Not a day goes by where the federal government is not constantly thinking about how do we make sure that we minimize the damage on this, we close this thing down, we review what happened to make sure that it does not happen again," he said.
The president wasn't focused on politics, he said, but was trying to get the hole plugged and focus on the disaster. (In contrast, the Republican National Senatorial Committee was focused on politics and released a video immediately after the press conference that charged Obama with half measures on a host of national crises.) But Obama was concerned enough about politics to do all he could from behind a podium to show that he understands that people are frustrated. He repeatedly expressed his empathy with locals. "Every day I see this leak continue, I am angry and frustrated as well." He touched on his personal experiences. "In Hawaii the ocean is sacred." He even enlisted his family, describing how his daughter Malia interrupted his morning shave with a question: "Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?"
If one of the failures of the previous administration was a reluctance to admit mistakes, then this one has learned from its predecessor. At several points Obama admitted his administration had fallen short—while being at pains to point out that it was not through a lack of effort. It should have pushed BP earlier for an accurate assessment of the size of the leak. If MMS had been functioning properly, the disaster might have been avoided.
At Obama's news conference in April 2009, he recited all of the things on his plate—from auto and bank bailouts to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to his (then unpassed) health care legislation. He even gave advice on how to cough, in advance of a possible H1N1 epidemic. That was a disaster that didn't hit but for which the government had prepared. Now, with a plate filled with a set of new problems (new except for the hardy perennials of the last decade, Afghanistan and Iraq), the president must deal with one no one saw coming: the largest oil spill in U.S. history. "We've gone through a difficult year and a half," he said. "This is just one more bit of difficulty."