WASHINGTON, May 27, 2010 -- In his most extensive remarks about the Gulf oil spill, President Obama pushed back today against critics who say his administration has been less than fully engaged in efforts to contain the damage and stressed that the federal government is in charge.
"Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts," Obama told a news conference at the White House. "This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred."
Obama said that the oil spill was the first and last thing he thinks about every day and dismissed an opportunity to respond to comparisons to the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina.
"I'll leave it to you guys to make those comparisons and make judgments on it, because what I'm spending my time thinking about is, 'How do we solve the problem?'" 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."
Twice calling the spill "unprecedented," Obama reiterated that BP is responsible for the "horrific disaster" and will be held fully accountable.
But after nearly an hour of engaging with reporters, Obama finally said bluntly that the buck stops with him.
"I take responsibility," he said. "It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down."
Obama will travel to the Gulf region Friday, his second trip since the oil leak began.
Amid mounting criticism that his administration has done too little to fix the problem in the Gulf, Obama emphasized that BP is operating at the direction of the federal government.
"Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance," he said. "I've designated [U.S. Coast Guard] Adm. Thad Allen, who has nearly four decades of experience responding to such disasters, as the national incident commander. And if he orders BP to do something to respond to this disaster, they are legally bound to do it."
Obama announced today that planned oil exploration in that region and off the Atlantic Coast will be cancelled and a six-month moratorium will be placed on new, deepwater drilling permits.
Obama said his administration is relying on every resource, idea, expert and technology to stop the leak but acknowledged the frustrations of Gulf Coast residents and officials.
"Every day I see this leak continue, I am angry and frustrated as well," he said. "And for as long as it takes, I intend to use the full force of the federal government to protect our fellow citizens and the place where they live. I can assure you of that."
Obama announced he was canceling the August offshore drilling lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico and the lease sale off the coast of Virginia.
Planned exploration off the coast of Alaska in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is also being delayed pending the review of the presidential commission looking into the BP spill.
A senior White House official said "the president's eyes have been opened" to the risks of offshore drilling. Officials point specifically to the inability of the U.S. Minerals Management Service to reliably regulate the industry, the inaccurate claims by the oil industry that companies are able to stop catastrophes such as these from happening and whether the industry can contain the damage.
Each of those assumptions has been proven false, the senior White House official told ABC News, which is why projects are being canceled or delayed.
Obama said the spill made clear that regulatory charges are needed.
"For years, there's been a scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them," the president said. "That's why we've decided to separate the people who permit the drilling from those who regulate and ensure the safety of the drilling."
Spill Claims Administration Official
The oil spill claimed its first administration official, with the resignation of Minerals Management Service director Elizabeth "Liz" Birnbaum. Birnbaum had been in this position since July but her agency had come under fire for what critics said were lax oversight measures and a cozy relationship with the oil industry.
Obama told reporters this afternoon that he was informed of Birnbaum's resignation earlier today and did not know the circumstances by which it came about.
"I can tell you what I've said to [Interior Secretary] Ken Salazar, is that we have to make sure if we are going forward with domestic oil production that the federal agency charged with overseeing its safety and security is operating at the highest level," he said.
Obama has been criticized for leaving the perception that he's ignoring the proposals and advice of others, such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, fishermen and industry experts in the region, who have suggestions on how to respond better to the crisis. The government has only accepted help from two of the countries that have volunteered -- Norway and Mexico
The president today defended his decision for leaving some help on the table.
"The job of our response team is to say, OK, if 17 countries have offered equipment and help, let's evaluate what they've offered, how fast can it get here; is it actually going to be redundant or will it actually add to the overall effort," Obama said.
The president said he maintains a "constant sense of urgency" and is examining every recommendation to make the best judgment on the appropriate right steps to take.
"Are we doing everything perfectly out there, then the answer is absolutely not," he said. "We can always do better. If the question is, are we, each time there is an idea, evaluating it and making a decision, is this the best option that we have right now, based on how quickly we can stop this leak and how much damage can we mitigate, then the answer is yes."
Obama announced in March that he was lifting the bans on offshore drilling and oil and gas exploration off the Virginia coast, and would expand lease sales for oil and gas exploration on the Atlantic seaboard.
"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," Obama said March 31. "But the bottom line is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."
That move marked the first sale of offshore oil and gas drilling rights in the Atlantic in more than two decades and angered environmentalists.
Obama responded to the criticism by arguing that it was necessary to pursue a comprehensive energy strategy to make the United States more energy-independent.
More Questions for White House
As the presidential commission further studies how to prevent a disaster like this from ever happening again, the Obama administration's moratorium on permits to drill new deepwater wells will continue for six months, the official said.
The Obama administration continues to face tough questions about what even some supporters perceive as a lack of leadership in responding to the Gulf leak.
In California Wednesday, Obama called the oil spill "heartbreaking" even as he warned that the latest plan to plug the hole might not work.
"If it's successful, and there are no guarantees, it should greatly reduce or eliminate the flow of oil now streaming into the gulf from the sea floor," he said.
Although the president was out in California at least partly to raise money for the Democratic party, he was eager to show he is on the case.
"My administration is intensively engaged with scientists and engineers, to explore all alternative options," he said.
Obama will fly Friday to the Louisiana coast, where residents such as shrimper Henry Hutto want to know why his administration has yet to approve an emergency request from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to build barriers on outer islands.
"I don't know why our president has not had [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers let us put some sand barriers out here," Hutto told ABC News. "Let us do something to stop this mess from coming in."
On Capitol Hill, Salazar faced similar questions from frustrated members of Congress but he warned that the administration does not want to make a wrong move.
"The one thing that we don't want to do is to move forward and do something that ultimately will be environmentally worse than other measures that may be more thoughtful," Salazar said Wednesday.