June 16, 2010 -- For President Obama, the Oval Office address Tuesday night was about more than the oil spill.
His ability to project more command, competency and compassion in response to the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico— and the eventual success of the administration's actions — will have repercussions for his ability to do anything else, from pushing legislation on energy and jobs to holding down Democratic losses in the midterm elections.
So his tone was unyielding toward BP and his language almost military, calling the current effort a "battle we're waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens."
In his first address from the Oval Office, a forum presidents reserve for the most consequential of messages, he promised a skeptical nation that he would marshal government resources to guarantee the Gulf coast recovers.
"Make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes," he declared. "We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described the speech as an "inflection point," a moment when the initial response is replaced by more decisive action. Obama announced a BP-financed compensation fund — though with no details about who will run it and what it will cover — and named Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, to head a long-term restoration program.
Eight Weeks After Explosion
The speech was laced with impressive statistics: 90 percent of the spill to be capped within weeks; 17,000 National Guard members authorized to help; 5.5 million feet of boom laid in the water.
Eight weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, however, he acknowledged there was no immediate end in sight to the nation's worst environmental disaster. Cable stations displayed logos Tuesday that declared "Day 57" as a live video feed from the seafloor showed oil spewing into the water.
Obama said the oil spill was more like an epidemic than an earthquake, not a single event but a problem "that we will be fighting for months and even years."
He has been hammered by critics, including fellow Democrats such as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who said he was too slow to get fully engaged, too deferential to BP and too cerebral in his response to a catastrophe that threatens a region's way of life. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken last weekend, 53 percent of Americans rated Obama's performance on the oil spill as "poor" or "very poor," including one of four Democrats. Seventy-one percent said he hadn't been tough enough on BP.
No surprise then, that he ramped up his rhetoric, denouncing BP's "recklessness" and saying he would tell company executives at a White House meeting today "to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed."
The criticism hasn't driven down Obama's overall job-approval rating, at 50 percent in the new poll, the highest since January. But it may be affecting his standing in other ways. By 51 percent to 46 percent, the registered voters surveyed said Obama didn't deserve re-election.
The Enthusiasm Gap
Enthusiasm about voting in the midterm elections fell, especially among Democrats. Just 35 percent of Democrats say they are "more enthusiastic about voting than usual," the lowest level in more than a decade and 18 percentage points below that of Republicans.
"When a guy who came in promoted by his followers as the first Superman president turns out to be not able to fly, I think some of his supporters feel let down," GOP pollster Glen Bolger said.
"Every minute he and others in his administration are spending on the oil spill, it's time that they aren't able to devote to other issues that they prefer to be dealing with," he said.
There is significant support for Congress to act on other fronts. A majority of respondents support passage of legislation this year to create jobs, reduce global warming and expand financial regulations.
Obama devoted the final quarter of his speech to push for an energy bill, which has passed the House but been stalled in the Senate. He argued that the spill demonstrated the need for the country to pursue alternative energy sources and reduce its dependence on oil, but he didn't outline any new specifics for a compromise bill or outline a course to pass it.
GOP leaders dismissed his pitch. Texas Sen. John Cornyn accused the president of trying "to use this crisis to force a job-killing energy tax on the American people."
Obama's speech was direct and determined, but it was less than the commanding rallying cry that the elder President Bush made from the Oval Office when he announced the launch of the first Gulf War or the compassionate tone President Reagan struck from the setting after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in air.
"It remains to be seen whether this is a kind of environmental 9/11, where the country fundamentally shifts gears and decides we have to do something different," says Matt Bennett of the moderate think tank Third Way. "Nothing concentrates the mind like the pictures people are seeing of this devastation."