Looking uncomfortable and tense, President Barack Obama delivered his first Oval Office address Tuesday night to a nation increasingly wary of his ability to handle the Gulf Coast oil spill, as the crisis entered its 56th day.
Past presidents have used this typically sober forum during grave times: President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, President Ronald Reagan after the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and President George W. Bush on the evening of Sept. 11.
President Obama faces a grave crisis with an estimated 60,000 barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf waters each day, threatening thousands of livelihoods along the Gulf Coast and beyond.
Like other presidents, Obama can't make the crisis disappear, but his plan for facing it met poor reviews from conservative and liberal sources alike. A headline at Salon.com declared: "Just words: Obama's Oval Office speech fizzles." A Washington Postblog post by Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, was headlined: "Obama's address: grand setting, weak policies."
Even some of Obama's Democratic allies were wary of parts of his speech that called for controversial climate change legislation in response to the oil spill. "That doesn't have much to do with the Gulf," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., seemed to agree: "The climate bill isn't going to stop the oil leak. The first thing you have to do is stop the oil leak."
To that end, the president made a sweeping prediction regarding clean-up efforts: "In the coming days and weeks, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well." This comes after weeks of bungled efforts by BP to bring under control a spill originally estimated at just 1,000 barrels a day.
By Wednesday afternoon, BP seemed to agree to at least one demand in Obama's speech: A call for an independent entity to process damage claims against BP filed by Gulf Coast residents. But even this could be fraught with problems: An independent entity could become beholden to administration politics and take far longer to cut checks to out-of-work Gulf Coasters.
Meanwhile, on-the-ground clean-up efforts continue to falter, as local officials complain of poor coordination between BP workers and federal employees. Even as the oil continues to slip by booms and barriers, nitty-gritty details seem to slip by a president distracted by a big picture as murky as Gulf Coast waters.