Political Highlights June 15, 2010: Obama’s First Oval Office Address on Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.

OBAMA PRESIDENCY & 111TH CONGRESS:

The President delivers first Oval Office Address

Doug Mills/The New York Times

THE HEADLINES….

  • In Oval Office Speech, Obama Calls for New Focus on Energy Policy: President Obama delivered his first Oval Office address to the nation. President Obama summoned Americans on Tuesday to a “national mission” to move away from reliance on oil and develop alternative sources of energy, casting the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an imperative for Congress to act quickly to overcome “a lack of political courage and candor.” Speaking to a national television audience for the first time from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama also promised a long-term plan to make sure that the gulf states suffering from the oil spill are made whole again. He said he was appointing Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy and the former governor of Mississippi, to develop a Gulf Coast restoration plan in cooperation with states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, conservationists and gulf residents…. – NYT, 6-16-10
  • Obama, BP set for Gulf oil showdown: President Obama will have his showdown on Wednesday with BP top executives and says he will tell the company it must pick up the tab for the massive oil disaster in the Gulf. Obama vowed Tuesday to unleash whatever resources may be needed to fight the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and to keep the pressure on BP.
    “We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes,” Obama said after two consecutive days surveying the Gulf Coast, which is threatened by a massive oil spill that began April 20 and continues to pump oil into the Gulf waters and worry into Gulf residents. In a prime-time speech to a national audience, the president predicted that, “in the coming days and weeks,” efforts to contain the leak “should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well. CNN, 6-16-10
  • Gulf Coast welcomes Obama’s pledge to restore land: In an Oval Office address Tuesday night, Obama said he was committed to making sure southern Louisiana, which is hemorrhaging a football field of marshland every 38 minutes, and other coastline are saved. “We need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region,” Obama said. “The oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that has already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats.” Obama appointed Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy and a former Mississippi governor, to lead the effort to develop a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan. Obama said he wanted BP to “pay for the impact this spill has had on the region.”… – AP, 6-16-10
  • Oval Office speech: Obama’s ‘take charge’ moment in Gulf oil spill: In the Gulf oil spill crisis, President Obama has shied away from theatrical moments that symbolize he’s in charge. Tuesday’s Oval Office speech is his attempt to take charge on his own terms… – CS Monitor, 6-16-10

POLITICAL QUOTES

  • Obama’s First Oval Office Address: A text of President Obama’s remarks on Tuesday on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, as released by the White House:
    Good evening. As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges. At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al Qaeda wherever it exists. And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens. …
    …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.
    But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes. 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.
    Tonight I’d like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward: what we’re doing to clean up the oil, what we’re doing to help our neighbors in the Gulf, and what we’re doing to make sure that a catastrophe like this never happens again. …
    …Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness. And this fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.
    Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short term, it’s also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region. The oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that’s already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats. And the region still hasn’t recovered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That’s why we must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment.
    I make that commitment tonight….
    …All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there. We know we’ll get there.
    It’s a faith in the future that sustains us as a people. It is that same faith that sustains our neighbors in the Gulf right now.
    …The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face. This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again. What sees us through -– what has always seen us through –- is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it. Tonight, we pray for that courage. We pray for the people of the Gulf. And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America. – NYT, 6-15-10

HISTORIANS & ANALYSTS’ COMMENTS

  • Mike Littwin: Obama’s speech safe, when we need fierce urgency on energy: In what should be a surprise to no one, Barack Obama played it safe. It’s always funny to me when people call Obama a radical president when he is so clearly a cautious, incremental politician. If there were ever a moment for Obama to go big — as they like to say in Washington these days — this was it.
    If there’s anything that Obama needs to do at this moment, it is to make people look in a different direction. He needed to call up the spill- cam on the big Oval Office high-def wide-screen and say, “Look. You see that stuff spewing out of the ocean, heading toward our beaches? Does that look like clean energy to you? That energy is the past. We can’t afford to stay in the past. Tonight, we’re here to talk about the future.”
    In his speech, Obama did talk about the future. He talked about a new way and clean energy and the jobs that could be created. He talked about the fact he was open to new ideas on energy — and that the only plan he wouldn’t accept was the “consequences of inaction.”… – Denver Post, 6-16-10
  • Obama Faces ‘A Defining Moment’ in Oval Office Oil Leak Speech: As President Barack Obama began a two-day trip to survey oil leak damage along the Gulf Coast, Judy Woodruff gets several points of view about the president’s authority and public reaction related to the environmental disaster.
    JUDY WOODRUFF: For some additional perspective on the president’s handling of the oil spill, we are joined now by presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jonathan Capehart, columnist for The Washington Post and contributor to MSNBC… – PBS Newshour, 6-15-10
  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, in terms of substance, the oil is still spilling into the Gulf. So, the way people are going to look at this two years from now is going to be, how fast was this stopped, how much did he go after the people responsible, and, also, how much did he help the people, you know, people who were fishing in the Gulf and others, people involved in tourism, who were suffering from this? But as far as the — you know, what he’s done the last month-and-a-half in terms of talking to the public, there’s one way he could have done this which would have been different. And that goes back to Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis November of 1979. Carter said, as you well remember: I’m not going to leave the White House until this crisis is solved. I’m just going to spend 28 hours a day working on it. And the result was that his administration was chained to every twist and turn.
    He sure was. And so I think — this is a minority view in America right now, but I think it may not have been a bad idea for him to say, Barack Obama, a month-and-a-half ago: It may take a very long time to plug this leak. It’s going to be very frustrating. If I look as if I’m spending 24 hours a day trying to stop this, and it doesn’t happen, people are going to think I’m ineffective….
    Different with every president, because, especially with a new president like Barack Obama a year-and-a-half in office, we’re still learning things about him. And everyone has subliminal worries about every new president. In Barack Obama’s case, they may be, didn’t have enough executive experience, didn’t have enough national experience, maybe the temperament a little bit too laid back. So, the second you have got a crisis like this where people are frustrated, they immediately say, aha, you know, we’re seeing all those things in play, we had better worry about this president, sort of like George H.W. Bush in 1991. The economy was going into a bad recession. And he wasn’t giving the impression that he was on top of it. And, so, the narrative emerged the president is out of touch, and people connected that to an incident where he was seeing a supermarket checkout scanner. He said: Oh, isn’t that interesting? I have never seen that before. People said, Bush is so out of touch, he doesn’t even know the way most people shop. As it turned out, it was new technology, but something like that tends to get attached to worries that people have about a new president. That’s one thing that I think the administration has been very unsuccessful in managing. – PBS Newshour, 6-15-10
  • KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, director, Annenberg Public Policy Center: He’s working in a very difficult circumstance, in which what the public expects of him and what a public — what the president is able to do are two very different things. Today, he made a good start at establishing that he’s going hold his own agencies accountable, in particular by eating seafood for lunch. He suggested that it’s still safe to eat seafood from the Gulf, and suggested that the agencies under his control will police that vigilantly to ensure that we can continue to eat seafood, but also that we will watch carefully through these agencies about the clean water and clean air. So, there’s a beginning of a start of scaffolding up an argument to suggest that government has action it can take here. He’s also been arguing that he’s going to hold BP accountable. We wait to see whether in fact that’s going to happen.
    Crises create opportunities and they create presidential capacity. So, for example, right now, what we have are visuals that are extremely difficult for the president to displace: dying endangered waterfowl, oil spilling on to beaches and children trying to pick it up. You also have a situation in which he has trouble with the metrics. He talks about thousands and tens of thousands of workers and boats and equipment, when the oil is hemorrhaging in hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. But what he can do is harness all of that into a speech Tuesday night that is, for him, a speech the equivalent of delivering the Marshall Plan speech for Truman, the Monroe Doctrine speech. A house divided against itself cannot stand, the civil rights legislation speeches of Lyndon Johnson. He could give us the speech that talks about how this crisis is a defining moment for this people, and we will come out of it with a healthier planet, fueled by economies that have clean, safe energy, and he will tell us how we can get there, what the costs will be, and why we have to pay it. He can harness what he called in the campaign the fierce urgency of now, and control those perceptions. – PBS Newshour, 6-15-10
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