We have been in charge from day one, says Obama

Facing fierce criticism that he had not done enough to cope with the calamitous Gulf of Mexico oil spill, President Barack Obama yesterday insisted that the administration had been in charge of the crisis "from day one", with BP operating at the direction of the federal government.

At the same time he announced new restrictions on offshore drilling, slapping a six-month freeze on new deepwater permits, suspending planned new operations in Alaska, and cancelling new lease sales in the Gulf and off the Virginia coast in the Atlantic.

"Make no mistake, BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision it takes must be approved by us in advance," Mr Obama told a press conference a day before he makes his second trip to the afflicted region.

The President admitted that mistakes had been made in the government's response to the disaster. But he insisted that the administration was exploring "every reasonable strategy" to stop the spill, and promised that it would do "whatever it takes" to help people whose livelihoods had been affected. Some 20,000 people were in the region, working on the clean-up.

Separately, Elizabeth Birnbaum, chief for barely a year of the Mineral Management Service, the agency supposed to regulate and oversee offshore drilling, became the first head to roll in the wake of the spill. The official line was that Ms Birnbaum had resigned of her own volition, but officials left little doubt she had been sacked. Mr Obama himself denounced the "appallingly close" relationship between MMS and the industry whose activities it theoretically supervised.

The spill is turning into a major political crisis for the President, barely five months before November's Congressional mid-term elections in which his Democratic party is expected to lose seats. Although the fiercest blame is being directed at BP, with 73 per cent of Americans disapproving of its response to the disaster, Mr Obama is coming under fire. More than 50 per cent are critical of his performance, and many are starting to describe the spill as "Obama's Katrina", a comparison to the devastating 2005 hurricane that helped to destroy the presidency of George W Bush.

Frequently on the defensive under intense questioning from reporters at his first full-fledged news conference in 10 months, the President acknowledged the "anger and frustration" of people not only on the Gulf coast, but among Americans across the country. "The notion that we've been sitting on the sidelines is simply not true," he declared. But Mr Obama admitted that the government did not have better technology than BP to tackle the crisis.

Ms Birnbaum's departure is a precursor of what is likely to be a sweeping overhaul of MMS and other agencies overseeing the oil industry. Ken Salazar, the Interior Secretary, had already taken steps, but "more needs to be done", the President said.

He also pleaded with Congress to speed up action to tackle America's dependence on imported oil. He appealed to the Senate to complete work on the Energy Bill. "This disaster should act as a wake-up call."

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