Stephen Foley: Obama must convince the American public that he's got this under control

Even the president's friends have moved from expressing understanding and sympathy to outrightcriticism
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The Independent Online

When Barack Obama addresses the nation on the oil spill tomorrow night, he will have numerous aims. First will be to assure the public that the federal government is doing everything it can to limit the unfolding environmental and economic catastrophe. He will also want to pile additional pressure on BP to provide expansive compensation, and maybe even on Republican opponents who want to stymie a climate change bill he hopes will reduce American dependence on fossil fuels.

But more than anything else, he will want to leave the US public with a message about his own leadership: "I've got this thing."

The television address will be the culmination of a frenzied few days of activity designed to put the White House decisively ahead of events, for perhaps the first time since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, ripping open a hole in the earth through which millions of gallons of oil has spewed into the ocean.

As recently as last week, meeting families of the workers who died in the blast, Mr Obama declared he can't dive down and plug the leak himself, or suck up the oil "with a straw". Similarly, he is right that the technical expertise, as well as the financial responsibility, for plugging the leak and cleaning the mess, is all BP's, not that of the government.

But the American public expects the White House to demonstrate control of the situation, and now polls put the government's response to the disaster as worse than the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, a failure from which Mr Obama's predecessor never recovered.

Even the president's friends have moved from expressing understanding and sympathy to outright criticism, and a stinging editorial in The New York Times, a liberal beacon, at the weekend will not have gone unnoticed. "He and his administration need to do a lot more to show they are on top of this mess, and not perpetually behind the curve," the paper declared. "A year and a half into this presidency, the contemplative nature that was so appealing in a candidate can seem indecisive in a president... His inclination to hold back, then ride to the rescue, has sometimes made problems worse."

Mr Obama's two-day visit to Gulf states affected by the disaster, which begins this morning, will be his fourth since the leak began. In it, he will seek to highlight the thousands of volunteers mustered for the clean-up operation, and to show some empathy for the livelihoods disrupted by the calamity.

David Axelrod, his senior political adviser, said the situation in the Gulf was less like a hurricane or plane crash and more like an epidemic. In other words, it is a dynamic situation that required an evolving crisis response. The president must show himself on top of events – not at their mercy.