President Obama was in Pittsburgh today to talk about the economy, but the disaster in the Gulf was never far from his mind. Weaving the oil spill and energy issues into his speech, he made two basic arguments related to the spill.
First, right from the top of the speech he continued his campaign to convince a skeptical public that he's fully engaged:"Right now, stopping this oil spill and containing its damage must be the top priority of my Administration, and we are waging this battle every minute of every day," he said.
It's going to take a lot more than brief speech references to knock down the notion that he was slow out of the blocks - which already may have solidified into conventional wisdom. But ever since his mea culpa-filled press conference last week it's been clear that he gets it - that it's going to take a concerted effort if there's any hope of undoing the political damage.
GRAND ISLE, La. -- President Obama's visit to the Gulf today is his second in 39 days. President Bush visited the region 7 times in 36 days after Katrina.
In many ways, it's not a fair comparison. More than 1,800 people died in Katrina, and a faster government response might have saved many lives.
And Mr. Obama says that from day one he was meeting with top officials, ordering a massive response that now includes about 20,000 people and 1,300 boats and ships.
But while vigorously defending the administration's response yesterday, he also went through a list of mea culpas, a clear sign that he understands that he's in a political hole and needs to start digging his way out .
He said there wasn't sufficient urgency in changing the culture of corruption at the Minerals Management Service and, he said, "Absolutely I take responsibility for that."
He admitted that BP's interest is in minimizing the damage - something everyone in America already knew -- and confessed that his efforts "fell short" in keeping BP honest about the size of the spill.
And he said the words that make politicians gag: "I was wrong" in believing the oil companies had their act together when it came to responding to worst case scenarios.Continue »
It's been five weeks since the explosion in the Gulf that caused 11 deaths and led to what may be the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Despite the magnitude of the disaster, President Obama has visited the region only once since then, a brief trip on a Sunday more than 3 weeks ago.
He has also declined to answer questions from the press, today in the Rose Garden ignoring the question: "Mr. President, do you have confidence in BP to plug that hole?" (I know he heard me - I was only 10 feet away as he quietly shook hands after an event with small business owners.)
I don't like shouting questions - my mother tells me it's rude, and she's right. But my job is to get answers to questions the American people are asking, and so far the president has given us no other opportunity to do so.
Today in fact he came so close to the cameras - and reporters - I thought he was hinting that he wanted to take a question. I was wrong.
Mark Knoller, CBS News White House correspondent and indefatigable presidential record-keeper (one of my great fortunes is that I get to sit a few feet from Mark-the-human-encyclopedia) says that Mr. Obama has addressed the spill a mere six times in 5 weeks. Only 3 were exclusively devoted to the spill: the Sunday visit on May 2; the "angry and frustrated" statement in the Rose Garden May 14; and his weekly radio/internet address May 22.
You may recall that on Monday President Obama refused take any questions from the press (irony alert!) immediately after signing the "Press Freedom Act" in the Oval Office. The president, who hasn't held a prime time press conference since last July, said this was not a press conference and he would have something later in the week.
He was presumably referring to today's scheduled "Joint Press Conference" with Mexican President Calderon in the Rose Garden. But so-called "press conferences" with foreign leaders usually allow for only two questions from the White House press corps and two from foreign reporters.
But today he said there was time for only one from each side. And in what I suspect was a White House effort to assure that the questioning was limited to immigration and other issues of U.S.-Mexico concern, he called on the Univision reporter from the U.S. side.
There was some rich irony at the White House today -- President Obama signed the Press Freedom Act, and then promptly refused to take any questions.
The new law expands the State Department's annual human rights reports to include a description of press freedoms in each country. It seemed a good opportunity to showcase press freedom in this country.
Recall that last Friday the president refused to take any questions after delivering his angry statement on the oil spill in the Rose Garden. And he has not held a prime-time White House news conference in many months, despite much pleading from pundits and members of the media.
So after he signed the bill, and as the press "wranglers" began aggressively herding us out of the room, I asked if he still has confidence in BP. He ignored the question so I tried this: "In the interest of press freedom, would you take a couple questions on BP?"Continue »
The president seemed genuinely angry today, on a beautiful spring afternoon in the Rose Garden. Having watched him on a daily basis for about a year and a half, I'm confident he wasn't faking it.
He seems deeply upset about the growing calamity in the Gulf, about the environmental damage, about the irresponsibility of the companies involved, and about their efforts to shift the blame.
"I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle during the congressional hearings into this matter," he intoned. "You had executives of BP and Transocean and Halliburton falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else."
President Obama may have decried finger-pointing today, but he also did a fair amount of it himself. Not only at the three companies, but at previous administrations.
Over about half-an-hour they used the word "leader" or "leadership" at least two dozen times -- so frequently it sounded like a verbal tic.
"The president feels strongly she has the qualities of a leader," Axelrod said in one variation or another again and again and again. He also praised her intellect, her deep understanding of the law, and he argued that her never having served as a judge is a positive - that she spent her career more in touch with the plight of real people. (I'm not sure how "real" the world is at Harvard Law School.)
But it was leadership that Axelrod kept returning to. And when Bauer spoke he followed the same talking points, right from the top. The president chose her for her "leadership qualities." Throughout her career she has "consistently gained notice for her leadership qualities."
But Gibbs' response couldn't have said it more clearly -- there's a whole lot of stuff going on behind the curtain.
It's one of the great frustrations of covering the president - most of the time the White House press corps, which sits a 30 second walk from the Oval Office, has little idea what's going on in there. But we do know he's a workaholic - 16 hour days are no big deal for him. And there's no shortage of issues to help him fill that time.
One big one: picking a Supreme Court nominee. Gibbs was asked at Wednesday's briefing if the president has finished his interviews, and after a thoughtful pause Gibbs said he's not sure - seeming to suggest the president is close.
Following up with other aides, I'm told he is indeed on the verge of completing the interviews, some of them quite lengthy. He's also said to be reading reams of opinions and law review articles, just as he did last year during the process that led to his selection of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. You don't get to be President of the Harvard Law Review by being less than thorough.
The Court choice is probably the main reason he has so little on the public schedule this week, but it's not the only reason - the fact is, in this year when he was supposed to be focused like a laser beam on "jobs, jobs, jobs," he's dealing with a deluge of issues and events.Continue »
Yes, it's time for: The Personal Presidential Touch.
White House officials say Mr. Obama has met in the Oval Office, or talked by phone, with more than two dozen Democrats in the past three days. They say about half the lobbying sessions have been in person, half over the phone. The president has kept his public schedule light so he can twist as many arms as possible.
The White House calls it "time well spent" and says the conversations "are making a difference." The president, they claim, has already convinced at least a few Democrats to switch from no to yes on health care, and persuaded others to hold fast to their yes votes. Democratic sources on Capitol Hill tell me the president is doing an effective job of closing the deal.Continue »
First, the president put out his own proposal. Second, he held the Blair House summit (which the White House saw as a way to show once and for all that efforts at bipartisanship are fruitless). Those two steps raised the question: would he now go for step three - a political hat trick - by taking the lead in twisting arms in Congress. Some in the White House suggested the answer would be no. As one top adviser told me recently: "That's Nancy's job."
Well, the president appears to disagree. Today he summoned 18 House Democrats to the White House, meeting first with 11 leading liberals, then 7 key moderates. New York Congressman Joe Crowley (chair of the moderate New Democrat Coalition) emerged to say: "The president impressed upon us the need to pass comprehensive health care reform and do it soon. And he called upon the New Democratic Coalition to do what we can within our caucus to make that happen."
As top advisor David Axelrod told me, the president has no intention of giving up on his "aggressive agenda." Many Republicans and even some Democrats say the White House is in denial, that the decisive loss of Ted Kennedy's seat to a Republican means the president's agenda has been upended.
Republicans are confident, and many Democrats fear, that Scott Brown's stunning victory means the death of comprehensive health care reform – especially now that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear that the House does not have the votes to pass the Senate bill.
THOMAS: When is the President going to hold a news conference? Not that you're not adequate.
GIBBS: Well, I appreciate that. (Laughter.) Chip asked this question on Friday --
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, one of the president's closest friends in the Senate, told me the president talked about what a "dramatic step forward" the bill is.
He said the president told him the bill gives people "a fighting chance against the health care companies." Mr. Obama added that "we can't miss this opportunity," according to Durbin.
Gates seemed to suggest there was some flexibility, that "it was a clear statement of his strong intent" and that "the president always has the freedom to re-evaluate his decisions." After the hearing Graham said he took that to mean the date is "not locked in" and will depend on conditions on the ground.
It was a point of contention at the White House briefing today – I asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs if senators were incorrect calling the date a "target."
After the briefing, Gibbs went to the president for clarification. Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. The president told him it IS locked in – there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It's etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel.
Lindsey Graham will not be happy. Neither will John McCain – and a whole lot of other Republicans who believe any kind of time line means "advantage: enemy."
Keep in mind that the PACE of the withdrawal will still depend on conditions on the ground – which means it could be a very small number of troops if things are not going well.
"Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase," he said. "Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes."
He repeated it countless times, both as candidate and president.