President Obama Treads Water and Oil in the Oval Office

President Obama delivers his speech on the BP oil spill from the Oval Office. CBS

President Obama
President Obama delivers his speech on the BP oil spill from the Oval Office.
CBS

President Obama chose the Oval Office as the site for his to underscore the gravity of the situation, and to let the American people know that he is on the job. 

Unfortunately, the composed-as-usual president can't just order a plug for the leak, which is looking worse by the latest flow rate estimates, now 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day

There are no easy solutions for dealing with the oil spill and its aftermath. Too many interlocking pieces are broken or intractable and in need of repair as the BP oil spill continues to unfold. 

The president echoed earlier statements in his speech, proclaiming, "Make no mistake: we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long 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."

In presidential speak, Mr. Obama is promising to make things right. He wants the American people to believe that things will be alright, eventually, and he is doing everything in his power to put the oil back where it belongs, get people paid, clean up the environment, restart the Gulf coast economy and deal with ineffective government agencies and recalcitrant oil companies.

Even for a president who takes pride in multitasking wars, terrorism, financial reform, meet and greets and a host of other issues and duties, the oil spill is a daunting problem.

Regarding the flow of oil from the ruptured well, Mr. Obama said, "In the coming days and weeks, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well." Based on past history, the days and weeks may turn into months. 

He plans to help make people financially impacted by the spill whole. "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," he said. 

It's the right idea, but like any organization cobbled together to administer claims, it will leave many unhappy and waiting in line.

While BP can take the bulk of the blame for the disaster in the Gulf, the U.S. government, in the form of the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department, had a major role.  

"Over the last decade, this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility - a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves," Mr. Obama said. 

He appointed Michael R. Bromwich, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Justice Department Inspector General, to reform the Minerals Management Service, which the president said must be an organization that "acts as the oil industry's watchdog - not its partner." 

Creating a culture of accountability, without the cozy relationship between the oil companies and the regulatory agency, will take years, not months to accomplish. Asexhibited before the House Energy and Commerce environment subcommittee, the giant oil company CEOs won't be easily swayed by even a heavy government hand. 

To clean up the battered environment, Mr. Obama appointed Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy and former Mississippi governor, to work with state and local communities and businesses.  Restoring the "unique beauty and bounty of this region," as Mr. Obama expressed it in his address, will take many years, if not decades, to accomplish.

All Mr. Obama can do at this juncture is tread water and oil, as he did in his Oval Office speech, until the leak is plugged and the environment and economic recovery palpably begins. 

Of course, he sees a silver lining in the spill. "The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now," Mr. Obama said from the Oval Office.  

For now, the president will need to focus on making the Gulf coast inhabitable again and Minerals Management Service effective.

More Coverage of Obama's Speech:

Obama: We Will Fight Oil Spill With Everything We Got
Watch the Speech
Full Text of Obama's Speech
Pictures: Obama Visits the Gulf Coast
Chip Reid: Obama's "Battle" Metaphor Runs Into Problems
Mark Knoller: Obama Offers Strong Words But No Magic Formula
Daniel Farber: Obama Treads Water and Oil in the Oval Office
Reaction: What Happened to Cap and Trade?
Sen. Vitter: Still No Urgency in Gulf Coast Response
Energy Reform Remains Stalled on Capitol Hill
Fact Check: Gaps in Obama's Oil Spill Speech
What Will Happen Next?
CBSNews.com Special Report: Disaster in the Gulf

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    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.

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