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Obama Primed to Take More Active Role on Oil Spill

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.

Yes, it's true as the White House said in a statement today: "The Administration has mobilized one of the largest responses to a catastrophic event in history, with more than 1,200 vessels in the region and more than 22,000 people, including many of the brightest scientific minds from both the public and private sector, working around the clock to mitigate the oil's impact."

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But a growing number of environmentalists, political commentators and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are surprised - some are angry - that the president himself isn't taking a more hands-on approach to such a momentous disaster. It may be, as various commentators have suggested, that the president is keeping his distance so that this remains BP's disaster, not his.

In fact, the new CBS News poll shows BP is clearly the primary villain in the minds of the American people - 18 percent approve of BP's handling of the spill, 70 percent disapprove. But the news for the president is not good either: only 35 percent approve of the administration's handling of the spill, while 45 percent disapprove.

CBS's producers and reporters covering the story from the Gulf tell me that BP is seen as the main bad guy there too. But they also say criticism of the president is growing - over his failure to spend time there, and his failure to give it a daily sense of extreme urgency with his own personal stamp.

All that may change this week. Thursday the president is scheduled to receive a report from Interior Secretary Salazar on the spill, and Robert Gibbs said during Monday's briefing that we can expect the president to speak about the report AND take some questions. When he said that some reporters were so taken aback they didn't believe their ears - and waited for the transcript for confirmation before reporting it.

Then on Friday the president will go to Louisiana, for only the second time since it all began. (He'll fly there from Chicago where he's spending the Memorial Day weekend.)

Is this an indication that he's finally ready, figuratively speaking, to jump into the spill with both feet? I wish I could tell you.

Chip Reid, CBS News chief White House Correspondent
Chip Reid, CBS News Capitol Hill Correspondent CBS
Chip Reid is CBS News' chief White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.=http:>