Obama Vows to Help Stop Oil Spill's "Assault"

President Obama speaks after touring Gulf Coast oil spill response efforts
Intent on showing firm command of a deepening Gulf Coast crisis, President Barack Obama inspected a fouled beach, took in what he called "heartbreaking stories" of the catastrophe and declared "we're going to keep at it" until the America's largest-ever oil spill is stopped and cleaned up.

"It's an assault on our shores, on our people, on the regional economy and on communities like this one," said Mr. Obama, from this small barrier island town south of New Orleans that is threatened by the massive oil leak. "People are watching their livelihoods wash up on the beach."

With more than 20,000 people already in the region working to contain and clean up the still-gushing crude, Mr. Obama announced he was tripling the manpower in places where oil has washed ashore or is about to.

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"This is our highest priority and it deserves a response that is equal to the task," he said at a shoreside podium in front of a stretch of sparkling blue, unmarred water. Before he spoke, dolphins and fish could be seen gliding through the water and seabirds frequently fluttered past.

Mr. Obama made a promise to coast residents reminiscent of previous presidents speaking after disasters - such as George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"I'm here to tell you that you are not alone, you will not be abandoned, you will not be left behind," Mr. Obama said. "The media may get tired of the story, but we will not. We will be on your side and we will see this through."

He came armed with specific advice for beleaguered locals and the concerned U.S. public.

Acknowledging that storm-battered coastal states have "weathered your fair share of trials and tragedy," he directed those in the region who are filing claims for damages to count on the government - state and federal - to help cut any red tape.

To the public at large, he pleaded for volunteers to join the cleanup effort and for tourists to spend money along the majority of the region's coastline that is untouched by the spill.

"One of the most powerful ways you can help the Gulf right now is to visit the coast," the president said. With the exception of three Louisiana beaches, "all the Gulf's beaches are open, and they are safe, and they are clean."

The president flew to the Gulf Coast amid a rising crescendo of criticism as crude continued to spew into nature after an oil rig exploded and sank April 20. Amid fears the tragedy could also engulf his presidency, Mr. Obama has launched a campaign to step up public engagement and directly confront the public's anger.

That frustration - and skepticism about the presidential visit - was palpable here in Grand Isle, a small barrier island town south of New Orleans.

"It's a dog and pony show. What can he really do?" said Billy Ward, 53, who comes to his beach house here every weekend. "If he wants to do something, let him get out there and pump some mud and cement into that hole. Just fix it. Help us."

On Thursday, Mr. Obama held a rare White House news conference to address the matter, saying "I take responsibility" for handling what is now considered the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

And on Friday, he interrupted a Memorial Day weekend stay with his family at their Chicago home for the Gulf visit, with his first stop a beach where absorbent booms and sandbags have been laid for miles to try to keep more oil from washing ashore.

No oil could be seen in the water during Mr. Obama's helicopter ride from New Orleans, over Louisiana bayous, to Port Fourchon down the coast from Grand Isle.

That changed when he arrived at Fourchon Beach, however.

A shirt-sleeved Mr. Obama walked to the water's edge, stooping as Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard explained what he was seeing.

Allen said on CBS' "Early Show" that the cleanup already is enormously difficult. "It's a real, real tough challenge, especially in the remote areas where you have marshlands involved," he said.

The beach, sealed off with crime-scene-style yellow tape, is one of the few sandy stretches on Louisiana's coast, where most is marshland. Mr. Obama called reporters traveling with him to the water's edge and picked up a few pebble-sized tar balls. No other oil was visible.

"These are the tarballs that they're talking about," he said. "You can actually send out teams to pick up as they wash on shore.

He added, "Obviously the concern is that, until we actually stop the flow, we've got problems."

After about 15 minutes at the beach, the president headed to Grand Isle for a formal briefing from Allen, who is overseeing the spill response for the federal government. At intervals along the way were handwritten wooden signs stuck in the sand with "BEACH CLOSED" in black block letters. One woman held up a sign saying "Clean Up the Gulf" while two people played guitar and sang.

Mr. Obama was joined by the governors of Louisiana, Florida and Alabama. He was spending a total of about three hours in the region.

Some say Mr. Obama's seemingly "hands off" approach to the disaster will cost him.

"The president has not been as visible as he should have been on this, and he's going to pay a political price for it, unfortunately," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told POLITICO Thursday, adding that "if he personally steps up his activity, I think that would be very helpful."

Early in the morning in advance of the president's arrival, hundreds of workers clad in white jump suits and rubber gloves hit the beaches to dig oily debris from the sand and haul it off. Workers refused to say who hired them, telling a reporter only they were told to keep quiet or lose their jobs.

BP PLC is using what is called a "top kill" procedure to try to stop the leak by pumping in heavy mud. If it doesn't work, something BP says will be known within a couple days, Obama's political problems will only compound.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama acknowledged his administration could have done a better job on several fronts. They included misjudging the industry's ability to handle a worst-case scenario, not moving sooner to end "cozy and sometimes corrupt" relations between the oil industry and government regulators, and not getting a better estimate on the amount of oil gushing from the broken well.

He spoke in sometimes personal terms about his ownership of the crisis.

"I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down," Mr. Obama said. "This is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about."

He also announced a series of new restrictions on oil drilling projects. And the first political casualty of the spill came Thursday when Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the Minerals Management Service that oversees offshore drilling, resigned under pressure.

But locals suffering the effects of the oil that is soiling birds and darkening beaches didn't see much coming from Mr. Obama's visit.

A frustrated Larry Freman, 72, who was cleaning up around his vacation home on Grand Isle's main drag, usually packed with tourists for the holiday, said Obama should have stayed home.

"He's wasting his time," the oil business veteran said.

Ward, a developer from Port Allen, was in the midst of building a gated fishing community here when the oil rig exploded. "We can't build this development not knowing if there's going to be any fishing here ever again," he said. "We don't know if it's gonna be six months or six years before we get back to normal, if ever."

Virginia Smith, 36, wasn't impressed.

"I like the man, but I personally feel he's only here to please everybody," she said. "He's not here to make any changes."

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the government was still evaluating offers from 17 countries and organizations for such things as technical expertise and equipment. The Coast Guard hasn't yet accepted any of the foreign help, but BP has accepted booms and skimmers from Mexico and Norway.

Meanwhile, Allen said oil giant BP PLC had succeeded, at least temporarily, in stopping the flow of oil and gas from the well by pumping in heavy mud. "We're very encouraged by the fact they can push the mud down," Allen said. "The real question is can we sustain it."

That should become clear sometime Friday night, he said. If so, the next step would be plugging the well with cement. BP officials said Friday it would take a couple of days to know if the fix worked.

BP PLC boss Tony Hayward told "Early Show" co-anchor Maggie Rodriquez Friday that the company's "top kill" attempt to plug the gusher had been "partially successful" thus far, and that the first full day of work had demonstrated that the technology "is working."

"Nothing has gone wrong so far," said Hayward, BP's CEO, adding that engineers had been able to gather vital data on the pressure inside the blowout preventer and well itself.

The oil disaster in the Gulf has become the worst spill in U.S. history.

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