Obama plans Oval Office speech, BP victims fund as he prepares for 4th Gulf visit

By Erica Werner, AP
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Obama plans speech, victims fund for Gulf

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama demanded that BP set up a compensation fund for the oil-tainted Gulf Coast and prepared for his first Oval Office address to the nation as he tried to wrest control of the environmental disaster threatening to overwhelm his administration.

White House officials announced the steps Sunday as Obama prepared for his fourth visit to the tortured Gulf. They came at a pivotal moment in the catastrophe, with the enormity of the oil spill in sharper focus from more accurate measurements and no end in sight until relief wells are completed in August.

That means the nation must settle in for a long, hot summer of oil and gas spewing relentlessly from the ocean floor, driving residents to anger and despair, ruining precious marshlands, and poisoning pelicans, turtles and other wildlife.

For Obama, it is imperative that he try to help guide the country through the anguishing weeks ahead. After returning Tuesday from a trip to Alabama, Mississippi and Florida he will deliver a prime-time address from the Oval Office. It will be the first time he has used that most presidential of settings as a backdrop, underscoring the urgency of the moment.

“We’re at a kind of inflection point in this saga, because we now know that, what essentially what we can do and what we can’t do, in terms of collecting oil, and what lies ahead in the next few months,” senior adviser David Axelrod said on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “And he wants to lay out the steps that we’re going to take from here to get through this, through this crisis.”

Obama will use the speech to address the challenges associated with the oil spill, from cleanup to damages claims, and will reiterate the need for Congress to pass comprehensive energy legislation stalled in the Senate.

The next day, Wednesday, Obama will convene his first meeting with BP PLC executives, expected to include the company’s much-criticized CEO, Tony Hayward, who will also be grilled on Capitol Hill this week. At the meeting the president will tell company officials he expects them to establish a major compensation fund for people and companies damaged by the spill, to be administered by an independent panel, and that he will use his legal authority to ensure BP complies, White House officials said.

The White House said the size of the fund was to be determined, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., circulated a letter to other senators Sunday to be sent to BP asking for a $20 billion set-aside.

BP spokeswoman Sheila Williams in London said the company was aware of the White House’s plans for an escrow account, but she declined to comment further.

Almost two months since BP’s leased drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf, triggering the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the steps add up to Obama’s most concerted efforts so far to assert leadership in face of the calamity. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to win back the confidence of a skeptical public that’s already seen potentially more than 100 million gallons of crude expelled into the Gulf, far outstripping the Exxon Valdez disaster. Estimates of the size of the spill have ratcheted up time and again even as BP tries to collect some portion of the spewing oil into containment ships at the surface.

With Gulf residents hurting and criticism raining in from Republicans, Obama will try to regain control of a story line, generated by residents and governors of the affected states among others, that he’s not in command.

It’s a hallmark of Obama’s presidency that he’s arriving with deliberation at the point where he tries to seize the moment, not reacting from the gut like President George W. Bush grabbing a bullhorn in the rubble of the Twin Towers after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush’s speech in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina came sooner into that disaster than Obama’s planned Oval Office speech, but it yielded miserably few results, a negative verdict that Obama still has a chance to avoid.

His Gulf trip Monday and Tuesday will take him to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the three Gulf states he has yet to visit, since his first three Gulf trips were all to Louisiana, the most heavily impacted state. He planned public events, visits to beaches and talks with local officials and residents. For the White House the next several days amount to exercising every tool at its disposal — an on-scene visit by the president, a speech from the Oval Office, the use of the power of the presidency to extract concessions from BP.

Alabama’s governor, Bob Riley, complained Sunday that the response to the spill still amounted to “trying to manage this through a committee form.” But Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist, offered a note of thanks.

“You know, whether you’re in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or in my Florida, it’s important to have the leader of the free world come down here and pay attention to what’s happening,” Crist said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” ”So we’re grateful that he is.”

The White House can only hope that sentiment will resonate with — and perhaps be echoed by — the public in the months ahead.

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London and Jennifer Loven in Washington contributed to this report.

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