Obama makes spill personal, aims to assert control

WASHINGTON Thu May 27, 2010 6:20pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When it comes to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the buck stops and stops and stops with President Barack Obama.

"This is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about ... my job is to get this fixed. ... I take responsibility ... I'm fully engaged," he insisted near the end of his first formal, full-scale White House news conference in almost a year.

Lest there be any confusion: "The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort," he said.

Asserting control comes with a calculated risk. It is Obama's disaster now and any failure to stop the gusher will likely be his.

In the 37 days since the Deep Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 people and sending a continuous stream of oil from a ruptured BP well 1 mile down on the seabed, Obama has been under pressure to take charge.

Even his 11-year-old daughter, not to mention a frustrated U.S. electorate, expects him to stop an oil spill that has stymied scientists and engineers.

"You know, when I woke up this morning and I'm shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?'" Obama said.

A CBS News poll this week found 35 percent of Americans surveyed approved of the Obama administration's handling of the disaster, 45 percent disapproved and 20 percent were undecided.

'WAKE-UP CALL'

Obama needed to reassure those people on Thursday. He used words like "tragedy," said he was angry and frustrated, and referred to the spill as a "wake-up call" for a revamped energy policy. He invoked science, dying turtles and "birds flying around with oil all over their feathers."

He said the administration was overseeing the effort to address the spill, admitted it was slow to challenge BP's estimates of the amount of leaking oil, and attacked the government agency responsible for offshore drilling.

In short, he positioned himself -- again -- to be the opposite of his Republican predecessor, former President George W. Bush, whose widely panned response to the environmental and human crisis that was Hurricane Katrina helped define his administration.

Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, did not buy it.

"It took Mr. Obama 12 days to show up in the region. Democrats criticized President George W. Bush for waiting four days after Katrina to go to New Orleans," he wrote in a piece for The Wall Street Journal published earlier on Thursday.

"Where has its plan been? And why has the White House been so slow with decisions?"

Americans like it when politicians take responsibility for mistakes, and Obama's message may gain him some sympathy.

Whether it was convincing enough may be out of his hands. The president said the government did not have better technology than BP did to fix the problem.

That means no matter how often Obama expresses anger or how fast he addresses the related regulatory problems, Americans will worry until BP can plug the leak and the mess is cleaned up.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)