May 27, 2010 / 5:05 AM / 9 years ago

Up from the deep sea: a nightmare for Obama

* Slow-moving behemoth turns heat up for president

* “Heartbreaking,” says Obama

* Democrats, Republicans raise questions

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON, May 27 (Reuters) - Up from the briny deep of the Gulf of Mexico came a nightmare for President Barack Obama.

Unlike Hurricane Katrina and its immediate, frightful images of people in crisis, the gushing BP oil well has been a slow-moving behemoth that is now taking a political toll on the U.S. president.

Obama was already immersed in a long list of problems — pushing a financial regulation overhaul, prodding Europe to stem a financial crisis, pressuring Iran and North Korea.

And don’t forget the 9.9 percent U.S. jobless rate, two wars and Obama’s hopes for immigration and energy legislation before Washington stops for Nov. 2 congressional elections.

Now the greatest environmental calamity since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 has fallen into his lap. He declared it “heartbreaking.”

“We will not rest until this well is shut, the environment is repaired and the cleanup is complete,” Obama said on Wednesday. He makes his second visit to the Gulf on Friday.

The word at the White House is that Obama is frustrated at the delays BP Plc has encountered in stopping the leak. “Plug the damn hole,” he has told senior government officials.

And he is feeling heat from some of his own allies to get something done.

James Carville, the Louisiana native and Democratic consultant who helped Bill Clinton get elected in 1992, is known as the “Ragin’ Cajun” and here is why:

“Man, you (Obama) got to get down here and take control of this! Put somebody in charge of this thing and get this moving! We’re about to die down here!” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, fearful for his state’s coastline, was less bellicose, but just as worried.

He told CNN if a BP “top kill” procedure to stem the leak does not work, then Obama has to order the federal government to take over the operations.

MILITARY IN CHARGE?

“I think the president doesn’t have any choice and he better go in, completely take over, perhaps with the military in charge,” Nelson said.

“You’ve got to have BP’s cooperation because they’ve got the technical instruments, but we’ve got to have somebody take charge. I think the U.S. military is best suited to do that,” he said.

A CBS News poll found that 35 percent of Americans surveyed approved of the Obama administration’s handling of the oil spill, 45 percent disapproved and 20 percent were undecided.

Republicans eager to make gains on Democrats’ majorities in Congress in November have begun to raise questions about whether oversight was lacking.

“The Obama administration approved drilling at this site, approved the oil spill response plan and says it was paying attention,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

The most immediate concern is stopping the leak. The problem for the White House is that it has no real alternative except to rely on BP’s technology and expertise to do it.

That means Obama is forced into an uneasy alliance with BP — outraged that the leak took place but hopeful that the energy giant can stop it.

A mixed message of sorts has resulted. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has railed publicly about BP: “Deadline after deadline has been missed ... If we find they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately.”

However, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. disaster response chief, has softened his punches to avoid alienating the company. “They’re exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak,” Allen said.

Presidential historian Thomas Schwartz, a Vanderbilt University professor, said presidencies are often defined by the crises encountered.

He said the oil spill could prove to be a defining crisis but he cautioned against comparing the leak to Katrina, for instance.

“This one has been slowly developing and could have those qualities, but if BP were to suddenly get it capped, things could be defused very quickly. The air could go out of the balloon,” Schwartz said. (Editing by David Alexander and Anthony Boadle)

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