WASHINGTON – BP chief executive Tony Hayward committed a faux pas when he admitted he wanted his life back. President Barack Obama is too smart to say it aloud, but he wants his presidency back.
To that end, the president's team this past week unilaterally declared an "inflection point" in the Gulf of Mexico debacle. He framed his Oval Office address and BP's creation of a $20 billion compensation fund as a turning point when the public regained confidence in Obama's response to an environmental disaster whose negative political effects are spreading along with the gushing crude.
The crisis has cost Obama dearly, in time and focus. He'd rather devote his time to push for passage of jobs legislation, put in place his new health care plan, develop an energy package, tend to two wars and deal with other priorities.
That doesn't just hurt him; it's a frustration to congressional Democrats anxious to project a can-do image ahead of the fall elections.
Obama's address to the nation Tuesday night was designed to reassure people that he's in charge in the Gulf, thinking ahead to the nation's broader energy needs and keeping up with the myriad demands of office. He also offered rosy talk that BP soon could capture up to 90 percent of the oil spewing from the broken well. That's extremely iffy.
For all the hype attached to the speech, Obama did himself far more good a day later when he delivered more than words — the $20 billion BP-financed fund to cover the mounting economic costs to those whose lives the oily menace has upended.
Then, Obama tried to shift attention elsewhere.
The president, who began his week on the Gulf's beaches, ended it at a government-financed road project in Ohio, putting his focus squarely on jobs and the economy.
The administration is calling this "Recovery Summer." That refers to an anticipated spike in jobs created by last year's $862 billion economic stimulus package. But it could just as well reflect the administration's hopeful thinking about public perceptions of Obama's handling of the spill, the economy and more.
It will take more than a catchy title, though, to make up for lost ground — on the economy or in the Gulf.
Economic growth has rebounded in the past year. Yet the unemployment rate still is perilously close to 10 percent. About 1 million gallons or more of oil per day still are spewing into the Gulf. An AP-Gfk poll released midweek found that people are angry about the government's handling of the spill, and many doubt Washington really could help them in a disaster.
For all of that, though, the president's overall job performance rating is holding steady at a respectable 50 percent.
Obama has acknowledged that joblessness probably will continue at high levels into next year. He's spoken of the limits of his power in responding to the Gulf spill.
He told people at a Louisiana bait shop: "I can't suck it up with a straw. All I can do is make sure that I put honest hardworking smart people in place" to contain the oil and do right by those it is harming.
And, he might add, put the screws to BP.
That's an important shift from Obama's earlier, scattershot efforts to demonstrate he's tuned in to public sentiment and in control.
Admonished for seeming detached, Obama pushed his anger level to DEFCON 1, promising to kick ass. Accused of being remote, Obama atoned with his physical presence — multiple trips to the Gulf, where he adopted a just-folks vernacular by droppin' Gs when eatin' and talkin' with shrimpers and oystermen.
Eager to demonstrate not just command but compassion, Obama invited relatives of the 11 oil workers killed in the disaster to meet him at the White House, where he cuddled the newborn baby of one of those lost.
The $20 billion recovery fund helps Obama pivot from empathy to concrete problem-solving.
But there's still a risk that high expectations will give way to frustration with how the fund is actually administered by an independent arbiter — not the government.
Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration domestic policy adviser now at the Brookings Institution, said fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg is highly regarded, but also a very careful man. Careful administration of the fund may well mean a slower pace of disbursements than affected families and businesses in the Gulf want. It also could mean that BP isn't asked to pay for everything that the government wants.
Whether the issue is damage claims from the Gulf or jobs created in Ohio, the public is hungry for tangible results.
"The single most important thing right now is to show change that people can believe in," says Galston. "And at this point, the only change they'll believe in is change that they can touch and see and feel — and that's true both in the Gulf and in the economy."
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