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Obama Turning Oil Spill Into Public Relations Snafu

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- As the catastrophic Gulf oil spill moves into its seventh week, the White House is still struggling to prove it is fully in charge of dealing with America's worst environmental disaster.

So far, the Obama administration is running out of excuses. They're not only losing the battle to contain the spill, they're also losing the argument that they have been in command of the situation from the very beginning.

Public perceptions are everything in a crisis, and the perception in this crisis has been that the administration is letting BP handle this disaster because they don't have a clue about how to deal with it.

Rush Limbaugh

President Obama has talked tough about holding BP responsible for the havoc the massive oil spill is wreaking on the Gulf coast states and their economies. He named a commission to look into its causes and to assess blame (when the number one priority is to plug up the well), and he belatedly admitted that he was responsible for dealing with this mess.

But last week in his first news conference in many months, forced on him by the continuing crisis that was poisoning the Gulf's waters, the president proved he has not really been in charge of the crisis -- admitting that both the federal government and his administration does not have the technical expertise that BP and its many subcontractors have at their disposal.

As the situation worsened last week with BP's latest failure to cap the well -- and it appears that oil will continue to gush into Gulf waters for weeks to come -- the White House desperately began making changes in its public relations strategy and in its command structure.

But the front-page headlines in Tuesday's Washington Post made it clear that the White House isn't seizing control of the situation at all, but going on the attack -- against big oil.

"Obama administration moves to distance itself from BP on oil spill response," the headline read, followed by the subhead that said, "Administration asserts its authority in crisis; Holder heading to Gulf."

That's Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. That's right, the White House is dispatching its top lawyer to Louisiana, not to grapple with an out-of-control offshore oil disaster, but to "meet with federal and state prosecutors." To show it means business this time, the White House leaked that Holder's trip just could mean that "the environmental calamity might become the subject of a criminal investigation," the Post reported.

The message the White House seems to be sending this week is, "When all else fails, send in the lawyers and prosecute."

This raised the strange, if not laughable spectacle of Obama, who is also a lawyer, initiating a criminal investigation or civil action against the company that Obama has conceded is the only one who has the expertise to deal with the crisis and hopefully, end it.

This is taking command of the crisis? This is taking responsibility?

But this was just the beginning of the White House's Keystone Kops response. On Monday -- brace yourself -- the administration said it was no longer sharing the daily briefing podium with BP.

From now on, the administration said, the commander at the site, Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, would do the briefings by himself. The Post called this a "public relations shake up." Some shake up.

Other cosmetic changes were made this week. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who delivered daily briefings with BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, was returned to her post as 8th District commander to focus on the hurricane season response plan.

Meantime, there are reports of bitter dissension between BP and administration officials over a new attempt to stanch the leak after last week's "top kill" effort failed. Obama's chief environmental adviser Carol Browner said Sunday she feared the maneuver would result in 20 percent more oil pouring into the gulf, which BP said was unlikely.

But the White House, with all of its oil drilling and environmental protection resources, and access to the world's top oil-spill experts, seemed out of the loop from the beginning -- treating the disaster as a political and public relations challenge.

Even during last week's news conference, Obama's explanations seemed a touch defensive.

Pounded by questions about how he has handled or mishandled the crisis, the president's "tough words didn't match his frustratingly detached demeanor" as he launched a new political offensive that "marked the beginning of the public relations push by the White House," writes the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart.

Each day that passes, the public questions grow about the White House's inability to grasp this crisis by the throat and to bring to bear all of the available technological resources to put it to an end.

This is not going to be solved by a slick public relations offensive or sending in lawyers and ambulance chasers, changing who is at the briefing podium, or even by naming a blue ribbon commission to find out what went wrong from the beginning.

Instead, this is a crisis that this administration has still not seriously come to grips with, especially at the highest levels of responsibility.

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