WASHINGTON -- President Obama addressed the ongoing BP oil spill catastrophe from the Oval Office on Tuesday night, using that particular venue for the first time of his presidency because, well, he's trying everything.
No matter what Obama says, as long as the deep-water well is still gushing, his administration is going to be on the defensive.
As time passes, the Obama presidency may be defined more on the long-term cleanup than on the immediate containment of the underwater spill, which Obama called "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced."
For now, the Obama White House is looking reactive because the underwater well is not capped. People are looking at Obama to lead as if we are at war, but at the beginning of the crisis, the Obama White House seemed very dependent on the help of the company that caused the problem in the first place -- BP. That's a reason, I suspect, Obama was defensive early in his speech, aiming at the history books when he said, "from the very beginning of this crisis, the federal government has been in charge."
What Obama may do well -- what government is needed for -- is setting up systems during and in the wake of a catastrophe. Obama's presidency will be judged by the overall response, by the swiftness and amounts of money paid to people who have suffered from the underwater oil spill, and first off, how long it takes to stop the flow of oil that is frighteningly mesmerizing to watch on that underwater camera.
Just last week, Obama was brushing aside a suggestion made during an interview on NBC's "Today" show that he should talk directly to BP CEO Tony Hayward because "I'm not interested in words, I'm interested in actions," arguing that a session would be just for show.
But this is no time to be stubborn, and Obama and his advisers know it. He does not have to prove he's in charge. What Obama has to do is deliver.
Obama will meet with BP's top brass today. On Tuesday night, he sounded as if he were, well, king, making demands on BP.
"I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness. And the fund will not be controlled by BP," Obama said in his speech.
A federal agency that was once obscure -- the Minerals Management Service in the Interior Department -- has gotten a lot of heat from Obama, in the days leading up to his Oval Office speech and during it: "Over the last decade, this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulations with hostility; a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves."
I would have left that lecture for another day, especially because Obama only appointed the new director, Michael Bromwich, after the BP catastrophe.
Obama talked a lot about what he wanted to do in the future -- he created a national commission to "understand the causes of this disaster" at a time when people affected probably just want some upfront cash.
There were two audiences for Obama's speech Tuesday night: those who were directly impacted and want to know where to go to get their claims settled and their water cleaned up, and the rest of us who have the luxury of getting a lecture from Obama on weaning ourselves from oil.
I can't think of another time I have seen Obama deliver a speech from behind a desk, and he looked awkward and robotic -- but seriously, who cares about the optics in the midst of this catastrophe. Obama said the right things for the situation -- but deeds and accomplishments matter, not words. For starters, the underwater gusher is either contained or it is not. And right now it is not.