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Obama's Oil Spill Press Conference May Have Changed Perceptions -- But The Reality Remains The Same

Obama Oil Spill

First Posted: 05/27/10 09:23 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:35 PM ET

President Obama hammered home his main talking point over and over again on Thursday, during his first press conference in 10 months.

"The federal government is fully engaged, and I'm fully engaged," he said. "The United States government has always been in charge of making sure that the response is appropriate," he said. "Every day I see this leak continue I am angry and frustrated as well," he said.

Message: I'm in charge -- and I care. Or as he himself put it: "My job right now is just to make sure that everybody in the Gulf understands this is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about."

The press conference was a powerful rhetorical rejoinder to the growing perception that Obama has been personally disengaged from the disaster in the Gulf.

But there was very little there for those who are more concerned with what's actually happening on the ground and in the water than with presidential optics.

And to those unhappy with the speed or the extent of the government response, to those scientists who question some of the decisions that have been made, and to those Louisiana residents who think not enough is being done, he didn't actually announce any changes. There is no new plan. He just tried to redefine what is.

Obama praised the government's response so far. "I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis," he said.

But his confidence doesn't seem justified.

Obama did acknowledge one post-spill mistake, saying that the government didn't push BP hard enough to release video from the sea floor. Indeed, it wasn't until well into week three of the spill that BP released that first, nauseating video clip; and not until Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) demanded a live feed more during week four that BP relented on that front.

But that's far from the only example of BP pushing the government around rather than -- as Obama would have us believe -- vice versa.

Obama actually put it very well: In stark contrast with the public interest, he said, BP's interest "may be to minimize the damage, and to the extent that they have better information than anybody else, to not be fully forthcoming."

And time and again, the government has ceded to BP's interest.

It was only today - 38 days into the spill - that the government finally arrived at a somewhat more realistic estimate of the size of the spill: somewhere between 15 and 39 million gallons, making it (surprise) by far the worst in U.S. history.

Only in the last few days has the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a concerted attempt to measure and track the vast plumes of sub-surface oil that environmentalists have been warning about for weeks. (BP certainly doesn't have any interest in seeing them measured.)

On shore, BP continues to chase journalists off public property.

Perhaps most catastrophically, the government continues to defer to BP when it comes to the use of dispersants. Despite an EPA stop order, BP is still using a dispersant that is toxic. And the unprecedented amount of dispersants BP is applying to the leak may be doing a better job of hiding the evidence than protecting the environment.

And is it a coincidence that there are no concerted efforts to contain and collect the oil -- an exercise that might well help quantify what's out there?

So Obama can say he's in charge and BP isn't, but that doesn't make it so. And Obama's insistence that he is personally engaged and responsible didn't even make it through the press conference unscathed. It didn't seem very "hands-on" when Obama claimed that he hadn't been informed about his own staff's decision to force out Elizabeth Birnbaum, the director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

Finally, all of this could backfire badly when and if it becomes clear that the response he now owns was badly flawed -- and as the oil keeps coming.

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