President Barack Obama is poised to seize the handling of oil spill damage claims from BP, his chief spokesman said Tuesday, as Obama sought to reassure people he's up to the enormous challenge of helping them recover from the environmental disaster. He will outline his specific plans and expectations in a prime-time Oval Office speech.
The aim of wresting the claims-handling from the British petroleum giant, press secretary Robert Gibbs said, would be to make economically distressed individuals and businesses "whole." The claims processing problem is among several difficult issues that Obama planned to address directly in the talk to the nation.
From the White House, Gibbs was interviewed on several network morning news shows as Obama prepared for a second day of briefings — this time in Florida — and got ready for a speech at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. He was to fly back to Washington for the 8 p.m. address from the Oval Office.
The president began his day with a walk along Pensacola Beach with Gov. Charlie Crist and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. People were swimming in the emerald green water. But oil is nearby even if it can't be seen, according to Allen.
Onlookers chanted "Save our beach, save our beach."
Voicing increasing confidence in his ability to confront the nation's worst environmental crisis, Obama was set to outline a comprehensive response and recovery program, while assuring not only the people from the afflicted region, but all across America, that his administration will guide the country to a recovery.
On the matter of the disputed damage payments, Gibbs said, "We have to get an independent claims process. I think everyone agrees that we have to get BP out of the claims processes and, as I said, make sure that fishermen, hotel owners have a fast, efficient and transparent claims process so that they're getting their livelihoods replaced."
"This disaster has taken their ability to make a living away from them," he said. "We need to do this quickly, and we have to make sure that whatever money goes into that — that in no way caps what BP is responsible for. Whatever money they owe to anybody in the Gulf, they're going to have to pay regardless of the amount."
He noted in one interview that Obama "has the legal authority" to make the claims process independent. And Gibbs said "the best way to prevail upon BP is to take the claims process away from BP."
"The president will either legally compel them," he said, "or come to an agreement with BP to get out of the claims process, give that to an independent entity."
Obama's address to the nation sets the stage for his showdown White House meeting Wednesday with top BP executives. BP leased the rig that exploded April 20 and led to the leak of millions of gallons of coast-devastating crude. It's part of an effort by Obama, who's been accused of appearing somewhat detached as the oil spill disaster has unfolded, to convince a frightened Gulf Coast and a skeptical nation that he is in command.
Obama was to deliver the speech upon his return from a two-day swing through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, his fourth trip to the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that set off the disaster, but his first outside the hardest-hit state of Louisiana.
The trip gave him ammunition for the speech and for his meeting with BP executives where he intends to finalize the details of a victims compensation fund. He visited vacant beaches in Mississippi where the threat of oil had scared off tourists, heard the stories of local employers losing business, watched hazmat-suited workers scrub down boom in a staging facility in Theodore, Ala., and took a ferry ride through Mobile Bay and then to Orange Beach, Ala., where oil has lapped on the shore.
"We're gathering up facts, stories right now so that we have an absolutely clear understanding about how we can best present to BP the need to make sure that individuals and businesses are dealt with in a fair manner and a prompt manner," the president said Monday.
"I am confident that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before," he said.
That pledge was reminiscent of George W. Bush's promise to rebuild the region "even better and stronger" than before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush could not make good on that promise, and Obama did not spell out how he would fulfill his. Tuesday's speech will give him the chance.
Presidents reserve the Oval Office for rare televised addresses. When they take their place behind the desk, it's a time for solemnity and straight talk — often a moment of history. There is a sense of gravity. One man by himself before one television camera speaking to the nation.
Oval Office addresses typically aren't lengthy discourses like a State of the Union, but if a president has to go for broke, this is where he does it. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. Ronald Reagan spoke there after the space shuttle Challenger explosion. John F. Kennedy grimly explained the Cuban missile crisis. Richard Nixon announced his resignation.
Obama hasn't used it yet. Not even during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Not to explain painfully high unemployment rates. Or bank and auto company bailouts. Not to speak of terrorism threats. Even when his health insurance plan was in peril, he did not speak from the Oval Office to rally support or explain to Americans why he considered it vital.