GRAND ISLE, La. — Dogged for being too calm in crisis, President Barack Obama unleashed frustration for all to see Friday, warning BP it had better do right by the people whose lives it has wrecked.
The president’s third trek to the Gulf of Mexico was about the workers with no government titles, the shrimpers and the shopkeepers, the fishermen whose lives have been upended and are running out of people to blame.
Yet Obama’s trip was also about him.
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He says it serves little substantive point to go around and yell — that people want results, not a show — but presidents face peril if they do not connect emotionally. As the crisis has dragged on — and his poll ratings have slipped — his words for BP’s leaders have grown sharper.
“I don’t want them nickel-and-diming people down here,” Obama said after his latest briefing on the oil response. He promised his government would look over BP’s shoulder to ensure it was paying out claims.
His visit amounted to one long I’m-on-your-side passage for reeling communities. Along that same line, he invited family members of the 11 workers killed when the BP rig blew up to visit the White House next Thursday. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president had written to each of the families.
As for BP, Obama cast the oil company as a corporate giant interested in protecting its image with TV ads and its shareholders with bountiful dividends.
“I don’t want somebody else bearing the costs of those risks that they took,” Obama said. “I want to make sure that they’re paying for it.”
The president’s visit came as engineers with BP worked to settle a funnel-like cap over the deep-sea leak to try to collect some of the crude now fouling four states. It was not clear how much oil was being captured, and some continued to flow, generating frightening photos of seabirds clogged in the muck.
The oil rig that exploded on April 20 has caused a massive, ongoing spill that is polluting the waters and shores of the Gulf states and consuming the attention of the president. Obama scrapped a trip to Indonesia and Australia to deal with it — no small international sacrifice, especially since he had already resorted to that move once before this year to finish a health care law.
Yet in unleashing his most fiery words yet about BP, Obama underscored his awkward situation: To fix the problem, he is reliant on the same people whose motives he now questions. The government is not equipped to handle the tricky, deepwater effort BP is leading to fix its gushing well.
From his briefing outside New Orleans, Obama bounded on a two-hour-plus motorcade drive to Grand Isle, a small barrier island, to hear from the people. The weather made the trip feel fittingly hard. A driving rain forced him to drop plans to travel by helicopter.
Along the way, he passed this roadside sign: “HELP US NOW!!”
At another spot, the side of a building had been adorned with a portrait of Obama reminiscent of his famous presidential campaign posters. Instead of “hope” or “change,” the words “what now?” were on his forehead.
In casual clothes, Obama went to a bait shop to talk to fishing industry workers about how the disastrous oil spill is affecting their business. The shop owner was there to meet him along with a shrimper, an oysterman, a marina owner and others.
Obama rolled up his sleeves and sat down at a table with the workers, and they all dug into shrimp and corn on the cob. One by one, they told Obama their gut-wrenching stories, which he then related to reporters.
“Terry’s been shrimping out here for 45 years. Right now things are completely shut out,” the president said. “Floyd has oil seeping into these oyster beds.”
The mayor of Grand Isle, David Camardelle, choked up as he told of staying up nights worrying, “looking at the ceiling fan.”
“We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Camardelle said. “I’m trying to keep Grand Isle alive.”
Obama later talked with other Grand Isle residents gathered near the bait shop, on the shore near some shrimp boats, promising them: “We’re not going to forget that this is a way of life.”
“Even when I’m not here, I’m thinking about you,” Obama said.
More than six weeks into the disaster, the president’s demeanor has come into question. The calm-in-crisis state that helped him win the presidency has seemed off in tone.
Just ahead of the Gulf visit, he declared himself furious at a situation that “is imperiling an entire way of life and an entire region for potentially years.” He criticized BP for not responding more quickly.
But polls show the public growing more negative toward the president’s own handling of the spill, and he was aiming to demonstrate he was staying on top of the situation Friday — without getting in the way. Obama visited the Gulf region twice in May, and this tour surely will not be his last.
“We’ll keep on coming back until we have dealt with an unprecedented crisis,” Obama promised.
Somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of crude oil has been disgorged into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, according to government estimates.
Obama’s administration on Thursday handed BP a $69 million bill for recovery costs to date — a figure sure to grow in the weeks and months ahead.