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« Palin Endorses Murkowski's GOP Challenger | Blog Home Page | White House Political Operation In The Crosshairs »

Gulf Disaster Response Competed For President's Attention

Six weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House still finds itself on the defensive amid questions about the president's level of attention and focus on the unfolding crisis. In a press conference last week, President Obama emphatically stated that he took "full responsibility" for the government's response, while challenging that those who say "we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts."

A review of the president's schedule since the rig sank finds that while the oil spill has been a regular part of the agenda, other priorities -- and some extended periods of R&R -- competed for time. April 22, the day the rig sank and two days after the first explosion, is indicative of this pattern. That morning, Obama traveled to New York City to deliver remarks on Wall Street reform. En route, press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked whether Obama had spoken with officials in the region about the rig explosion, responding, "I don't believe so." After returning to the White House, Obama held a reception to honor Earth Day and met with the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

But he also held his first meeting on the rig explosion with a dozen officials in the Oval Office. The White House released this photo, along with a statement that, "the President and First Lady's thoughts and prayers are with the family members and loved ones facing the tragic situation in the Gulf of Mexico."

The very next day, Obama and the first lady departed for a weekend getaway in Asheville, North Carolina. The trip would include visits to local eateries, a tour of the Vanderbilt's estate, and two golf outings. That Sunday, Obama also met with the Rev. Billy Graham and later spoke at a memorial service honoring coal miners who died in a West Virginia mine explosion.

Only late in the following week -- and after a two-day Midwest trip focused on the economy -- did the oil spill return to Obama's agenda. On April 29, a full week after the rig sank, did Obama discuss the situation publicly, before an event honoring the national Teacher of the Year. Obama's daily intelligence briefing that morning included an update on the efforts to contain the spill, and Gibbs' daily press briefing included officials from the EPA, Homeland Security and the Coast Guard. That night, Obama spoke at a fundraiser for the DNC.

On April 30, Obama again discussed the spill before previously scheduled comments on the latest GDP numbers. A moratorium on new offshore drilling was announced; Obama later traveled to the Secret Service's training center. The following day, he spoke at the University of Michigan's commencement ceremony, before returning to Washington for the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner. He included comments on the oil spill, and mentioned his first trip to the Gulf Coast region the following day. Also that Saturday, Thad Allen was designated national incident commander, and participated in a conference call with reporters along with John Brennan, Obama's deputy national security adviser.

After that trip, briefings on the disaster response became a more regular part of the president's private and public schedule. But other agenda items competed for attention as well. On May 3, for example, Obama participated on a conference call with local officials in the Gulf region, while Secretaries Janet Napolitano and Ken Salazar met with BP leadership. But Obama also honored the U.S. Naval Academy for winning the Commander-in-Chief trophy, and later hosted a dinner for members of the Business Council. Later that week, he held and event honoring Cinco de Mayo and met in the Situation Room on the ongoing military action in Afghanistan. That Saturday, another golf outing, his third since the crisis began.

The week of May 10 was similarly busy. Monday, he announced Elena Kagan as his nominee for the Supreme Court, met with his Intelligence Advisory Board, and met in the Situation Room with officials to discuss the Gulf disaster. On Tuesday, the FEMA administrator joined Gibbs at his daily briefing as the president met with Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal ahead of Wednesday's visit by Afgan President Hamid Karzai. Thursday, Obama traveled to Buffalo to discuss the economy, stopping at a local eater to sample famous wings. He then attended a fundraiser for the DCCC in New York City, also stopping by the NYPD command post. Friday, he held another meeting with Cabinet officials on the spill, which he discussed at a later event honoring the TOP COPS. The weekend included yet another trip to Fort Belvoir for a round of golf.

The following week included a trip to Youngstown, Ohio, a state visit by Mexican President Calderon, and a commencement address at West Point. That weekend also included a fifth round of golf -- this time at Andrews -- and a morning shooting hoops at Fort McNair. His weekly radio and YouTube address was focused on the steps being taken to respond to the worsening crisis.

It was last week, however, when the administration felt the most heat on the crisis, particularly after a trip to California for fundraisers benefiting Sen. Barbara Boxer. Just before a planned long-weekend getaway with the First Family to Chicago, Obama held a rare news conference in which he said he took full responsibility for the response, denied that his administration was too deferential to BP, and rebutted the criticisms that he had not acted swiftly enough. But before that news conference, Obama had photo ops with the U.S. World Cup team, and a ceremony honoring the Duke Blue Devils men's basketball team. Those kind of "ceremonial" duties of the president - while certainly part of the job - provide problematic imagery for a president who is in full blown crisis management mode.

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden echoed the president's sentiment on optics, telling Charlie Rose that comments from columnists like Maureen Dowd and comparisons to the Iranian hostage crisis are not "legitimate criticisms." "From my perspective," he said, "I think if there's any mistake made that we haven't communicated clearly enough."