WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will address the nation at 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — from the Oval Office, his first televised address from that stately setting since he took office 17 months ago.
Aides to the president said Americans shouldn't read too much symbolism into his decision to speak from his formal work space at the White House, where his predecessors have spoken on matters as weighty as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Past presidents also have used the Oval Office for more routine addresses.
Nonetheless, the scheduling of the address — in prime time hours after Obama finishes a two-day visit to the Gulf Coast, and on the eve of his first meeting with top BP officials — reflects how all-consuming the spill has become for the president after nearly two months of unfolding disaster with no end in sight.
Polls show that the spill hasn't caused major damage to Obama's job approval ratings so far, but warning signs are emerging. A new McClatchy-Ipsos poll of 1,071 adults, conducted Thursday through Sunday and released Monday, found that a plurality of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the spill: Forty-one percent disapprove, compared with 33 percent who approve and 26 percent who are neutral or unsure. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said the president thought that a prime-time address was important because, "We know a lot more now than we knew a week ago or two weeks ago, and the president will lay out for the American people what has happened, what we've done to date and how this will play out going forward, including the steps the federal government will take to ensure the recovery and restoration of the region."
Presidential historian Robert Dallek said that Obama's stepped-up activity on the Gulf spill this week struck him as "not simply a manipulation of image and politics. I think there is a real substantive concern here they're trying to address."
However, Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said it was unclear whether Obama would have much of substance to offer Americans. "It's a big, gooey mess. We're all clear about that," Pitney said.
While the address was still being written Monday, Obama was expected to say that the government has the legal authority to force BP to establish an escrow fund totaling billions to pay businesses and individuals for their losses stemming from the spill if the company doesn't do so voluntarily.
He's also expected to talk about improving regulatory oversight of the industry and about BP's latest estimates on recapturing spilled oil. The government estimates that up to 40,000 barrels of oil are erupting from the blown well daily, and BP is capturing about 15,000 barrels a day.
One of Obama's major goals — prodding Congress to pass an energy bill that puts a price structure on carbon emissions and steers investment toward alternative energy — appears no closer to having the votes needed for passage than it did weeks ago.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Monday that the Oval Office address and the crisis underlying it were "no game changer" for energy and climate-control legislation.
"Except for the new attention being paid to nuclear power, everything that's being said around here is reinventing the wheel. We've been talking about energy alternatives for the 30 years I've been here.
"All this fuss," Grassley concluded, "is because the president has a PR problem."
Still, environmental activists say that the address and the crisis underlying it could provide momentum for less ambitious energy-related measures.
The American Clean Energy Leadership Act, pushed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, includes a renewable energy standard mandating that 15 percent of electric energy come from renewable sources, such as wind or solar power, within 11 years.
Another proposal, by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is proposing more money for nuclear power development and requiring tougher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles.
"There's going to have to be a congressional response, especially with this being an election year,' said Tyson Slocum, the director of the energy program of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization. "But it's going to be tougher to pull together legislation involving the bigger picture, the sweeping reform."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky warned Obama on Monday, however, that "there is bipartisan opposition to using the oil spill disaster as an excuse to pass a job-killing national energy tax, which is totally unrelated to the type of response this catastrophe demands."
Senate Democrats sent a letter Monday to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward urging the company to set aside $20 billion to pay economic damages and cleanup costs. A House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee will hear Tuesday from top executives of the big five oil companies, and Hayward is scheduled to testify later in the week.
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