White House: Obama poised to take claims processing away from BP unless it changes system

By Erica Werner, AP
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

White House: Obama ready to seize claims process

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Laying the groundwork for an evening speech to the nation, President Barack Obama walked a pristine stretch of sand on Florida’s shoreline Tuesday and promised to be a “fierce advocate” for those whose lives have been upended by the spreading oil lurking offshore.

Obama’s challenge was spelled out clearly in a sign held up by one of the passersby who watched the president’s motorcade whisk through this beach town: “Lead now,” it said.

His spokesman said Obama is poised to seize the handling of oil spill damage claims from BP to ensure people get the help they need to recover from the environmental disaster. The president will outline his specific plans and expectations in a prime-time Oval Office speech.

The president began his day by inspecting gulf waters from the unsullied white sands of Pensacola Beach with Gov. Charlie Crist and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. People were swimming in the glistening, emerald green water and seagulls walked along the sands at the president’s feet. But oil is nearby even if it can’t be seen, according to Allen.

Onlookers chanted “Save our beach, save our beach.”

After a briefing with Allen and other officials, the president promised to be a “fierce advocate to be sure they get the compensation they need to get through what will be a tough season.”

Tourism in the area already is down 40 percent even though “you can have a wonderful holiday here,” he said. “There are obviously fears about the oil that’s offshore.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the reason for wresting the claims-handling process from the British petroleum giant would be to make economically distressed individuals and businesses “whole.”

Obama was to fly back to Washington for the 8 p.m. address from the Oval Office.

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.

“I am confident that we’re going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before,” Obama said Monday.

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.

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