WASHINGTON -- Struggling to show leadership in a crisis, President Barack Obama is embarking on a three-state tour of Gulf Coast states tainted by oil before speaking to the nation about the country's worst environmental disaster and what to expect in the weeks ahead.
Before the start Monday of a two-day trip to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the White House announced Obama would order BP to establish a major victims' compensation fund. When he returns to Washington this evening Obama will use his first Oval Office speech as president to address the catastrophe.
BP said in a statement that its costs for responding to the spill had risen to $1.6 billion, including new $25 million grants to Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. It also includes the first $60 million for a project to build barrier islands off the Louisiana coast. The estimate does not include future costs for scores of damage lawsuits already filed.
Obama's first three trips to the Gulf took him to the hardest-hit state, Louisiana. On Monday, Day 56 since BP's leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and unleashed oil into the Gulf, he's flying to Gulfport, Miss. From there he'll travel along the coast to Alabama, where oil was washing up in heavy amounts along the shores Sunday in the eastern part of the state.
He'll be met by state and local officials eager for him to show command, provide manpower and supplies and also tell the public that despite the catastrophe that's crippling the fishing and tourist trades, many beaches are still open.
The administration said early Monday that BP had responded to a letter sent over the weekend asking the company to speed up its ability to capture the spewing oil.
In its response, BP said it would target containing more than 2 million gallons of oil a day by the end of June, up from about 630,000 gallons of crude a day now. High-range estimates from researchers advising the government say as much as 2.1 million gallons a day could be billowing from BP's runaway well.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley planned to ask the president for more leadership and coordination.
"Essentially we're trying to manage this through a committee form, and it's a committee where any one member has absolute veto power," Riley said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "I don't think you can do that." He added: "I think we're going to have to set priorities. We're going to have to implement a plan to achieve those goals if we're going to get through this."
Although BP is now siphoning off significant amounts of oil from its well 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface, the leak won't be killed for good until relief wells are completed in August. At the same time more accurate estimates of the spill have brought the enormity of the disaster into focus. Already potentially more than 100 million gallons of crude expelled into the Gulf, far outstripping the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Now the nation may have to settle in for a long, hot summer of oil and gas spewing relentlessly from the ocean floor, driving residents to anger and despair, ruining precious marshlands, and poisoning pelicans, turtles and other wildlife.
For Obama, it is imperative that he try to help guide the country through what's to come. Obama will aim to accomplish that with his speech Tuesday and also detail specifics of the response to the oil spill, from cleanup to damages claims.
The next day, Wednesday, Obama will convene his first meeting with BP PLC executives, expected to include the company's much-criticized CEO, Tony Hayward. The president will tell company officials he expects them to establish a multibillion-dollar compensation fund for people and companies damaged by the spill, to be administered by an independent panel, and that he will use his legal authority to ensure BP complies, White House officials said.
BP was convening a board meeting Monday to discuss deferring its second-quarter dividend and putting the money into escrow until the company's liabilities from the spill are known. BP spokeswoman Sheila Williams in London said the company was aware of the White House's demand for a compensation fund, but declined to comment further.
The steps add up to Obama's most concerted efforts so far to assert leadership in face of the calamity, with the White House exercising every tool at its disposal -- an on-scene visit by the president, a speech from the Oval Office, the use of the power of the presidency to extract concessions from BP. The White House hopes it will be enough to win back the confidence of a skeptical public.
James Carville, a leading Clinton administration political adviser, said Tuesday night's speech gives Obama "a chance to hit the reset button" on the administration's posture regarding the spill.
He said he believes the American people are anxiously awaiting Obama's talk, but that the president has "to show that he's on top of this, that there's a strategy in place." Carville commented Monday morning on ABC's "Good Morning America."