President Obama, in the first televised Oval Office message of his presidency, sought to quell rising anger over his response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by saying he will demand that BP's chairman set aside whatever money is needed to compensate those who have been harmed by the company's "recklessness."
"We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused," Obama said in an 18-minute speech. "And we will do whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."
Obama announced that he had asked former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan -- to be funded by BP -- in concert with local states, communities, fishermen, conservationists and residents "as soon as possible."
Obama did not detail what this plan should include.
"Sadly, no matter how effective our response becomes, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done," Obama said. "That's why the second thing we're focused on is the recovery and restoration of the Gulf Coast."
Obama said the millions of gallons of crude oil that have gushed into Gulf waters from a broken well "are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years."
The speech comes on the eve of Obama's meeting with top BP executives at the White House on Wednesday.
"We share the president's goal of shutting off the well as quickly as possible, cleaning up the oil and mitigating the impact on the people and environment of the Gulf Coast," a BP spokesperson said. "We look forward to meeting with President Obama tomorrow for a constructive discussion about how best to achieve these mutual goals."
But House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama shouldn't "exploit this crisis to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses."
He also said any escrow fund established should be used to help Gulf Coast victims, "not as a slush fund for trial lawyers or administration officials seeking to paper over their own misguided decisions."
"I sincerely hope that the Obama administration will not try to use a crisis made worse by its own failings to score political points on the backs of Americans living and working on the Gulf Coast," Boehner said in a written statement. "This moment demands a call to action based on our shared interest in stopping this leak, cleaning up this mess, and finding out what went wrong."
Much of Obama's speech was devoted to a recitation of steps his administration has taken to clean the oil, help the distraught people of the Gulf and prevent another environmental crisis.
"We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes," Obama said.
Obama used the speech not only to lay out his administration's plan to contain the oil spill but also to try and reverse the political toll it's taken on his presidency. The president has taken a hit in the polls as oil continues to wash onto beaches and into critical wildlife habitat. And the crisis has taken up much of his time, forcing him to cancel a trip to Asia and Australia while threatening to stall his legislative agenda on such issues as financial overhaul, climate change and immigration reform.
The speech set the stage for his showdown meeting Wednesday at the White House with top executives at British-based, BP, the company that leased the rig that exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and causing the catastrophic spill. It's part of an effort by Obama, who's been seen by some as detached as the oil spill disaster initially unfolded, to convince a frightened Gulf Coast and a skeptical nation that he is in command.
Democrats who were given an advance briefing by the White House on Obama's speech praised the president's remarks.
"It's time to take this tragedy and turn it into an opportunity," Sen. Bill Neslon, D-Fla., said in a written statement. "I congratulate the president on saying we are now going to declare that this nation is getting on the road rapidly to breaking our dependence on oil. We are at a point now, through research and development, that we are going to wean ourselves from petroleum addiction."