Obama WH now distancing itself from BP response efforts

The old paradigm:

The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort. As far as I’m concerned, BP is responsible for this horrific disaster, and we will hold them fully accountable on behalf of the United States as well as the people and communities victimized by this tragedy.

We will demand that they pay every dime they owe for the damage they’ve done and the painful losses that they’ve caused. And we will continue to take full advantage of the unique technology and expertise they have to help stop this leak.

But make no mistake: BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance. I’ve designated Admiral Thad Allen, who has nearly four decades of experience responding to such disasters, as the national incident commander. And if he orders BP to do something to respond to this disaster, they are legally bound to do it.

The new paradigm:

Struggling to convey command of the worsening Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Obama administration is taking steps to distance itself from BP and is dispatching Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to the Gulf Coast to meet with federal and state prosecutors. The Holder trip could signal that the environmental calamity might become the subject of a criminal investigation. …

The relationship between the federal government and the oil company has been an awkward collaboration all along — “We have them by the neck,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said of BP in congressional testimony last week — but it reached a turning point Monday when the administration said it no longer wants to share a podium with BP at the daily briefing in Louisiana. Instead, the national incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, will give a solo briefing wherever he happens to be.

The public relations shake-up comes in a tense period, with the Gulf Coast rattled by news that last week’s attempted “top kill” of the well didn’t work. A government forecast shows the oil slick potentially striking the popular tourist beaches of Mississippi and Alabama later this week. The official arrival of hurricane season Tuesday has incited a new rash of dire scenarios. With bad news washing up everywhere, the administration has been desperate to convince the public that the government, and not the oil company, is fully in charge of the crisis and mounting a robust response.

The administration and BP have disagreed over whether the company’s next maneuver would cause a temporary increase in the flow of oil into the gulf. In the coming days, BP plans to saw off the top of the leaking riser pipe where it emerges from the blowout preventer that sits on the well. BP will then lower a containment dome, or cap, onto the riser in an attempt to capture the leaking oil.

Unfortunately for the White House, Barack Obama has yoked himself to BP by insisting that the federal government has been in charge since Day 1 and continues to dictate all of BP’s actions in response to the spill.  Obama deliberately took ownership of the response in Thursday’s press conference.  It’s a little late now to start putting distance between BP and the federal government, especially in the present tense, when everyone now expects the federal government to run the show.

Even the Washington Post has trouble swallowing this:

President Obama and his lieutenants have insisted that the government has full authority. Before BP attempted the top kill, for example, the federal government issued a statement saying it had given approval for the maneuver. Allen, the incident commander, has said that while BP is the “responsible” party, the federal government is “accountable” for the response and that there’s no meaningful way for the government to assume greater authority.

But the daily news briefings have not always bolstered the government’s stature as the commanding authority in the crisis. The briefings have been held at the Unified Area Command headquarters in a Shell Oil training facility in the town of Robert, La. The two principal briefers have been Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and BP’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles.

If the White House attempts to wash its hands of the Gulf spill response now, it will only feed the perception of incompetence that has increasingly taken root in the coverage of the disaster.  Just the backpedaling seen in this effort after Obama’s “buck stops here” moment on Thursday will be seen as vacillating and hardly courageous.  The Post describes the BP response as “seat of the pants,” but that also appears to describe well the White House strategy for both managing the disaster and running the PR campaign that supports it.