Obama defending Gulf effort in Oval Office address

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama waves as as he finishes his address to military personnel at the Naval Air Technical Training Center of the Pensacola Naval Air Station June 15, 2010 in Pensacola, Florida.

WASHINGTON — National anger rising, President Barack Obama is defending his efforts against the country's worst environmental disaster and hoping his first Oval Office address Tuesday night will stoke confidence that he can see the job through until the gushing oil is gone and Gulf Coast lives are back to normal.

"We're going to fight back with everything that we've got," Obama said in Pensacola, Fla., capping a two-day inspection tour of the stricken region before flying back to Washington for his evening address to the nation.

Eight weeks to the day after an offshore oil rig leased by BP PLC exploded, killed 11 workers and sent tens of millions of gallons of crude flooding into the Gulf of Mexico, Obama's high-stakes speech came during a week of constantly unfolding drama.

A government panel of scientists determined that the undersea well is leaking even more oil than previously thought, as much as 2.52 million gallons a day - or enough to fill the Oval Office more than 22 times. The total spilled so far could be as much as 116 million gallons.

Lightning even struck. A bolt hit the ship siphoning oil from the leak - injuring no one but halting containment efforts for five hours.

Back on land, as long as the oil keeps flowing, no one seems happy with what anyone is doing to deal with it, from Obama on down.

An Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday showed just as many Americans - 52 percent - are now feeling negative about Obama's spill response as did about President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Also, as then, a majority of the public is angry about what they call a slow government response.

In that regard, the White House announced former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich as Obama choice's for the new head of the agency that regulates the oil industry. In his speech, Obama was going to cite BP's "recklessness" and direct Bromwich to be "the oil industry's watchdog, not its partner," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity since the speech was not yet delivered.

On Capitol Hill, dominating the day before the president looked into the cameras from behind the storied Resolute desk, executives of the largest oil companies were grilled for hours by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lawmakers chastised chief executives representing ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell - as well as BPAmerica - for being no better prepared for the worst than BP.

In sometimes-testy exchanges about the risks of seeking oil under a mile of water, the executives testified their companies would not have managed the Deepwater Horizon well in the same way, suggesting BP shortcuts led to the devastating outcome.

By late Wednesday morning, Obama was to have a much-anticipated White House showdown with BP's executives, followed by a presidential statement - his fourth planned remarks on the spill in three days. Later in the week, BP leaders take the Washington hot seat again, appearing before more congressional hearings.

Even with containment efforts, crude will continue to flow until relief wells are finished in August. With that unhappy summer ahead, White House aides see the president at a potentially crucial point.

Said one spray-painted sign along the president's Florida motorcade route: "Obama you are useless."

And yet, Obama's overall approval rating has not yet dipped, remaining around the 50 percent mark. Further, the public still is far more eager to blame the company than the president, with the poll showing disapproval of BP up to 83 percent.

Before his prime-time audience, Obama was to outline a comprehensive approach - and new promises. With the president slated to speak for only about 18 minutes, it was unlikely he could detail exactly how each would be kept. He was pledging to:

-Ensure BP pays for making whole all local residents and businesses hurt by the spill, by federal force, if necessary. But whether BP agrees to Obama's demand to pay the salaries of oil workers idled by a six-month moratorium on new deep-sea oil drilling remained under discussion with the company, the administration official said.

-See all oil cleaned from the water, off the beaches and out of the marshlands and oversee a costly longer-term restoration of the Gulf's teeming ecology into "better shape than it was before." Obama was expected to demand that BP pay for all environmental degradation it has caused.

-Bring back the region's prized seafood industry, the Gulf's economic lifeblood.

-Require stricter drilling safety measures and more robust spill response plans.

-Achieve passage of sweeping energy and climate change legislation, a key domestic priority of his presidency that had become a long shot. Though Obama supports placing a price on heat-trapping carbon emissions, he wasn't expected to directly state that.

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Associated Press writers Erica Werner in Pensacola, Fla., and Seth Borenstein and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this story.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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