BP Oil Spill: Locals Respond to Obama’s Oval Office Speech

Watching President Obama’s Oval Office speech on the Gulf Coast with oil spill claimants, Rick Outzen found support for the rhetoric—and cynicism over whether action will follow words.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The Atlas Oyster Bar was packed. On Tuesday nights, all the sushi at this little bar, with its deck over Pensacola Bay, is half-price. Looking out into the water, you could see orange and yellow boom protecting the nearby marina and grass beds.

Inside, the young crowd watched President Obama give his first speech from the Oval Office, 512 days into his administration and 57 days since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Patrons elbow to hear his opening remarks, but time was not the president’s friend: gradually, over the course of the 20-minute address, they slipped back to their sushi rolls, beer and conversations about work days, heat and tar balls.

“At the end of the day, my client will give his claim to the same BP claim adjuster who is not going to approve it.”

“Pensacola has always had short-sighted goals,” explains Justin Griffith, 33. “People here want quick and easy fixes.”

The site of the first European settlement in North America, a little over 450 years ago, Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano tried to establish a Spanish settlement on Pensacola Beach only to have it wiped out by a hurricane before the ships could be unloaded. Since then, the city has had five flags fly over it–Spanish, French, English, Confederate and American. It has rebuilt after numerous hurricanes, including three in the past five years, Ivan, Dennis and Katrina.

Its people are resilient as President Obama and Florida Governor Charlie Crist proclaim, but they are also cynical and mistrustful of government intervention. They are solidly Republican and staunchly conservative. Many cheered vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin when she stood before a packed house in the Pensacola Civic Center and delivered her infamous “Drill, baby, Drill” chant.

It wasn’t until gooey tar balls made it through into Perdido and Pensacola Bays and boats could been seen frantically skimming oil in the waters off the beaches that locals began to understand the magnitude of this disaster. They all became environmentalists overnight.

When President Obama finished, the half-dozen diehards that listened to the entire speech share their mixed reactions. For many, the speech, while eloquent, fell short of expectations. “Almost a Jack Kennedy, ‘We’re going to put a man on the moon’ level speech,” says Raad Cawthorn, 58. “But at the last minute he pulled back.”

A staunch Obama supporter, Joani Delezen, was impressed. “He’s totally stepping up,” the 29-year-old said. “He’s been dealt a crappy hand, but I feel like he’s in control now.”

Delezen canvassed for Obama in 2008 and went to his inauguration. “I felt he was saying we’re going to fix this. We’re going to make this right.”

More Daily Beast writers react to Obama's Oval Office speech“I think he understands our pain,” add Ashley Hodge, 28, who also voted for Obama. “But I wanted to see more from the president. We saw after Hurricane Ivan how long it takes for the federal government to do anything.”

Hodge is referring to the community-wide town hall meetings that the Federal Emergency Management Agency held in the months after Hurricane Ivan. Citizen input was sought on how to rebuild the area. FEMA produced a nice set of plans, none of which were ever used. Within a year, the agency had bigger problems in New Orleans, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. Pensacola was forgotten.

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Pensacola Mayor Mike Wiggins watched the speech with his wife at home. Wiggins is an upbeat, positive leader who has championed tourism on the news networks, trying to get people to still vacation along the Gulf Coast. “I was quite frankly disappointed with the speech,” says the mayor. “I was looking for more specificity as to how we’re going to respond. There was nothing about more skimmers or new equipment. He mentioned the ‘evergreen’ fund, but didn’t say anything about how much BP would put into it or who would administer it.”

Wiggins also didn’t understand why the president focused on alternative energy. “I want to hear more about what he’s going to do about the oil in the Gulf right now. There was nothing really about our economy. Frankly his speech left me flat with more questions than answers.”

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson—who has battled BP, federal, and state officials over more authority and resources for his county to fight the oil on his beaches and in his waterways—was much more positive. “It was a good speech,” says Robinson. “That’s one of his best skills.”

Both Robinson and Wiggins had met earlier in the day for 30 minutes with Obama and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen on Pensacola Beach. At a press conference after the president had flown back to Washington, Robinson and Wiggins were very upbeat about the meeting, which also included Congressman Jeff Miller and Crist.

Robinson said that Admiral Allen had said that more skimmers are coming. The president said that a BP “evergreen” escrow would be set up for claims and will be managed by a third party. Congressman Miller, who represents Northwest Florida, talked with the president extensively about creating a new Go-Zone for economic recovery. “Go Zone” was part of the Gulf Opportunity Act passed after Hurricane Katrina that contained significant economic incentives to rebuild the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama communities impacted by that storm.

“I got a sense the president understood our problems,” Robinson said at that press conference. “I expect him to lead us forward.”

Those feelings definitely tempered the commissioner’s views on Obama’s speech. “Having talked with the president this morning,” adds Robinson, “his speech was somewhat emotional for me. Now it’s time to deliver.”

CPA Jeff DeWeese, a Pensacola native who helps his clients with their claims against BP, doesn’t believe the speech changes anything. “At the end of the day, my client will give his claim to the same BP claim adjuster who is not going to approve it,” he says. “The speech will not change the reactions of BP, which hasn’t changed its policies.”

DeWeese felt Obama needed to admit that he messed up initially in how he responded to the crisis. “He had the opportunity to say ‘I missed this, didn’t take control early and let BP run with it’ but he didn’t.

“I want to believe him, but I don’t know if he has the right team in place.”

Thane Creech, too, has his doubts that President Obama can deliver. Creech owns four rental properties and manages 60 other vacation properties on Navarre Beach.

“I would like to believe that he will take charge,” Creech says, after listening to the speech, “but I’m afraid it’s more political rhetoric.” Creech makes his living on vacation rentals from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. He has reduced the hours of his staff and has to watch his expenses like never before.

“Everything I’ve worked for,” said Creech, “is crumbling around my feet.”

He doesn’t believe a new commission is necessary to find out why the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. “It doesn’t take Einstein to find out why. Greed. It’s that simple.”

Creech describes himself as a Republican, but he voted for Obama in 2008. He is afraid to believe in the president’s words, because he has been disappointed before. “With each attempt by BP to cap the well, our hopes were dashed,” says Creech. “As much as I would like to believe, I don’t think we can take our hopes being destroyed again.”

Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.