Deconstructing Obama’s BP Speech

Obama’s speech to the nation addressing the gulf disaster was filled with more eye candy than substance, laden with propaganda and deception.  It was primarily intended to exonerate his administration for its inaction and incompetence in dealing with the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.  A close examination of Obama’s speech is in order to sort through the misinformation that’s been disseminated to the public.  Below I include excerpts from Obama’s speech, interspersed with my own clarifications of his distortions and lies.

Obama: Good evening. As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges. At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to Al Qaeda wherever it exists.

AD: The “War on Terror” and attempts to combat economic troubles at home run directly contrary to each other.  U.S. education and health care are in such dire straits precisely because U.S. leaders prefer to spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on militarism, while states cry poor and demand massive budget cuts that throw thousands out of work at a time when they’re at their most vulnerable.  U.S. officials know that, if given the choice, the public favors cuts in military spending and a renewed focus on job creation, economic rehabilitation, and other social spending.  This is why Democrats and Republicans spend so much time on fear mongering, drumming up support for indefinite war among a reluctant public.

Obama: And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.

On April 20, an explosion ripped through BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven workers lost their lives. Seventeen others were injured. And soon, nearly a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, oil began spewing into the water.

Because there’s never been a leak this size at this depth, stopping it has tested the limits of human technology. That’s why, just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge, a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s secretary of energy. Scientists at our national labs and experts from academia and other oil companies have also provided ideas and advice.

AD: It should be common knowledge that Obama has not been active in managing this crisis.  The New York Times reported in April that it took until a week and a half after the onset of the spill for Obama to begin publicly criticizing BP for its negligence.  The Times reported that the Department of Homeland Security took nine days to classify the incident as “a spill of national significance,” and to establish a mobile command center.  The “national significance” declaration itself was absurdly conservative, considering that it was based on assessments supported by an administration that assumed the Deepwater Horizon site was spewing just 5,000 barrels a day.  Realistically, the flow was probably closer to 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day, although no one would have known this from Obama and BP’s lackadaisical response.

Obama: As a result of these efforts, we’ve directed BP to mobilize additional equipment and technology. And in the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well. This is until the company finishes drilling a relief well later in the summer that’s expected to stop the leak completely.

Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.

But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.

Tonight, I’d like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward: what we’re doing to clean up the oil, what we’re doing to help our neighbors in the Gulf, and what we’re doing to make sure that a catastrophe like this never happens again.

First, the cleanup.

From the very beginning of this crisis, the federal government has been in charge of the largest environmental cleanup effort in our nation’s history, an effort led by Adm. Thad Allen, who has almost 40 years of experience responding to disasters.

AD: This claim is not substantiated by the historical record.  As mentioned above, the Obama administration preferred a “let BP handle it” response from the beginning, to the point where even liberal pundits in the corporate media attacked Obama for his unwillingness to intervene.  More than a month after the onset of the crisis, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs argued that BP had “the technical expertise to plug the hole…It is their responsibility.”  When asked by a reporter if a federal government takeover of the cleanup was possible, Gibbs answered a resounding “no,” contending that the Obama administration lacked the power to play anything more than a supervisory role.

Obama: We now have nearly 30,000 personnel who are working across four states to contain and clean up the oil…As the cleanup continues, we will offer whatever additional resources and assistance our coastal states may need.
Now, a mobilization of this speed and magnitude will never be perfect, and new challenges will always arise. I saw and heard evidence of that during this trip. So if something isn’t working, we want to hear about it. If there are problems in the operation, we will fix them.

But we have to recognize that, despite our best efforts, oil has already caused damage to our coastline and its wildlife. And sadly, no matter how effective our response is, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done.

That’s why the second thing we’re focused on is the recovery and restoration of the Gulf Coast.

You know, for generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water. That living is now in jeopardy. I’ve talked to shrimpers and fishermen who don’t know how they’re going to support their families this year. I’ve seen empty docks and restaurants with fewer customers, even in areas where the beaches are not yet affected.

I’ve talked to owners of shops and hotels who wonder when the tourists might start coming back. The sadness and the anger they feel is not just about the money they’ve lost; it’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.

AD: What Obama doesn’t mention when talking about his photo-op meetings with gulf coasters is that they overwhelmingly blame him for failing to control the spread of the spill when he had the chance.  The American public has not been fooled by the media and Obama’s claims that they are on top of the spill.  According to a USA Today poll published on June 15th, 71 percent of Americans feel that Obama “hasn’t been tough enough when dealing with BP.”  According to an AP poll from June 14th, just 39 percent of the public approve “of the way Barack Obama is handling the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Obama: I refuse to let that happen. Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.

And this fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party…The third part of our response plan is the steps we’re taking to ensure that a disaster like this does not happen again.

A few months ago, I approved a proposal to consider new, limited offshore drilling under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe, that the proper technology would be in place and the necessary precautions would be taken.

AD: Obama is attempting to project a false sincerity here in terms of his alleged concern with regulating big oil.  In reality, Obama came out as strongly supportive of offshore drilling by discounting the possibility of a major spill.  He claimed that “it turns out that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills…they are technologically very advanced.”  When confronted with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Obama initially plunged forward with his blind faith in BP and the “drill baby drill” mantra.  Disturbingly, and as reported in the last few days, the Minerals Management Service (supervised under Obama by the Department of the Interior) approved 198 leases for oil wells following the April 20th Deepwater explosion.  Americans may be appalled to know that BP was the winner for 13 of those bids.

Obama: That obviously was not the case [that drilling was safe] in the Deepwater Horizon rig, and I want to know why. The American people deserve to know why. The families I met with last week who lost their loved ones in the explosion, these families deserve to know why.

AD: For those who “want to know why” the explosion took place, the recent investigation by Rolling Stone paints a picture of an Obama administration that was blissfully ignorant of the dangers that BP was taking in pushing ahead with its production schedule at the Deepwater Horizon.  As the Associated Press reports, BP documents now reveal that the company had a history of “cutting corners in the well design [at Deepwater Horizon], cementing and drilling mud efforts and the installation of key safety devices”.   The company attempted to unsustainably accelerate its production schedule in an effort to save money.  As the Times of London reports, “the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon…came after the well was capped with a relatively cheap type of casting…in the days before the blast, the oil giant selected a casing that provided only a single layer of protection to prevent gas from leaking into the well…the decision to use the riskier method to finish its well was taken partly on cost grounds”.  Simply put, Obama should have known the dangers involved with drilling, as proper regulation of BP would have revealed the perils involved in offshore drilling. That he still wants to “know why” the oil site was dangerous is a sign more of his willful incompetence than anything else.

Obama: And so I’ve established a national commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place. Already I’ve issued a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling.

I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue. And while I urge the commission to complete its work as quickly as possible, I expect them to do that work thoroughly and impartially.

Now, one place we’ve already begun to take action is at the agency in charge of regulating drilling and issuing permits, known as the Minerals Management Service.  Over the last decade, this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility, a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves.

At this agency, industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Oil companies showered regulators with gifts and favors and were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections and write their own regulations.

AD: Obama’s own blissful ignorance of the criminal recklessness of MMS employees helped set the stage for the oil spill.  The sad fact is that the spill could have been avoided if MMS bureaucrats had behaved more diligently in regulating the oil companies, and if Obama would have pushed for overhauling the MMS when it mattered most – before the Deepwater Horizon disaster (for more on Obama’s complicity, see the recent piece: “How the Obama Administration Made the Oil Spill Happen”.  Obama did little to rein in the MMS upon assuming office.  Investigative reports find that as of late 2009, the MMS provided permission to BP and other companies to drill in the gulf without obtaining the needed permits (the Deepwater Horizon well was one of the approved sites).   The MMS had a history of overruling its own scientists and engineers whenever they raised questions about the lack of safety of drilling operations in the gulf.

Obama: For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.

Time and again, the path forward has been blocked, not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor…The transition away from fossil fuels is going to take some time. But over the last year- and-a-half, we’ve already taken unprecedented action to jump-start the clean-energy industry.

As we speak, old factories are reopening to produce wind turbines, people are going back to work installing energy-efficient windows and small businesses are making solar panels. Consumers are buying more efficient cars and trucks, and families are making their homes more energy-efficient. Scientists and researchers are discovering clean-energy technologies that someday will lead to entire new industries… You know, when I was a candidate for this office, I laid out a set of principles that would move our country towards energy independence. Last year, the House of Representatives acted on these principles by passing a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill, a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses.

Now, there are costs associated with this transition, and there are some who believe that we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy, because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security and our environment are far greater.

AD: Obama is clearly one of the naysayers who believes the transition from a petroleum economy to a renewable one is too expensive and requires too many sacrifices.  His entire foreign policy, like his predecessors, is based upon using massive military force to prop up dictators in a region that sells the U.S. cheap oil.  I’ve gone through the historical record at great length regarding American officials’ admissions that foreign wars are pursued in the name of dominating global oil reserves (see my recent book, When Media Goes to War, Monthly Review Press, 2010).  The U.S. spends $1 trillion a year on its military empire in order to prop up its oil economy, while spending a pittance (comparably) on renewable energies that could help wean the U.S. off of oil.  Obama’s 2009 federal budget included a meager $15 billion for developing renewable energy sources.  The imbalance, then, between yearly spending on the oil economy and spending on renewables is a massive 67:1.  Clearly, Obama hasn’t made renewable energy the serious priority that it needs to be.

Obama: Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings, like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development, and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.

All of these approaches have merit and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.

You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon.

And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom.

Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny, our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like, even if we don’t yet precisely know how we’re going to get there, we know we’ll get there.

AD: The glittering generalities pushed by Obama above are insulting to those who actually follow the Obama administration’s militaristic policies in the Middle East, which buttress America’s continued addiction to oil. Generic references to the greatness of the American people are the essence of propaganda, designed to satiate Americans who are susceptible to appeals to their vanity, at the expense of real discussion of America’s problems.  Sadly, such appeals to American vanity are often successful in the hyper-nationalistic American political culture, which typically places arrogance above open and level-headed dialogue in times of crisis.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010).  He can be reached at




Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.