Obama's sharp BP rhetoric could bite him back

President Barack Obama's flashes of anger over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill may have satisfied critics, but he may face economic and political fallout from his sharp castigation of London-based BP.

Tough talk from the president and his team helped accelerate a steep fall in BP's shares, which hit 14-year lows on Wednesday, triggering concern over the company's viability, market analysts said.

The stock recovered on Thursday, but the echo of harsh rhetoric lingered, with one analyst saying it could discourage companies from investing in the United States.

"I feel like I'm listening to Vladimir Putin," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at PFGBest Research in Chicago, referring to the sharp-tongued Russian prime minister.

"I think the advice to act angry and lash out at BP may make some people feel better, but it's sending the wrong message to our trading partners across the globe."

Obama, who has been under pressure to show more emotion over the spill, wondered aloud in a television interview this week "whose ass to kick" and said he would have fired the company's chief executive, Tony Hayward.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared that BP must compensate workers displaced by the deepwater drilling moratorium put in place as a result of the disaster, widening the financial impact of the claims the company faces.

Georgetown University government professor Michael Bailey said Obama had political leeway from the American public to be harsh on BP, but he cautioned against going too far.

"In general Obama can't go wrong by being too critical here. I think the weight of public opinion is against BP," he said. "If it were to get to such an extreme where BP would have to close up shop ... obviously that would be catastrophic."

The U.S. government needs BP's equipment and expertise to plug the gushing undersea well, which has spewed oil into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig it was leasing exploded and sank nearly two months ago.

The White House said on Thursday that top BP officials including Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg had been invited to meet Obama and other officials next Wednesday.

Political Pitfalls

The White House, which declined to comment on BP's share price, said its comments had not gone too far.

"I think the criticism that somehow we've been too harsh -- I don't think that matches up with the reality or the rhetoric that we've used," said spokesman Robert Gibbs.

"Our focus has not been on anything other than ensuring that the responsibilities of those responsible for this disaster -- that they keep those commitments."

The administration has grown increasingly frustrated by reports of BP's reluctance to pay damages claims while it seeks to contain and stop the massive spill.

The White House has also been stung by the criticism over Obama's muted emotions and noted the irony on Thursday of being criticized for being both too soft and too harsh.

The president faces political pitfalls regardless of how he reacts, and a Gallup tracking poll on Thursday showed a higher level of dissatisfaction among Americans with 48 percent of those polled disapproving of Obama's job performance and 44 percent approving.

David Gergen, a former adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents, said voters were more interested in seeing results than threats of repercussions.

"As understandable as it has been to lash out, the wiser course would appear to be standing shoulder to shoulder with BP to get the problem fixed and save the finger-pointing ... until after the hole is plugged," Gergen told Reuters.

"I frankly felt that the press overdid it in pressing for the president to show signs of anger. That's not what people are looking for."

A potential opponent in the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney, also honed in on Obama's rhetoric.

"The president is meeting with his oil spill experts, he crudely tells us, so that he knows 'whose ass to kick.' We have become accustomed to his management style -- target a scapegoat, assign blame and go on the attack," Romney wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today.

"But what may make good politics does not make good leadership. And when a crisis is upon us, America wants a leader, not a politician."

[Source: By Jeff Mason, Reuters, Washington, 11Jun10]

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