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Obama, under pressure, plans a rare news conference

Taking fire on all fronts over the oil spill, immigration, climate change and elections, he tries to reset the debate.

May 26, 2010|By Peter Nicholas, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — — Republicans won't deal with him. Blame for the historic Gulf Coast oil spill is heading his way. The left is mad at him, and so is the right.

President Obama is confronting pressures that are testing his natural unflappability. He was abrupt with Republican senators in a closed-door meeting Tuesday. "Thin-skinned," one Republican senator scribbled in his notebook during the session.


FOR THE RECORD:
Obama news conference: An article in Thursday's Section A about President Obama's efforts to reset the national debate on the Gulf Coast oil spill, immigration and other issues said he would hold a White House news conference Thursday at 12:45 p.m. Pacific time. The news conference was scheduled for 9:45 a.m. PDT. —

Later that night, the president complained publicly about drooping poll numbers, hateful attacks from right-wing foes — even his graying hair.

Hoping to reset the debate, Obama will hold a news conference from the East Room of the White House on Thursday at 12:45 p.m. Pacific Time, the first such formal exchange in 10 months. Before a national audience, he'll try to calm fears about the growing environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

But in recent days, it is Obama who has seemed strained. Talking to donors at a fund-raising reception Tuesday in San Francisco, the president took a self-reflective tone:

"I know it's been 18 tough months," he said. "And I know I've got more gray hair. I know some folks say, 'Well, you know, he's not as cool as he was.' When they had all the posters around and everything. Now I've got a Hitler mustache on the posters. That's quite a change"

Heading into a series of midterm elections, Obama is grappling with the oil spill as well as divisive debates over immigration and climate change. Beyond that, economic recovery has been slow, with unemployment just under 10%.

The White House has used all the media tools at its disposal to fight the perception that Obama has been too passive in response to the oil leak, blasting out daily e-mails summarizing the actions taken to date: the precise number of feet of "containment boom" laid down to contain the spill; the gallons of dispersants dropped; the oil recovered.

Behind the numbers is an exasperated president. "Plug the damn hole!'' Obama recently told aides.

Even if it wanted to step up its role, there is little the White House could do, a White House official said Wednesday. Once the spill is stopped, the federal government would play a lead role in the cleanup effort. Until then, BP, not the government, has the sophisticated robot technology to make repairs, the official said.

"There is not a more direct role to play here," said the official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But criticism persists. A CBS News poll conducted showed 45% disapproved of the Obama administration's handling of the oil spill, compared with 35% who approved.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said Wednesday that "everybody is frustrated because the oil keeps gushing." Nelson added in a televised interview that "the president has got to take charge now."

James Carville, a longtime Democratic operative and Louisiana native, said in a separate televised interview: "These people are crying, they're begging for something down here. And it just looks like he's not involved in this, man. You've got to get down here and take control of this."

Obama is on his way. He'll make his second trip to the Gulf Coast on Friday, interrupting a long weekend at his home in Chicago.

Some Republicans who sparred with him this week suggested he might need more rest. While no Republican senator is apt to be charitable toward Obama, there was a consistent theme in accounts of the meeting Tuesday night that Obama was edgy and impatient. He asked for help in passing an immigration overhaul that would provide a path to legal status for the 11 million living in the U.S. illegally. No offers came in.

One Republican senator who was in the meeting said he stood up to speak, and after three sentences, Obama jumped in with a peremptory, "What's your question?''

"I said, 'Mr. President, my prologue is not long, and you will show me respect and listen to it.' He's just arrogant,'' said the senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as to comment more candidly about the back-and-forth.

The White House has denied the meeting was testy, with one spokesman calling the tone "civil.''

But not even Obama seemed willing to push that message. In his San Francisco appearance later Tuesday, he said with evident sarcasm, "It was a warm and cuddly meeting."

All the frustrations seemed to make him wistful about his 2008 campaign. Then, a campaign poster included an iconic portrait of Obama above the word "Hope." Now, a poster that has shown up at anti-Obama rallies depicts him with the Hitler mustache.

"Remember hope?" Obama told the audience.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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