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JOHN KING, USA

President Obama's Oval Office Address

Aired June 15, 2010 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf. And welcome to a special edition of our program tonight. In just one hour, President Obama will for the first time address the American people from the Oval Office. It comes 512 days into his presidency and on day 57 of the BP oil spill. It is a moment the White House hopes will be a turning point.

And as the president was editing his speech this evening, the stakes got higher for Mr. Obama and for the country. A new government estimate puts the likely flow rate of oil at between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day, a far cry from the 1,000 to 5,000 barrels numbers we heard from BP and the administration back at the beginning. Back then we were told the BP spill was tiny compared to the "Exxon Valdez." We now know it is in the ballpark of 13 times the Valdez, by far the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Good reason for the president to choose the Oval Office to explain where we go from here. Again, the stakes are high, for him and for a precious part of our country. I spent the past week plus in the Gulf traveling across Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. And fair or not, this was a common complaint, that the president was slow to grasp the enormity of the challenge, slow to shake the federal bureaucracy into action.

His goal about 59 minutes from now in one of the most cherished shrines of our democracy is to make the case that he gets it and that he is now forcefully directing the government's response. We will spend the hour ahead, bringing you the latest developments from the Gulf region, some jaw-dropping comments today from other big oil company executives and exploring the challenges facing the president.

Let's begin our conversation with a group that understands presidential leadership and the pain and anxiety of the Gulf Coast all too well -- with us here in Washington Democratic strategist Paul Begala and James Carville, Republican Mary Matalin. In New York tonight Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican and in New Orleans, and we'll start the conversation there, our Anderson Cooper who has been in the Gulf from the beginning of this crisis and also has the experience of knowing how hard Katrina and Rita hit this area.

Anderson, what do they want to hear from the president of the United States in 58 minutes?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm not sure how much they can hear that is going to kind of change perceptions at this point. They'll certainly be -- you know I don't want to speak for everybody, obviously. But people I've talked to today will certainly be glad to hear that the president you know is trying to get his hands around this, trying to hold BP accountable. There is a lot of interest in this idea of some sort of an escrow account. I think people want to hear the details on that.

More importantly they want to hear that it's actually happening, to know that BP will be paying all the claims. Because a report just came out by the state of Louisiana today that basically says BP has not been paying up these claims in a timely manner, that they're own data that they're supposed to be giving to the state, that they're not giving to it a timely manner and the data they have given is riddled with errors and also, John, the fact that the estimate is now 60,000.

I mean you know it just boggles the mind. Every week it's a new estimate. This is up 20,000, the upper limit is now 20,000 higher than it was just last week from the government estimate and BP only this weekend you know was convinced to put sensors or forced to put sensors down into the well to actually measure the leak. The fact that that didn't occur early on and that all along they and the government were saying look the actual size of the leak doesn't matter, you know it makes no sense to anyone who is rational.

KING: Anderson makes a good point, Mary, as we bring the conversation into the room. That one of the challenges for the president is credibility. Believe what the government is telling you. Believe what I tell you will be the end of this crisis. And yet, there have been so many changed estimates, mixed signals, conflicting accounts. It's a pretty high bar for the president.

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It is, which means he must take great care not to be political or even give the perception of being political, and to have real weight behind his words, something very specific after all these days. It is true that he was slow on the uptake, but there is still as James keeps saying, too, we're only a third of the way through this. He is there now. He could do it.

The problem is what is it in his control to do? There are over a dozen agencies and departments all tripping over each other. There is still not a unified command structure. It's a bureaucratic mess. It's not just in our state. Every state now is saying the same thing. They don't know who is in charge. They don't know how to get answers. They don't know how to expedite the process. So for his purposes tonight, he has to be careful what he promises, that he can actually deliver so he doesn't exacerbate the problem that we have now.

KING: So James, how then do you deal with this challenge because the president has a leadership and a credibility question before him? He's going to address the American people. You've advised presidents, President Clinton when he was in that room about to give a big speech. And yet he can't give all the answers. He can't say when they'll stop the oil. He can't say what those dispersants are doing to the fishing environment. He won't say tonight when he'll lift the moratorium on deep-water drilling. When you have still more questions than answers, how do you turn the corner?

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well I mean first of all, I think this revised upward (INAUDIBLE) everybody knew. I kind of feel bad for Anderson when I'm not down there with him on the river and he is by himself. (INAUDIBLE) Anderson --

MATALIN: He feels bad for us that we're up here.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Look it's been a tough time for the president there is no doubt about it. This is very tough. There's no -- as opposed to a hurricane where there is a plan and you know what to do, this came way out of left field. There was no preparation for this. It's all been on the go. I think what the president, you know if he is able to say, look, we're hitting the restart button here. We're going forward.

And to some extent, this is an unanticipated catastrophe. If you listen to the Hill today, these oil company executives this was not a good day for them. They didn't look very good at all. But if he can hit the restart button, that would be good.

KING: Paul, you are one of the premiere wordsmiths of your generation. If you were helping the president with this speech, where would you lay the bar?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You know what I would tell him -- I would say Shakespeare who was the greatest writer of all time said action is eloquence -- that as great as this president's gifts are for eloquence, what we really want now is action and he's got a lot. Yes, Mary makes the point these bureaucracies are tripping all over themselves, but at least we're committed.

Right now we got to get the organization (INAUDIBLE). We're not ignoring this, right? He is throwing the full weight of the government at this. And tonight, by going in the Oval Office, that's more eloquent than any words he can use. For the first time, not for his economic plan, not for health care, not even for the war in Afghanistan where he changed our policy fundamentally, for the first time he is going into that Oval Office. I've been very critical, but I haven't seen the speech yet, but I like the way he is approaching this. And from everything I hear from my friends at the White House, it's an actions-based speech and accountability based speech. That he can control. He can hold BP accountable and he must.

KING: Ed Rollins, your old friend Ronald Reagan loved the Oval Office for the theater and the power it projected to the American people. Set the bar -- help set the challenge for this president tonight.

ED ROLLINS, GOP STRATEGIST: It's as serious as any speech in the last several decades, certainly this president's most serious speech. He has to relate to these people that are down there. I keep saying this. I hope it's not a speech with multiple tasks in it. The task is to get the situation down there under control. And I think he needs to basically be very serious, very serene.

He can't do anything at this point in time to tip BP into bankruptcy. But at the same time he's got to make sure that they're held accountable. He's got to tell the other oil companies if we start drilling again, we have to make sure the safety factor is there. Put 150,000 people back to work in order to do that, but in order to do that you have to make sure the safety factors are there that would never let it happen again.

KING: We've heard from everybody in the room. We'll continue the conversation with them in a minute, but I also want to bring in to the conversation the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. I spoke to him a bit earlier today and I asked him, began with the simple question I've asked all of you. Why the Oval Office.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president wanted to take this opportunity to talk to the American people about the claims process and what BP's responsibilities are to the Gulf of Mexico. To talk about the long-term restoration of the Gulf, and finally, to challenge all of us, whether you live in the Gulf or anywhere else in America, to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. All of those go into I think a very important speech for the president tonight.

KING: You've known this president a long time. You have worked with him way back to the very beginning of his political career here in Washington. I want you to listen to something the president said last Friday about the limits he feels on the presidency when he was down in the Gulf Coast. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Even though I'm president of the United States, my power is not limitless. So I can't dive down there and plug the hole. I can't suck it up with a straw. All I can do is make sure that I put honest, hard-working, smart people in place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Two things come out there. Number one, you have known him so long there is frustration there. And number two, Robert, does he think people expect of him things that he can't -- simply can't do?

GIBBS: No, look. I think many people are frustrated, as you said. We're a long ways into this, eight weeks ago today or tonight was when the rig originally exploded. Is there a frustration with him and I think probably anybody in this country that we're still dealing with a well that is leaking oil -- absolutely. I know you have talked to them in the Gulf. I know they live way outside of the Gulf.

So I don't think he believes that an extraordinary amount of things are happening. And trust me, John, if there was a single way that he could pick up the phone or move a piece of equipment and plug this well, he would have done it long ago. I do think there is a frustration in we have a process 5,000 feet underneath the surface of the ocean that was started by man, but can't be stopped by man. And I think that's something we've got to take a look at going forward as we push the bounds of drilling deeper and deeper into the ocean.

KING: Take us inside the conversation. I don't know if it was a debate or not. The conversation is about having this president's first address from the Oval Office to be on this moment. When that first comes up, whether it's the president's idea or someone on the staff's idea, everybody has a whoa do we really want to do this moment. Take us inside that.

GIBBS: Well look, John, I think the president again just believed that given where we are in the situation, given the gravity of this environmental disaster, and letting the American people know the plan moving forward to address those challenges, the president believed this was the right time to go into, as you said, a pretty hallowed place in the Oval Office and speak directly to the American people about going forward.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: The White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs a short time ago. Anderson Cooper in New Orleans, the president will also say, and said earlier today in Florida that at the end of this, the Gulf will be in a better situation than it was even before this spill. Is that an unrealistic goal in the sense that these people feel they have been let down before?

COOPER: You know, I defer to James Carville and Mary on this as New Orleanians, but to me it echoed a lot of what President Bush said during Katrina about building the levees you know bigger and better and leaving it bigger and better. I think you know just kind of the echo of that raises some eyebrows with some folks here. But look, people certainly hope that is the case. I think the devil is in the details, and how is that actually going to -- going to occur.

I had a lady who I was eating breakfast the other day here and a lady came and sat down next to me and said look, I'm sorry to bother you, but please don't forget about us. Don't -- you know there's a lot of hoopla right now, a lot of reporters around. But please don't forget about us a couple of months from now, a year from now. And I think a lot of people want to make sure that the U.S. government doesn't forget about them here.

You know, Louisiana, folks who haven't been here maybe don't understand the life here or how important these wetlands are. But a lot of people feel like this is going to be forgotten, and BP, once the attention is away, BP is kind of going to figure out a way not to pay for it. And the government is not going to follow through. So I think a lot of people are going to be listening for signs that President Obama is committed to this, not just for, you know, while we're all focused on this, but for the long-term.

KING: Anderson makes a key point in New Orleans. When you talk to people in the region, this is not to them a political question. They will listen to the president tonight, but what they are looking for is a protection of their way of life, not who wins the conversation here in Washington, D.C. We'll continue our conversation with our group in just a minute. (INAUDIBLE) 48 minutes from now, the president of the United States in the Oval Office for the first time in his presidency addressing the American people, his plan going forward to deal with the BP oil spill. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A live picture of the White House there -- in the back of that building to the right side of your screen, well, that's where the president works, the Oval Office. And in about 45 minutes, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, will address the American people live on television seen around the world, offering his plan to deal with the BP oil spill crisis.

Let's continue our conversation here in studio with me Mary Matalin, James Carville, Paul Begala; Ed Rollins also joining us from New York. Four people who have had the privilege of walking into the Oval Office and the challenge of advising presidents at tough times in their political careers. I want to show you some numbers before we continue the conversation.

The ABC/"Washington Post" poll -- do you have a negative opinion of the federal response to the oil spill; 69 percent of Americans -- 69 percent of Americans do; 56 percent of Democrats feel negatively about the federal response; 74 percent of Independents; 81 percent of Republicans.

Ed Rollins, to you first on this one, the president has to shape the entire country here. If it was the health care speech, the Democratic number would be much higher. If it was an economy speech, the Democratic number would be much higher. This one has the entire country in a funk.

ROLLINS: Everybody is paying attention because it is a national crisis. And I think -- and it's beyond his control, as he said. But he can take some action. He has the whole federal government there. He can basically appease those governors down there by giving them whatever it is that they need not to stop the wells from leaking, but to stop the oil from getting to the beaches.

And there is a lot of people and a lot of resources in the federal government. The key thing here I think is he's got to have a calm tone. There can't be a partisan tone. And I would hope that he doesn't try and take this to pass legislation. He can come back and pass the legislation if he has the votes later. But this speech has to be focused on those individuals down there in Louisiana.

KING: Help people, Mary, understand. This is like if you're in Flint, Michigan and the General Motors plant goes down. I think a lot of people don't understand that when people look at those waters, it's just not a beautiful sight. It's just not the egrets and the pelicans, it's a way of life that their grandfather worked those waters, their father worked those waters.

MATALIN: Thirty percent of our energy, 70 percent comes from deep water, it's 40 percent of our seafood. It's one of the biggest ports in the world at the mouth of the Mississippi. It is a national issue, national economic issue, national security issue and it is way beyond -- much bigger issue than cap containment and remediate, as James wrote a beautiful piece. I don't usually commend everyone to read everything he writes.

But if the president really wanted to be transformative, he could do coastal restoration which would be hurricane protection and it would be -- it would -- it'd mediate a lot of these issues. That's something that he could do. That's something visionary that he could do.

CARVILLE: I want to make a point here because the people say Louisiana is disaster-prone, no, no, no, no, no, bad engineering. We're victims and Katrina was shoddy engineering. It was faulty levees that were built. There was nothing natural about what happened in the Gulf. It has nothing to do with Louisiana. This was a greedy company putting profits ahead of safety. And that was the result of it.

And this is something that the country has to understand. We produce the goods. The goods flow through us. We produce the minerals. We produce the energy. We produce the seafood that the country needs. And do not for one minute think this has anything to do with the people of Louisiana. This is shoddy, slap shod, on the cheek profit-motivated engineering. And that's what has happened to our state.

KING: Even if you accept everything James just said, though, a president is the leader of his country. And when there is a crisis in the country, he takes the heat and you see that in his own numbers.

BEGALA: Absolutely and I bet you that if you polled Barack Obama, he would be in the 66 percent that's upset with the way the feds have responded. But now look -- I've criticized his response, but he's already removed the head of the MMS, the plagued minerals management agency that let these leases go through under the Obama presidency, not Bush. He is moving -- we heard Robert Gibbs tell you toward a new way to compensate those fishermen and small businessmen and women, taking it perhaps out of BP's hands, setting up this kind of victim's fund.

So he is taking concrete steps. He is deploying and I think we'll get the data of all the thousands of people and ships and booms. It doesn't mean that it solved the problem. But I do think he can show concrete actions that the federal government is taking. And then the next step tomorrow, he meets with those BP executives. That's the heart of accountability. And tonight's speech, as important as it is, the meeting tomorrow might even be a bigger deal when he meets with those very distinguished subjects of the British crown tomorrow in the Oval Office.

KING: About 40 minutes away from the president's address to the American people and we will continue our conversation throughout the hour, setting the stakes. And a lot of our conversation will be about what it means to the president. What is his standing politically, can he get the rest of his agenda through on Capitol Hill. But this, as we have been discussing is a lot more important than that.

I want you to meet a gentleman by the name of Russell Collier (ph). I met him yesterday in Bayou La Batre (ph), Alabama. He runs a bait shop, sells oysters and shrimp along the docks, except right now he can't get oysters and shrimp because there's no fishing in the waters off his shop. I asked him how he rates the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSSELL COLLIER, OWNER, BAYOU BAIT SHOP: I get called about every day for gallons of oysters and I just don't have one. I don't even have one for a Po Boy (ph). The bait is gone. There is my bait boat sitting right there that hasn't been out in forever. Normally this tank is -- the water level is way on up that pipe, and then we got anywhere from five, six, 7,000 live shrimp in at any given time.

KING: But you got -- the shrimp tank's empty.

COLLIER: Shrimp tank is empty.

KING: Oysters empty.

COLLIER: Oyster shop is closed up

KING: Will BP make up the difference to you then?

COLLIER: Well we just -- we just turned it over to them. You know we filled out our -- filled out the paperwork and whatever. We just hadn't heard anything yet.

KING: If you had five minutes with the president of the United States, what would you tell him?

COLLIER: He probably wouldn't want to hear it. I don't think he started hollering loud enough, early enough. He should have been jumped on the head right from the get-go. If it wouldn't be for BP paying all these people right here there would be drastic, drastic problems.

KING: Will this be here in 10 years?

COLLIER: It may be here, but it may be under something else. Not a bait shop, but we might have to karaoke three times a week instead of just one.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Russell Collier, a colorful guy even in these tough times and I should note those crawfish you see, "A", they're delicious, "B", they came from Louisiana. He cannot get oysters and shrimp and no fish off those waters in Alabama because they are closed. The Louisiana crawfish look pretty good.

This is -- this is what you see. Every town I went to, somebody saying sometimes it was the oil guy saying Mr. President let me go back to work. A lot of times it was these fishing guys saying you know not only where am I going to get a check tomorrow, but what about five years or 10 years? Because they don't know what the oil is doing and what the chemical dispersants are doing in those waters.

MATALIN: That's right, so it's -- and there is no system to leverage things that are available to help us right now. I'm just pulling this randomly because as you stand on the street, there are people that come up to you, I have this innovation. Well, Kevin Costner broke through it, he's Kevin Costner. It took him two months to get through. The Milliken Company (ph) (INAUDIBLE) scientists and assembly line, they have a new (INAUDIBLE). Eight applications, they've heard from nothing.

These people -- so you take up the scale (ph). Yes, all these people are hurting. I presume we all -- presume eventually they will be at least made whole. But that's not making them whole for their life and we're not employing, or there is no system to leverage the innovations to be able to accelerate this process.

CARVILLE: I have to drop a name. Actually Kevin Costner called yesterday.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: OK, Kevin, how are you doing?

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Actually, he said --

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: No, but the point is he is having to go to BP. This is not -- I've been watching the president. But this is not -- this is not a government kind of thing here.

MATALIN: (INAUDIBLE) the Buddha (ph) on the neck of BP.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Again, they bought 32, 32 of them. But you're right. It has. It's been -- and I think the guy was right from Alabama that I do think he should have screamed louder earlier.

KING: A quick time-out. We'll continue our conversation. But as we pointed out a presidential address from the Oval Office is a big deal, reserved only for matters of supreme importance. Next we go "Wall-to-Wall" looking at when it's been used before.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: In "Wall-to-Wall" tonight a closer look at the tradition we will see unfold yet again in about 35 minutes, a president addressing the nation from the Oval Office. This president has a big crisis to deal with. Just in the past few hours, the government has increased dramatically its estimate of just how much oil is flowing from the Deepwater Horizon leak out there in the Gulf of Mexico. Now the government says 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.

Remember 56 days ago they were saying 1,000 to 5,000 barrels. So the stakes have increased for the president, even in the moments before he gives this big speech in the Oval Office. I want to bring into the conversation to continue the discussion our senior analyst David Gergen. He is joining us from Boston and our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin is right with me right here at the "Magic Wall".

And let's look a little bit at the history of Oval Office addresses. John Kennedy gave one at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. More famously in recent times Richard Nixon in 1974, he was right here in the Oval Office when he resigned the office of the presidency.

Ronald Reagan was a big fan of using the Oval Office for big events, none perhaps even bigger than the 1986 Challenger disaster where the president bid them farewell and urged the country to give them their best wishes as well. George H.W. Bush 1991 Operation Desert Storm, the beginning of the effort to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was announced in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton used the Oval Office a number of times, military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq and several economy speeches as well.

And George W. Bush preferred not to use the Oval Office as much. But he did use it on matters of big military importance including on the night of September 11th, 2001 and the start of the Iraq war in 2003. David Gergen, you've been in the Oval Office on big nights advising presidents. What does the room mean and why is it so important to this president tonight?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's a room that is the center of power for the United States presidency and the presidency is the most important office in the whole world, so it's the epicenter of power in this country and in the world. And it's you know presidents do use it because it's a place that conveys authority, that you are there as commander-in-chief, as chief executive.

It's a place that says gravity that says to the country this is serious. So I'm actually surprised Barack Obama has not used it earlier. It was rather expected that most presidential addresses of any seriousness would come out of the Oval Office. He has gone his own way. But coming there tonight is clearly symbolic.

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: And it means -- and I think -- yes, John, just to be clear about this, I think he knows this is his last shot at building public support for the way he is handling this crisis. And so that's why he is going to the Oval Office. KING: That's an interesting final point David makes because the administration, within the administration there is a sense of frustration -- frustration within their own ranks and perhaps the missteps early on but also just a more annoying sense of frustration. You heard the president himself say in Louisiana last weekend you know there are limits to my powers.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right and the White House feels besieged by the fact that this is going on, and they can't control it by the media, the criticism. There are even -- I speak to people who are in the agencies that work with the White House, part of the administration. And a lot of the people who are intimately involved in dealing with this are very frustrated with the White House because they feel like they're working on this.

There is not always the coordination that they would look, even on the message. And that they think they are doing things that would make the public feel better, that they just can't get the White House to broadcast, can't get it out there. And I would like to add one thing about the Oval Office, John. I think that it's also for this president important because it's so intimate. One of the things everyone feels is that the president hasn't made that personal connection and when he's in the Oval Office, John. I think that it's also for this president important because it's so intimate.

One of the things everyone feels is that the president hasn't made that personal connection. And when he's in the oval office, he's not speaking to an audience. He's not speaking to reporters. He's speaking to you as your president.

It's like the family coming together for an important moment. And it could be powerful for the president for that reason.

KING: And certainly important, David, back to your point about this could be his last shot. To the sense that other things the administration have been put on hold and the sense that whether it is reality or just perception -- I know, I felt it really strongly down in the Gulf Coast. People think he didn't get the urgency of this early on.

GERGEN: That's right, John. And he seemed behind and slow all the way through, even when he said a couple of weeks ago that he was now going to take command. Nothing seemed to really shift.

And there is a perception that he's been riding shotgun and BP has been at the wheel driving the ship here. So I think this is tonight he's got to seize command. And it does not seem to me he gets there by reviewing what's happened.

I think people are going to be looking for action that's still to come, new things he's going to do. Not small bore things, but big things he's going to do to really put a stop to this -- leak and also protect the coasts and the wildlife.

KING: He was in Pensacola, Florida earlier today. And you might consider this a bit of a preview of what we'll hear tonight. Let's listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Yes, this is an unprecedented environmental disaster. It's the worst in our nation's history. But we're going to continue to meet it with an unprecedented federal response and recovery effort, the largest in our nation's history.

This is an assault on our shores, and we're going to fight back with everything that we've got. And that includes mobilizing the resources of the greatest military in the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Interesting language there, with the military behind him at the Pensacola Air Station there. An assault -- might -- very muscular language from the president.

YELLIN: It's very militaristic language. I personally think it doesn't quite gel because it seems off-key because his ability to be forceful is so limited given that they really can't control this.

So it seems a little bit false. I think that what the president is really best at is explaining to people what government can do best, what he can do best. And that's why David is right. If he focuses on how he can reform the Minerals Management Agency, how he can make sure that government will make sure this never happens again, that's where he connects.

This kind of, you know, rhetoric about stomping on them and fixing it up, it doesn't really -- it hasn't worked for him.

KING: And yet, David, isn't there a risk? If he seems like a bureaucrat saying we're going to make this agency better or an insurance claims adjuster saying I'm going to make sure BP pays, is there a risk of being -- I don't want to use -- I guess too small or down in the weeds?

GERGEN: Absolutely, small bore stuff. You know I've got somebody else I'm putting in a third level down in the Interior Department. That's interesting, important. Not good for this speech.

What he needs is strong, firm, decisive action, you know. Colin Powell was talking about this the other day on television. This has to be sort of overwhelming force. And I must say I'm -- I hate to disagree with Jessica, she's so good.

But this one, on the cleanup, and on -- and on trying to preserve the coast, the president can take charge of that. The federal government can take BP and shove them aside and take charge and mobilize the resources, get people in.

It's -- John, it's so disheartening that when we hear about how many people are down there that the government has sent. Open up "The New York Times" today, have that great big front page lead story that the cleanup effort is chaotic. That's really disheartening. We've got all these people down there. They don't seem to be working well together. That's something the president can fix.

KING: David Gergen and Jessica Yellin will be part of our special coverage as we continue this evening. We also have reporters across the map tonight from New Orleans to Florida to Capitol Hill. We'll check in with them as we await the president's speech at the top of the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Let's continue our special edition of JOHN KING, USA. A little more than 20 minutes away from the top of the hour. We're awaiting President Obama's address to the nation about the Gulf oil spill, the first Oval Office address of his presidency.

We have correspondents all over the country covering this story. Let's quickly check in what they're reporting. I want to start with our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry, who is on the beach in Pensacola, Florida where the president was earlier today.

Ed, we know in this speech the president will pivot at some point to saying this disaster, the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf is proof that the country needs to move on, to quickly pass new energy, new climate legislation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

But already Republicans are saying don't you dare, Mr. President. Don't link a policy goal to this disaster. Listen to the Senate's top Republican.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Americans are saying two things at the moment. Stop this spill and clean it up. So with all due respect to the White House, the wetlands of the bayou, the beaches of the coast, and our waters in the gulf are far more important than the status of the Democrat's legislative agenda here in Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Any concerns at all, Ed, at the White House that they will be criticized for being overly political here?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They know they may take some heat. But I just got off the phone with some senior officials. They said look, they're going full speed ahead.

And you're right, near the end of this speech it will essentially conclude with the president saying it's time to pivot. This crisis shows us we've got to break that dependence on fossil fuels.

But even as the White House sort of ignores some of the Republican criticism they -- may want to listen to some of it because I can tell you talking to some of the people on the ground that I spoke to, Michael Penzone, for example, he owns a pizzeria here in Pensacola.

He met with the president today. He told me he's already lost $60,000 in business just in the first two weeks of June because tourism has dropped off so much. So far BP has given him two checks, $5,000 each. So he's $50,000 in the hole just after two weeks.

If the White House launches a monumental battle on energy reform -- which is going to be tough -- and takes their eye off what's going on on the ground here, they're obviously going to make their problem even more worse -- John.

KING: Dana Bash on Capitol Hill, what is the mood up there in advance of this speech? When you -- we just heard from a Republican there. But I assume Democrats are a little bit nervous about the state of play this year with the president being criticized for -- what some people believe is not an aggressive enough federal response.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Very nervous. You know, before Congress left for recess and went home a couple of weeks ago, I had a senior Democratic source tell me that Democrats here on the Hill were at the early stages of political panic.

I walked the halls today and talked to lots of Democrats. I don't sense that panic has set in, but I can tell you that there is a lot of anxiety about what you just said, about the fact that they know that there is deep frustration out there, and they know that what people are seeing feeds right into what many of these Democrats -- especially those who are facing reelection in just five months against their Republican challengers -- hear all the time, which is that Washington is just not getting it, that institutions can't do it right and throw the bums out.

But, you know, what is very interesting is that when I talk to many of these Democrats, they say that they can't really give me a specific on what they want to hear. They say it's just that X factor. They want the president to really look like he's in control, to be in control and to really wash away that perception that the government just can't get it right and that this is exhibit A of that.

But I just got an e-mail from one Democratic source who's also been trying to mine the caucus here about what they think the president can do. And the response was skeptical that he can do much.

KING: Skeptical on Capitol Hill.

Ed Lavandera, among the people you were with today has been the president's perhaps chief critic, the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal. What is the sense down there from the governor and others you've encountered? What are they looking for from the president?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we were on a boat tour today with Governor Jindal and some other local officials here north of Grand Isle in a place call Barataria Bay which south of New Orleans.

Significant because, John, they took us today to the area where they say this is the deepest inland the oil has reached so far to this point. We're about 15 miles north of grand -- the city of Grand Isle. And what we're hearing over and over again from local officials here in Grand Isle and the governor as well is that the intensity of the cleanup efforts still isn't where it needs to be.

So a lot of calls to pick up those steps. They were showing off a couple of ideas that were locally born here, if you will, calling it Cajun ingenuity. At one point they've got trucks with vacuum hoses on top of barges floating in the bay literally sucking oil out of these waters that are some of the richest fishing waters in this state.

So they've gotten this the point. When you look at it in many ways, it does look kind of desperate. But they say the skimmers didn't come in time. The boom didn't come in time and these marshlands are being seriously affected.

KING: We are about 20 minutes away, Candy and Joe, from one of the great moments of theater in our democracy. But the president only addresses the people from the Oval Office at a time of some crisis or a great celebration.

This would be a time of crisis for this president.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Totally a time of crisis. And I think also the problem with it, I think, is being in the Oval Office gives it this huge meaning. We have -- we're almost eight weeks into this. And the president's problem, I think, tonight is that whole idea that somehow he is going to give a speech and people are going to change their minds and think hey, he's on it.

We hear from these governors down here. I'm sure you did, John, when you were down there saying 14 people have veto power over everything. They talk of mass confusion down there. Until you fix the mass confusion, until you stop those pictures from showing up constantly, I just don't think a speech -- I don't care where he could give it, on the moon, and I don't think it's going to make a lot of difference.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: In every crisis for a president there is a tipping point, you know, a decision point for the public where they look and say is he doing a good job or isn't he? And there are some Democratic strategists out there who say this president has already reached the tipping point on this.

He's already, you know, in a deficit. So what is he going to do now? And his choices are limited. Every time he tries to make a choice, he is cut off at the pass. Even saying you're not going to have to pay a cent for this. What happens if BP goes bankrupt and people get a penny on the dollar? Then, you know, that choice is tut cut off, too. So he's between a rock and a hard place.

KING: Huge challenge for the president. Fewer than 20 minutes from now, you will hear from him directly in the Oval Office. Our special coverage will continue in just a moment. Previewing this president's speech, his first Oval Office address to the American people. It is about 17 minutes away. Wolf Blitzer will join our special coverage, when we come back in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Just moments away now from an address from the president of the United States, his first from the Oval Office to the American people. Five hundred some days into his presidency. It is day 57 now of the BP oil spill.

Let's continue our conversation, setting the stage for the president's speech. Joining us here in studio, Wolf Blitzer, the anchor of "THE SITUATION ROOM." He's with us. He will anchor our special coverage in just a few minutes.

Mary Matalin and James Carville are back with us. And Donna Brazile joins us from New York as well.

Guys, as we get started, I want to walk over to the magic wall because as we were starting the program tonight, we learned that the government has now dramatically increased the estimate of just how much oil might be flowing out of these waters.

Now they say 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, way up from the beginning when they said 1,000 to five. This is the Enterprise, you've heard about this ship from time to time. This is a 3-D animation we have built.

This is the gas they're flaring off. They burn the gas that they're piping up from the bottom. But let's go down and take a look underneath at the challenge. We go down. This is the pipe bringing the crude up to the Enterprise. But as you go down and sink down to ocean floor, again a mile deep, you see the equipment they have put on.

And in here, where the oil is still coming out, this is the wellhead here. The cap they put on is underneath here. And you still see oil spewing out. We don't know how much totally over the course of this crisis. We do know now 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day in excess of the capacity of BP to contain it on the top.

A quick look before we go back to the surface. You see some of these submersible. These are small robotic devices underwater. Important because all those pictures you're seeing, all those pictures making you so angry about this, they come from these devices down here.

They also have tools on them that could help work it up. And if we go back up to the surface, you will see following the trains, they come up to the support ship, all these lines. So the images come back up to the support ships on the surface up at the top.

But again, BP saying it's bringing in additional ships to help with the containment effort. But again, as we continue the conversation, Wolf, we covered the White House together for a long time. When a president considers the Oval Office to give an address, it's a big deal.

Getting those numbers earlier today only increasing the pressure on this president to make his case to the American people.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And he's got to be really, really careful because those numbers could change. Next week they could tell us 100,000 barrels a day and the president could look silly if he sticks by these numbers as if they're the final word. We've seen them change so many times.

And the other issue that he knows is a real problem down the road is the structure, that whole structure, it's so sensitive right now. They have to be so careful on how they try to get this crude out of there because as bad as it is right now, if they make one mistake, and get into those rocks or the base, if you will, this thing could really explode and become a whole lot worse. And the president knows that.

KING: And, Donna, with so much uncertainty. Again they don't know when they can stop the oil from flowing out. They don't know so much about how long it will take and the enormous scope of the environmental recovery, the economic recovery.

How does the president try to convince the nation I'm on top of this, I got it, when he can't. It's not his fault, but he can't answer all their questions?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, he can reassure us, John, that every available federal resource will be at the disposal of those who are working to contain the spill, as well as to clean up the oil that have reached our shores.

He can also try to bring the country together. For weeks this has been seen as a regional crisis with local and state officials begging the federal government to do more, to understand the urgency, to get down there, to bring all of the supplies.

I think tonight the president can bring the country together and say, you know, these are our wetlands, this is our coast, and we all need to work together to ensure that we're doing everything to clean up this mess and to really reassure us that this will never happen again.

KING: You guys have been through this. How does the current political climate? Even before this spill, we're in a polarized environment. It's a tough time in the country with the high unemployment rate across most of the country.

How does that factor into -- I don't know if it's the credibility test or just the president's ability to communicate with the American people?

MATALIN: People want to -- rally is not the right word. People understand that this is of a magnitude that transcends politics and partisanship and I really fear -- that no one really wants to apply politics. I can only tell you, you've been down there. Not Bobby, not Billy Nungesser, not anybody down there that wants to play politics with this. And it's -- I am fearful that it's going to lapse into some political fight which should be an automatic if he tries to ram through some comprehensive energy agenda, some environmental religious environmental agenda. That's the sure-fire way to not be able to go forward together in a unified way.

CARVILLE: I disagree. I think the president has always been for this. He mentioned this (INAUDIBLE) in his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention, in inaugural, certainly something this country considers. But that doesn't have to do with the primary response to this.

I think people are fearful. I think this is a catastrophe of the first magnitude. I thought so since the get-go here. And I'm anxious to see what the president has to say. And look, if some of this stuff, I've not been satisfied with what he's done so far. I hope tonight marks a new day and we'll be going. But these numbers are absolutely -- they're terrifying. And I hope this is the last one. But I don't know.

KING: We're just moments away from the president's first Oval Office address of his presidency to the American people about the BP oil spill. We'll be back in just a few moments, get some final thoughts from our panel, and Wolf Blitzer will take over our special coverage of the president's address to the American people.

Stay right here, CNN is covering the story like no other network. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: And just shy of five minutes the president of the United States will speak from the White House -- you see a live picture right there -- in the Oval Office addressing the American people, outlining his plan to deal with the BP oil spill.

It is day 57 of that crisis for the president. Let's get a final thought from our panel here. In studio, I have Paul Begala, Gloria Borger, James Carville and Mary Matalin. Donna Brazile is with us in New York. Anderson Cooper in New Orleans.

But I want to go first to the White House to our correspondent Suzanne Malveaux.

Suzanne, it's the first time the president has done this. They know at the White House this is a pivotal night.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It absolutely is, John. And one of the things that is going to be strange is that it's going to sound eerily familiar to what we heard from President Bush.

President Obama is going to talk about the resilience, the strength of the American people, but also he's going to talk about restoring the Gulf region, the Gulf area to a condition that was better than even before this crisis, this disaster.

President Bush delivered that line. It was hard to believe then, it's hard to believe now. And why? Perhaps it's a tougher message for this president to deliver because this is a guy who ran on trying to restore the faith of the government in the people here. That perhaps government could change people's lives for the better.

There are a lot of questions about whether or not that is even true. So he has a very tough sell. But White House officials tell us it's going to be 18 minutes. He's going to go through from day one, John, the first day, and how this unfolded, what the government did, what they have been doing, what they're willing to offer the people of the Gulf.

He also too is going to get into that controversial energy policy. He is going to talk about the fact that from the very beginning he was about changing energy, maybe getting off the addiction of foreign oil. Those type of things.

We heard it from President Bush before. That's what he's going to emphasize tonight. And he's going to try to convince that he gets it, John. That he understands the fear and frustration of the American people.

KING: Anderson, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that anybody listening down in that region, to them actions are going to mean a whole lot more than words.

COOPER: Without a doubt. I mean, you know, people have heard a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks, over the last 57-plus days. And you know, people are tired of talk. They want to see results. They don't want to hear that some place is getting cleaned up and that there's X numbers of skimmers and that there's X numbers -- X, you know, miles of boom out there.

And then go and see pictures in Pass a Loutre and these other places in the marshes and see the oil still just sitting out there week after week. People are tired of talk. And I think people would be appreciative, they'll be listening to what the president has to say. But they want to see action on the ground. They want to see movement and they want this oil attacked.

KING: Let's get a quick final thought from everybody else. Donna Brazile in New York.

BRAZILE: Well, Anderson, this is day 15 of the 2010 hurricane season. Our people are resilient. We all know that. But our coastline is very fragile. And I think people also want to hear how the president, how the federal government, how others including BP, who's the responsible party, will help us rebuild our wetlands, our coastal shores, so that people know that they will have the protection they need in this hurricane season and beyond.

KING: Mary?

MATALIN: That's -- just going to echo that. We sound like a broken record, all of us. And it's not because we're politically aligned. To make it better than it was before is not just a moral obligation, it's a national imperative to do coastal restoration beyond mitigation and containment and cleanup here.

CARVILLE: Donna is exactly right, amen, sister. The Gulf will never be a better place until the federal government rebuilds the Louisiana coast which it was instrumental in destroying.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And I think what the president is going to do tonight is to hold BP accountable and to hold BP accountable not only for cleanup now but for this restoration in the future.

MATALIN: This is not just a BP problem.

BEGALA: So it's got to be accountability and there's got to be action. His government has to take action to clean up, yes, and then, to convert to a clean energy economy so we don't have to drill in a mile-deep water, two miles underneath that to find oil when we can produce clean energy jobs here at home. He will make that case tonight, too.

KING: Just moments away, the president of the United States in the Oval Office. He knows the credibility challenge he faces tonight. Stay with CNN as we continue now our special coverage. President Obama's Oval Office address. Our coverage continues with Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: Good evening from Washington. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting.

We're only moments away from President Obama's first Oval Office address to the nation. At issue the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Americans want answers.