I SUPPOSE HE could have pledged to forego summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard and promise instead to take Michelle and the girls down to the Florida Panhandle.

At least then people might have gotten something out of last night's speech - which I thought was your basic bomb.

He didn't show anger or frustration or offer many specifics.

Instead, President Obama's Oval Office address on the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico raised a bunch of questions and failed to answer the critical ones of who's in charge and when will the crisis end.

"Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," he said, as if that's news. He said that it's like "an epidemic" that we'll be fighting "for months and even years."

Months? Years? Who knows? Are things worse than they seem?

And he said, "There will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done."

But as to the company causing the "siege," all I heard was a reference to making BP pay and mention of a meeting today with BP boss Tony Hayward to "inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to do so."

During a pre-speech background conference call, senior White House officials couldn't or wouldn't say if BP agreed to such set-asides.

If it has, wouldn't that be news? If it hasn't how will that work?

Obama also said that this unspecified amount of money coming (or not) from BP is for a fund administered by an "independent third party."

Appointed by whom? The White House? BP? Governors of (so far) four affected states? I mean, if this is a deal or even close, where are the details?

Look, this wasn't Obama's oil spill. But let's acknowledge he now owns it.

BP (Biggest Polluter?) already demonstrated what looks like criminal negligence compounded by unconscionable cover-up and should be relegated to BP (Bit Player) moving forward.

That it took this long to recognize that should have formed the basis for a presidential apology.

Yet, I heard nothing remotely close to, hey, I'm sorry your government didn't act more quickly and efficiently. Or, I'm sorry I was naive enough to think a corporate giant would not put its interests ahead of the common good. Or, I'm sorry that before this happened I urged more offshore drilling on the basis (presumably) of safety data from the greed-head industry and phony federal regulators at the toothless Minerals Management Service. I thought last night that Obama would seek to create confidence in his leadership and, more broadly, confidence in government. That's what's at stake here.

And both, but especially the latter, are critical to the effectiveness of his incumbency; they impact the national political atmosphere and maybe upcoming midterm elections and whether he serves a second term.

The battle of the moment might be about an oil spill, but the war is about this president's promise to use government to better America's economy, health care and quality of life.

Those sickening slicks of toxicity down in the Gulf could prove more problematic than passing stimulus or health care or anything else he's faced so far.

Yet his address was soulless business banter, far removed from past-shown talent for inspiration. I mean, "time for a national mission" on cutting dependence on fossil fuels? How many years have we heard that from how many politicians?

The question now is: Does this have the politically harmful staying power of President Jimmy Carter's hostages in Iran or President Bush's Katrina?

Before last night's speech, an Associated Press poll showed a majority of Americans, 52 percent, disapprove of Obama's handling of the crisis.

Two months after Hurricane Katrina, 53 percent disapproved of President George Bush's handling of that crisis. It'll be interesting to see such numbers in days and weeks ahead. And interesting to see where (or if) the Obama's go on vacation.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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