Oil spills, rhetoric and second terms: a close encounter with Obama

Invited into the Oval Office, Roger Simon hears the US president's reflections on the biggest political crisis he has faced so far
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The Independent US

He walked out of the Oval Office and down the long hallway to greet me. We shook hands, and I followed him back into the office, its yellow walls aglow in the afternoon sunlight.

Vice President Joe Biden's chair, which sits at the right side of the President's for meetings, had been removed so my wheelchair could occupy that spot. The President got up and turned his chair so we could sit face to face.

It was my first week back on a job I have been doing for decades, but I felt like a summer intern. I had met Barack Obama before, of course. I covered his campaign and got Politico's first interview with him in 2007, just before he announced his candidacy.

And I had known Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, for more than 30 years, starting when we had both been working for competing newspapers in Chicago. Last autumn, when I fell critically ill with blood poisoning, Axelrod was one of the first people to write. Weeks later, when I was in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, the phone rang, and it was the President wishing me well – a call arranged by Axelrod.

I got out of the hospital in early January minus most of my left foot and my right leg below the knee. But, as I was a columnist and not a ballerina, there was no question about whether I would be able to return to work. In late April, my wife and I went to a reception hoping to run into Axelrod, and when we did, I invoked the "no good deed goes unpunished" rule. I told him that I would be returning to work in a few weeks and would like to interview President Obama for my first column.

If this seems grossly unfair – staring up at a guy from a wheelchair and imposing on years of friendship – there is a name for it: journalism. Axelrod said he would make it happen, and two days later when I ran into Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, Gibbs said Axelrod had talked to him about it, but that there was one condition. I knew then it was all over – I don't do interviews with conditions.

"And the condition is," Gibbs said with a broad grin, "that it take place in the Oval Office." This meant it would not just be an interview, but an "Interview", taking place in the innermost of the White House's inner sanctums. After that, I groaned at each new crisis, because I knew it would dominate the President's schedule and make an interview unlikely. But, when the President cancelled an overseas trip to deal with the oil spill crisis, I figured I might have an opening. Finally, the email came that the interview had been added to the President's schedule.

And now, wheeling myself into the Oval Office behind the President, I began kicking myself. Why had I aimed so high? Why hadn't I started out a little lower in the food chain? I knew the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. He would have made a swell interview to cut my teeth on while I regained my confidence.

The President took his seat, and I rolled around to face him. I had two dozen questions written down and about an additional 30 from colleagues at Politico. I don't usually write down questions in advance, but this was the President of the United States and, some believe, a man who does not suffer fools. After eight months of not interviewing anyone, I felt I had definitely slid into the fool category.

The worst possible interview is to have somebody answer in monosyllables, but Obama is not a monosyllable guy. In 36 minutes, I got to ask 10 questions, some of them follow-ups. I do, sometimes, interrupt interview subjects who ramble or are repetitious, but this President is not a rambler or repeater.

After a few pleasantries – he invited my wife into the Oval Office so we could all pose for a picture – we began. Since I have written three books that deal, in part, with presidential stagecraft, I started with that.

"The question is, how do you move people on levels other than intellectual?" I asked. "You told Matt Lauer on 8 June, 'This is not theatre'. Robert (Gibbs) here said yesterday, I think, 'Our point is not to feign through method acting anger' at the damage in the Gulf. But you have to let people know you care, and people want to know it matters to you. How do you move people on levels other than intellectual – on emotional levels?"

"Well, look," the President said, "I want to be absolutely clear that part of leadership always involves being able to capture people's imaginations, their sense of hope, their sense of possibility, being able to move people to do things they didn't think they could do. The irony, of course, is, is that the rap on me before I got to office was that that's all I could do – right?" He laughed. "I bet you wrote some of those articles – you know, 'The guy gives a great speech; he inspires people, gets them all excited, but we don't know if he can manage and govern!'"

He went on: "Now, the fishermen I met with in the Gulf, or the families that I met with yesterday whose loved ones had died out on that rig, they don't have a doubt about whether I care or not. And, you know, what I think I get frustrated with sometimes is that the media specifically is demanding things that the public aren't demanding."

I asked him if the oil spill could have been prevented.

"Look, there are inherent risks in drilling into the earth a mile under the ocean," he said. "I'm not an engineer, but, the more I've learned about this process, the more it looks to me like some of the risks are there even if everything's done perfectly. But I will also say that there's no doubt that some of these risks could have been minimised."

He added later: "Presidents can't fabricate solutions out of thin air. Technologically, the federal government didn't have capacity to close this well that was any better than what the oil companies had."

Obama talked about America's dependence on fossil fuels and how we could not "transition out of a fossil-fuel-based economy overnight. We can't do it in five years. We can't even do it in 10. So we're going to continue to need to develop domestic oil production. We're going to still need oil exports. And if it's safe, then offshore drilling can be a part of that."

He said, however, that we have to invest in research and continue development of new resources building on the work that's already been done on "solar and wind and biodiesel and energy efficiency in cars and buildings".

"And if we don't, then accidents are going to happen again," he said. "They may not be of this size and this scope, but we're going to continue to see big problems."

Obama also talked about what he considers a key issue: the role of the federal government. "There is a debate that we've been having for a long time and we're going to keep on having in this country about the proper role of government," he said. "And I think that this crisis has been a good case study in how some people feel pretty contradictory about that role.

"Some of the same folks who have been hollering and saying 'Do something' are the same folks who, just two or three months ago, were suggesting that government needs to stop doing so much. Some of the same people who are saying 'The President needs to show leadership and solve this problem' are some of the same folks who, just a few months ago, were saying, 'This guy is trying to engineer a takeover of our society through the federal government that is going to restrict our freedoms'."

There was some real irritation in his voice when he said: "And so – and this translates into very concrete terms – I think it's fair to say, if six months ago, before this spill had happened, I had gone up to Congress and I had said we need to crack down a lot harder on oil companies, and we need to spend more money on technology to respond in case of a catastrophic spill, there are folks up there, who will not be named, who would have said, 'This is classic, big government over-regulation and wasteful spending'."

We talked about Afghanistan – he would not say that we were winning the war – and then, having gone overtime, and with the President saying, "Last one", I said that on 25 January, he had said, "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president".

"But there are millions of people who voted for you who don't want to see a return of Republican rule to Washington," I said to him. "Winners win. They don't get carried out on their feet. So the question is, are you a winner?"

"We'll find out," Obama said with a smile. "Tune in. Tune in. We'll find out in two years."

And a few moments after that, the President of the United States stood, shook my hand, thanked me and turned his chair to face the right way again.

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