Sounding reflective as he heads into a bruising electoral season, President Barack Obama told POLITICO columnist Roger Simon that the Gulf disaster “echoes 9/11” because it will change the nation’s psyche for years to come.
Obama — facing mounting criticism of his handling of the BP gusher, even from longtime allies — vowed to make a “bold” push for a new energy law even as the calamity continues to unfold. And he said he will use the rest of his presidency to try to put the United States on a course toward a “new way of doing business when it comes to energy.”
“In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11,” the president said in an Oval Office interview on Friday, “I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.”
Previewing his message for the midterm congressional elections in November, the president said: “[T]he Democrats in Congress have taken tougher votes, have worked harder under more stressful circumstances, than just about any Congress in our memory. And they’ve done a great job and deserve reelection.”
“So I’m going to be fighting on their behalf and doing everything I can and using my bully pulpit to communicate that fact to the American people,” he said. “I know there’s an anti-incumbent mood out there right now because … people are frustrated about the hit that the economy has taken. … But what I’m going to remind people of is we didn’t create this mess. And this Congress responded forcefully at a time when this economy really could have fallen off a cliff.”
Historic patterns and the current political climate all but guarantee that both the House and Senate will lose Democrats in the election, and administration officials concede the Republicans have a chance of winning control of the House.
Obama acknowledged that the results will help determine the course of his term’s second half. “I am spending some time thinking about 2010 because, obviously, my ability to get things done on behalf of the American people depends on a Congress that is willing to cooperate,” he said.
In his firmest declaration yet that he views the calamity as an impetus to push Congress afresh to pass a major energy and climate bill, Obama vowed to “move forward in a bold way in a direction that finally gives us the kind of future-oriented, … visionary energy policy that we so vitally need and has been absent for so long..”
“One of the biggest leadership challenges for me going forward is going to be to make sure that we draw the right lessons from this disaster,” he said.
Hardening one of his persistent complaints throughout his presidency, Obama expressed frustration with press coverage of his administration’s response, declaring that “the media specifically is demanding things that the public aren’t demanding.” He contended that “the overwhelming majority of the American people” have reasonable expectations.
“What they hope and expect is for the president to do everything that’s within his power,” he said. “They don’t expect us to be magicians.”
The interview was a rare chance to get a glimpse of how the most-written-about man in the world sees himself. He acknowledged the power of symbolism in his office, but reiterated his distaste for what he has referred to as “method-acting.”
When Simon asked about appealing to public emotion, Obama replied 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 said with a chuckle. “[Y]ou 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.’ So it’s not that I don’t think these issues are important. It’s that there’s a time and a place for these issues. …
“What the public wants to see is us solving this problem. And that may not make for good TV. Me sitting in a meeting with [Energy] Secretary [Steven] Chu and [Gulf national incident commander] Thad Allen and looking over maps and figuring out how boom gets someplace, that’s not something that is high theater. But ultimately that’s going to make the biggest difference in terms of whether or not the Gulf recovers.”
Obama said he couldn’t predict whether the nation would transition completely from an oil-based economy within his lifetime but added that “now is the time for us to start making that transition and investing in a new way of doing business when it comes to energy.”
“I have no idea what new energy sources are going to be available, what technologies might drive down the price of renewable energies,” he said. “What we can predict is that the availability of fossil fuel is going to be diminishing; that it’s going to get more expensive to recover; that there are going to be environmental costs that our children, … our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to have to bear.”
On the mixed to negative polling about the historic health-reform law he signed in March, Obama said: “I strongly believe that the health care bill was the right thing to do … I think that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, people are going to say this was a big achievement. I think it’s going to help us bend the cost curve in ways that will actually help us deal with the deficit, not add to it.”
Turning to the issue that’s likely to dominate midterm campaigns, Obama said the economy “is still fragile, and not all those 8 million jobs have been brought back.”
“[T]he good news is that we have pulled ourselves out of what could have been a Great Depression,” he said. “The trajectory of the economy is moving in the right direction. We’ve had job growth for five consecutive months. GDP estimates have gotten better. We’ve got some headwinds because there continue to be problems in Europe that have an indirect impact on us.”
Pressed on the inevitability that the elections will be cast as a report-card on him, Obama replied: “I’m less concerned about the report card on me. I’m more concerned about really fine public servants who’ve been in the line of fire, done really good work — I want to see if we can get them back here.”