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Interview With Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today"

June 07, 2010

[Broadcast Date June 8, 2010]

Matt Lauer: We begin on a Tuesday morning with the disaster in the Gulf, now in its 50th day, and our exclusive interview with President Obama. We sat down on Monday before his commencement speech at a high school in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And I began by asking the president if the oil spill in the Gulf has made this the toughest point in his presidency to date.

The President: This is tough, no doubt about it, because, you know, when you watch television or you go down to the Gulf and you see birds covered in oil and you talk to fishermen who are on the verge of tears -- big, tough guys, but, you know, their livelihoods are being smothered by this oil that's coming into the estuaries and marshes -- it gets you frustrated.

And so this is a difficult time for the country. But it has not reduced my confidence that our trajectory is right. We've just got to keep on moving. We've got to keep on pushing. It's going to be tough, but we're going to get through it.

Matt Lauer: Do you feel at this stage, 50 days or so into this, that your administration has been damaged by this oil spill?

The President: No. First of all, I'm not concerned about my politics right now. What I'm concerned about is what's happening down in the Gulf. And I guarantee you, the folks in the Gulf have been damaged by this oil spill. And livelihoods are at stake.

This is the largest federal response to an environmental disaster in history. From day one, we understood that this was going to be a major disaster. We have put unprecedented resources to deal with it.

Matt Lauer: Then why do you think there's so much frustration aimed not only at BP right now but at your administration? There are people who are starting to wonder out loud if the oil spill in the Gulf could be -- could do to you what Katrina did to President Bush or even what the Iran hostage situation did to President Carter.

The President: You know, I have to tell you, some of this is just the nature of the 24-hour news cycle. You've got a camera showing oil spilling out in the Gulf, and people are understandably frustrated and they're upset, and they have every right to be.

But here's what I can say, that we have responded with unprecedented resources. And when you look at what most of the critics say, Matt, and you ask them, "Well, specifically what is it that the administration could or should have done differently that would have an impact on whether or not oil was hitting the shore?" you're met with silence.

And the fact of the matter is there has not been an idea that is mentioned out there by any of the critics that we haven't evaluated. And if it was going to work, we would have done it. But it happened under my watch that you still had these oil rigs out there that we thought could deal with this kind of situation and they haven't been able to deal with it.

Matt Lauer: A day or so after that oil rig sank --

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: -- I spoke to Rear Admiral Mary Landry of the Coast Guard --

The President: Yeah.

Matt Lauer: -- who was speaking on behalf of the administration. And I asked her --

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: -- I said, "We're seeing an oil slick in the water. Where's that coming from?" And she said, "There is no evidence that that's coming from this wellhead. That's residual oil coming from the rig itself."

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: A day later, she echoed those same comments.

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: Was the administration misled, in your opinion? Were you relying too much on information from BP? And from the start, did BP try to downplay the situation?

The President: Well, here's what I think happened. Initially the thinking was that, in fact, the rig had sunk but the blowout preventers had shut down the well, because that's what they were supposed to do. So the anticipation was maybe a thousand barrels might be leaking a day, but this is not going to be a monumental spill.

As soon as people understood that the blowout preventers weren't working, that the valves that were supposed to shut down in the event of a blowout like this had not functioned properly, then I think people understood right then that this was going to be a significant emergency.

In terms of our relationship with BP, our general attitude has been that they have an incentive to shut this thing down because it's going to cost them money, and I'm going to stay on them, if it's the last thing I do in this administration, to make sure they're paying off those fishermen and --

Matt Lauer: Have you spoken directly to Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP?

The President: I have not spoken to him directly, and here's the reason, because my experience is when you talk to a guy like a BP CEO, he's going to say all the right things to me. I'm not interested in words. I'm interested in actions.

Matt Lauer: I --

The President: And we are communicating to him every single day exactly what we expect of him and what we expect of that administration.

Matt Lauer: In all due respect, that feels strange to me; that here we've got the CEO of a company that's responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, and I think -- I'm just curious why you didn't pick up -- you wouldn't pick up the phone and in some ways just give him a piece of your mind.

The President: Well, the -- look, this has sort of been -- this has been the main critique of the administration is giving a piece of my mind to these guys. Look, I would love to vent. I would love to just shout and holler, because I'm thinking about this day in and day out. But my main job is to solve the problem.

Matt Lauer: To solve the problem, you have to have a reliable partner. Let me read you some of the things that Mr. Hayward has said over the course of this disaster. He said, "The Gulf of Mexico is a big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we're putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume. The environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest." And then he said, "There's no one who wants this to end more than I do. I'd like my life back."

The President: Yeah. Well, the -- I think the --

Matt Lauer: The family members of those 11 people who died on the rig and the people whose lives are going to be changed for years want their lives back too. He doesn't work for you. But if he did, would you want him out?

The President: He wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements. First of all, we're going to have to find out why this thing went in the first place. And the fact of the matter is that there's going to be a thorough review. And I don't want to prejudge it, but the initial reports indicate that there may be situations in which not only human error was involved, but you also saw some corner cutting in terms of safety, and that BP is a multibillion-dollar corporation. It's talking about paying $10.5 billion in dividends just for this quarter.

Matt Lauer: Right.

The President: We are going to have to make sure that not only do they shut down the cap, we are not only going to have to make sure that any deepwater drilling process that's out there is, in fact, fail-safe and oil companies know what they're doing, but we also have to make sure that every single person who's been affected by this is properly compensated and made whole. When I went down there last Friday --

Matt Lauer: Can BP do that? Can they do all that?

The President: Absolutely. They can afford it. If I start seeing BP nickel and diming folks down there, then they are going to have to answer to us.

Matt Lauer: We've heard time and time again throughout this crisis, as BP has tried and failed with all their fixes, that this technology is untested at this depth.

The President: Yeah.

Matt Lauer: And it just raises a question. If this is where we're drilling for oil, at 4,000 and 5,000 feet under the surface of the ocean, where's the oversight in that? Why are they allowed to drill there if the worst-case-scenario methods to prevent disaster are untested at that depth? It doesn't help to test them at 100 feet.

The President: When it comes to how we were operating in overseeing and taking the word of the oil industry generally, not just BP in terms of the fail-safe nature of what they could do, I think we have to completely review that. And that's why I've assigned this bipartisan commission. I want them to report back to me, because you obviously cannot take the word of oil companies when they say they've got a bunch of redundancy and backup plans, when something like this happens and it turns out they have no idea what they're doing.

Matt Lauer: So even as the oil is spewing into the Gulf, would you consider halting all drilling below a certain depth right now?

The President: Well, keep in mind what's happening. First of all, there is -- we've already instituted a moratorium --

Matt Lauer: On new drilling.

The President: -- on new drilling. The production wells that are already pumping oil, those don't seem to be the problem. The problem has to do with actually drilling and starting a new well. So we've put a moratorium on new wells. Shallow wells aren't a problem because the risers essentially come up above the water. So if something like this happened in a shallow-water well, then folks would just get up on the platform and they would start fixing it and it would be shut down fairly quickly.

What we don't have right now is an assurance that in these incredible depths, a mile down, and then they're drilling another three miles down to get to oil --

Matt Lauer: Right.

The President: -- that we can actually handle a crisis like this.

Matt Lauer: Have you allowed yourself to even imagine what the Gulf region will look like if oil continues to spew until August, what it will smell like, what the economic situation will be like down there?

The President: I have. And here's what I'll say. This is going to be a mess. It already is. But I've been down there, and the people are resilient, and these ecosystems are more resilient than I think we anticipate right now, if we act swiftly, if we act seriously.

There are going to be marshes, for example, where the oil goes in and the sea life that's there is decimated for a season, maybe two. But potentially we can preserve those estuaries and those marshes so that three years from now things have come back; things have bounced back.

Matt Lauer: Critics are now talking about your style, which is the first time I've heard that in a long time. And they're saying here's a guy who likes to be known as cool and calm and collected, and this isn't the time for cool, calm and collected --

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: -- that this is not the time to meet with experts and advisers. This is a time to spend more time in the Gulf and -- I never thought I'd say this to a president -- but kick some butt.

The President: [Chuckles.]

Matt Lauer: And I don't mean it to be funny.

The President: No. And I understand. And here's what -- I'm going to push back hard on this, because I think that this is just an idea that got in folks' heads and the media has run with it. I was down there a month ago, before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf. A month ago I was meeting with fishermen down there standing in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be.

And I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick, right?

So, you know, this is not theater. Most of the decisions that I make on a day-to-day basis, I make because I have gathered the best information possible in very difficult situations, and my job is to figure out how can I move the federal government, the private sector, all the various players who are involved, to perform some very, very difficult tasks?

And I don't always have time to perform for the benefit of the cable shows. What I do have is dedication and commitment to make sure that the people who are actually being affected by this are going to get the best possible service from me. And as long as I'm president, that's the approach that I'm going to take to this job.

. . .

Matt Lauer: So this White House challenge; you had a thousand schools competing --

The President: Yeah.

Matt Lauer: -- to have you give the commencement address. Why'd you pick Kalamazoo Central?

The President: This school is a great example of what's possible when you've got a public school, it's not in a wealthy community, it is diverse, and yet, because the community decided to invest by guaranteeing college tuition for any graduate here, you've got teachers and a principal who are dedicated and are willing to think out of the box, so they're not just bound by "It's not in my contract," but they're doing all kinds of extra stuff.

Matt Lauer: You're not going to find a more friendly audience than you're going to have when you give this speech tonight. I watched their enthusiasm when they met you a few minutes ago.

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: Your job is to inspire them --

The President: Absolutely.

Matt Lauer: -- and give them words of wisdom. What are you going to say to them?

The President: Well, I have to say, first of all, high-school audiences are the toughest, right, because --

Matt Lauer: Why?

The President: Well, you know, when you're a teenager, you think you know more than just about anybody.

Matt Lauer: Not than the president, though.

The President: [Laughs.]

Matt Lauer: Probably not.

The President: But my main message to these kids is, number one, internalize a sense of excellence. You know, I think most of these kids have had a lot of support, telling them, "Do well." But as soon as you get out of here, nobody's telling you, and you've got to want that on your own.

The second thing I'm going to tell them is, "No excuses. Take responsibility and go out there and set your goals and then work for them. And understand that stuff doesn't come easy. You've got to work." This is Derek Jeter's --

Matt Lauer: Oh, I know.

The President: -- alma mater. And one of the things I'm going to remind them is that guy, you know, shagged a lot of grounders to end up being the captain of the Yankees. And so that's a message.

And then the third one is I also want kids to internalize the lesson of their community here, which is give back.

Matt Lauer: A couple of other quick topics.

The President: Yeah.

Matt Lauer: Helen Thomas, the dean of Washington correspondents -- sits in the front row at the press conferences all the time -- announced her retirement today after some inflammatory comments about Israeli Jews.

Matt Lauer: Your reaction to her retirement? Your reaction to her comments?

The President: Well, the comments were offensive. It's a shame, because Helen was somebody who had been a correspondent through I don't know how many presidents; was a real institution in Washington. But I think she made the right decision.

Matt Lauer: And is it something that taints her career, in your opinion?

The President: Well, you know, I think that those comments were out of line. And hopefully she recognizes that.

Matt Lauer: On a much lighter note, you're a sports fan.

The President: Yeah.

Matt Lauer: So you must have watched with the rest of us the near-perfect game pitched by Armando Galarraga of the --

The President: Brutal.

Matt Lauer: -- Detroit Tigers the other night. Did Bud Selig make the right call in not awarding a perfect game and reversing Jim Joyce, the umpire's call?

The President: He made the right call in not awarding the perfect game, but I think that baseball is going to have to take a look at what football and basketball already decided --

Matt Lauer: More replay.

The President: -- which is replay may, in some cases, be appropriate. I'm not advocating for it.

Matt Lauer: Are you a fan of that?

The President: I'm saying that you may have to take a look at it. But here's -- what was wonderful was how a potentially sour story ended up being, for me, an inspiring story. I think the class with which the pitcher handled it, the way that Joyce owned up to making a mistake, the way the whole team went out there the next day and said, "You know what, we all make mistakes, but you've had a great career as an umpire," I thought that showed something about sportsmanship that you don't see enough in America these days.

Matt Lauer: Yeah, for all the times I've had to explain bad sportsmanship to my kids, this was a teaching moment --

The President: Yeah, that was a good example.

Matt Lauer: -- which was nice.

Barack Obama, Interview With Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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