Obama Ups Rhetoric Over Gulf Oil Spill

Some critics of President Obama have said he's not shown enough anger about the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On Tuesday, the president may have answered those critics by using some strong language while answering a question from the Today Show's Matt Lauer. Robert Siegel talks to Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein about the president's temperament, and how it's playing against the backdrop of an environmental crisis.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Many commentators have criticized President Obama for showing too much cool, too little anger in the face of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman urged him to be as uncomprehending of BP's behavior as he says his daughter Malia is. Filmmaker Spike Lee urged him to explode - if there's any one time to go off, he said, this is it because this is a disaster.

Well, this morning on the "The Today Show," NBC's Matt Lauer questioned the president, largely about the emotional tenor of his public remarks on the spill.

Mr. Matt LAUER (Co-Host, "The Today Show"): 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.

SIEGEL: And President Obama replied at one point, picking up on Lauer's image and making it a little coarser.

President BARACK OBAMA: I dont 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.

SIEGEL: But was the tone of the president's response in welcomed harmony with public sentiment? Or was it an off-key moment at odds with his own temperament?

Well, Joe Klein, of "Time" magazine, has written about more than one president's temperament. And he joins us right now to talk about this. Hi.

Mr. JOE KLEIN (Columnist, "Time" Magazine): Good to be here, Robert.

SIEGEL: What do you make of Barack Obama's kick-ass moment?

Mr. KLEIN: Hmm. I think it was out of character for him, although I speak as someone pleading guilty to having said that he needs to be more vehement at times, not just publicly but within his administration as well.

The problem here is that in the midst of a completely incomprehensible story - I mean, the technology is incomprehensible; the environmental damage is incomprehensible - this is something thats comprehensible. And so it's going to get a lot more attention than it deserves. Although when presidents have these little gaffe-lets, they tend to blow up pretty quickly.

SIEGEL: What are some past presidential remarks this made you think of?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, I mean, there are several kinds of gaffes that presidents utter and usually, they reveal something about the president's personality. Like when Bill Clinton says: It depends on what your definition of is, is...

SIEGEL: Is, is. Right, yeah.

Mr. KLEIN: ...you realize, this is a guy who tried to talk his way out of everything his entire life. Right?

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KLEIN: And a more serious one, a far more serious one, was when George W. Bush said that the Iraqi insurgency should bring it on if they wanted to, you know, fight us in Iraq. And thats something that no commander in the field would ever wish on his troops, to have the enemy fire on them. And it showed how inexperienced he was with serious military matters.

SIEGEL: There was something instant comment on the kick-ass remark - that the president had been too vulgar; this was demeaning to the office. At least, a couple of people online had commentaries to that effect. You think so?

Mr. KLEIN: I think Harry Truman probably would not think so. There are precedents for this. I think that Andrew Jackson probably knew his way around a cuss word or two. It was crude, and it was un-Obama-like. And so, therefore there will be some embarrassment attached to it. And there will be a ton - an oil spill of commentary surrounding it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: When Bill Clinton was president, it was often said - those whove been with him in private know the guy has a temper, and he can really get angry, and he's not going to show that when he's campaigning or when he's speaking to the public. With Barack Obama, they say: no drama Obama. Do we think there is a hidden Barack Obama who gets angry and screams at people and loses his temper, or it's just not his personality? What do you think?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, I've seen the president get testy in response to questions that I've asked. But from what I hear from the inside, this is a guy who not only doesnt vent all that much himself, but he disapproves of venting in all forms - even when it's praise for him.

The best story was the day - the morning he won the Nobel Peace Prize and he goes into the National Security Council meeting on Afghanistan. Obama says, now, the first item on our agenda today is - and not one of the people in the room said, congratulations, Mr. President, because they had already internalized his value system. They knew that he hated praise like that.

It is - I've never seen anything like this before in politics. It's fascinating. I dont know how it sells to the public. But at this point, I dont care. It's really who he is.

SIEGEL: Joe Klein of "Time" magazine, thank you very much.

Mr. KLEIN: My pleasure.

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