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updated 11/18/2010 11:09:02 AM ET 2010-11-18T16:09:02
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Disaster In The Gulf
It was a misty Sunday morning, May 2, and I was standing with my chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, on the tarmac of the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Air Force One had just touched down on the runway. It was a tense time in Louisiana, in fact, all along the Gulf coast. It had been almost two weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil well had blown, killing eleven workers, and now oil was spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, and this was the first time the president visited. The spill was growing in size by the hour and moving ever closer to the delicate shoreline of Louisiana. To us it felt like a slow moving invasion: you could see it coming, it was getting closer, and little seemed to be happening to stop it.

Air Force One slowly eased toward us, and moments later the White House staff emerged. A member of the advance team took Timmy aside for a private chat with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Moments later the president emerged, and as his feet hit the runway pavement I extended a hand of greeting. “Hello, Mr. President.”

President Obama quickly put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me aside. It was then that I realized this was not going to be an ordinary greeting.

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I was expecting words of concern about the oil spill, worry about the pending ecological disaster, and words of confidence about how the federal government was here to help. Or perhaps he was going to vent about BP’s slow response. But no, the president was upset about something else. And he wanted to talk about, well, food stamps. Actually, he wanted to talk about a letter that my administration had sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack a day earlier.

The letter was rudimentary, bureaucratic, and ordinary. “We are formally requesting that you authorize under the OPA [Oil Pollution Act] the distribution of commodities to disaster relief agencies and the state…. ” We had also sent out requests for federal assistance on fisheries failure and job assistance. In this instance, we were simply asking the federal government to authorize food stamps for those who were now unemployed because of the oil spill. Governors regularly make these sorts of requests to the federal government when facing a disaster.

But somehow, for some reason, President Obama had personalized this. And he was upset.

There was not a word about the oil spill. He was concerned about looking bad because of the letter. “Careful,” he said to me, “this is going to get bad for everyone.”

My first thought was: Are you kidding? We’ve got millions of gallons of oil lurking off shore and you’re concerned about this? My words to him were more measured. “We haven’t criticized you about food stamps, Mr. President. What I’m frustrated about is resources. We still don’t have the boom and skimmers we need to fight this oil spill.”

A few feet away, Rahm Emanuel and Timmy were having a similar conversation. But Emanuel was being less delicate. “If you have a problem,” he told Timmy, “pick up the f—n’ phone.” (Rahm is well known in Washington for his inability to communicate without swearing.)

The president never raised his voice. But you could tell that he was oddly irritated and annoyed by this particular letter. I was truly stunned. It would be one thing if they had been angry about the failed response to the oil spill or concerned about the pending ecological disaster or frustrated with BP. There were plenty of real things to be upset about. But mad about a letter to the Ag Secretary? It was almost surreal. The White House had a sense of urgency. . . about the wrong things. Politico noted that “the president put his arm around Jindal ‘as if he were giving him an earful.’” We were contacted by a national reporter in Washington who had been told the president was upset. The White House had clearly tipped off reporters to observe closely the greeting on the tarmac.

Just as quickly as the president turned on his anger, he turned it off. Okay, press stunt over, what’s next? The weather made flying by helicopter unsafe, so we drove to Venice—in separate cars—where we were meeting with local officials.

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That encounter with President Obama served as a reminder to me of why Americans are so frustrated with Washington: the feds focus on the wrong things. Political posturing becomes more important than reality. In Washington they live by the motto: “Perception is reality.” They worry about things they shouldn’t and fail to do those things that they should focus on. It’s called core competence, or the lack thereof.

Now during the oil spill some critics said that I was being hypocritical because I believe in limited government and was also demanding more federal assistance. But they miss the point entirely. I’m not an anarchist. I believe government has a role—and at its most basic level the role of government is to protect life, liberty, and property. Dealing with a disaster like the oil spill certainly fits the job description. I believe that part of the reason the federal government failed to respond effectively to the oil spill (and for that matter, five years earlier during Hurricane Katrina) is precisely because government has become too big. By too big I mean not only too expensive, but also our federal government has become too expansive and strayed too far from what should be its core competency.

Today we have the federal government in Washington trying to run car companies, banks, and our entire health care system—rather than sticking to its core job of protecting America from all enemies foreign and domestic, protecting the life, liberty, and property of the American people. What we really need is for the federal government to do those things it should be doing with excellence, and stop trying to take over pieces of the private sector that it has no business in and no reasonable chance of running well.

The federal government’s response to the oil spill was lackadaisical almost from the start. Shortly after the oil well blew, we asked federal authorities how they were going to prioritize and deploy resources to protect our shoreline. We grew frustrated when they would not adjust their plans to respond adequately to a crisis of this magnitude. (We ended up writing our own plans with parish presidents and other coastal leaders who know the waters like the back of their hands.) And some of the federal plans were, how can I say it? Crazy. During that May 2 meeting in Venice with the president, it became clear that some of the federal plans to “protect” Louisiana were dangerous. A senior Coast Guard official explained calmly that if the oil entered the marshes, the plan was to . . . burn the marshes! What? How about some Napalm?

If you’ve never been to the Louisiana coast, it is far different than Daytona Beach. It’s beautiful in a much different way. Our coast is populated with countless fragile marshes and estuaries, and it is home to numerous species of wildlife. More than a few people at the meeting commented that this sounded painfully similar to the quip by the Army official in Vietnam who said they needed to destroy the village to save it. We wanted more of an emphasis on preventing the oil from getting into the marshes in the first place and a greater sense of urgency.

More important than the lack of workable plans, the federal government didn’t even have the resources to carry out their plans. It became apparent very early on that there simply was not enough boom to protect our shoreline. Regulations required that local industry, ports, and even some defense facilities around the country maintain a certain amount of boom. It would make sense in this case, with a lack of enough boom in the Gulf region, to relax the rules around the country so boom could be redeployed to deal with this disaster. When you are fighting a war and you are running low on ammunition, you need to get whatever ammunition you have to the frontlines. It makes no sense to say, “No we can’t take those bullets from this warehouse because regulations require that we keep a certain amount here.” You move the ammo to the front lines! But bureaucrats don’t think that way. Despite repeated requests to the federal government and the president himself, it took them too long to relax those requirements, and we lost precious time. An admiral with the Coast Guard admitted to us they had not requested skimmers from Europe since it might take them up to five weeks to arrive, even though we ended up fighting the oil for months, and, as of this writing, are still fighting it.

Getting things approved in a timely fashion proved nearly impossible. On April 30 we had requested a Commercial Fisheries Failure from the U.S. Commerce Department. It wasn’t until May 24 that we finally got word from the Commerce Department that they approved our request.

When the federal government failed to deliver on the resources needed to fight this battle and win, we began developing innovative solutions like air-dropping sand bags, Hesco Baskets, and vacuum barges. Land barriers proved to be one of the most effective protection measures. Indeed, time and time again, land barriers stopped the oil that got past the skimmers and boom and served as our last line of defense to protect our wetlands. We knew there were no silver bullets to magically stop the oil, but we also knew it was important to have multiple lines of defense rather than relying on one tactic alone. So in early May we submitted a proposal to build sand berms to protect our state so that we could fight the oil miles away from our wetlands. We waited. And waited. The federal government refused to give us a timely answer. We heard nothing for weeks, even though sand berms are recognized as a proven oil spill response technique by the U.S. Coast Guard. We went ahead and built one berm on our own to demonstrate its effectiveness, and saw it repeatedly prevent oil from entering our wetlands. Even after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded the benefits outweighed the risks, the federal government only made BP pay for one segment. It was weeks after submitting our first plan, and multiple meetings and press conferences later, that the federal government finally decided to make BP pay for all six approved segments. Of course, by that point, more than 100 miles of our shoreline had been oiled.

Photos: 64 years of ‘Meet the Press’

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  1. First ‘Meet the Press’ photo

    December 4, 1947: The earliest photograph in existence of the longest running television program in history. Sen. Robert Taft was the guest on "Meet the Press" that day, less than a month after the program debuted on NBC television at 8 p.m., November 6, 1947. James A. Farley, the former postmaster general and former Democratic National Committee chairman, was the guest on the first broadcast. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. All women

    December 10, 1949: With Washington's leading male reporters otherwise occupied at the men-only Gridiron Dinner, "Meet the Press" presented its first all-female program. Moderator (and program co-founder) Martha Rountree, panelists Doris Fleeson, May Craig, Judy Spivak and Ruth Montgomery question the guest, Democratic politician India Edwards. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Billy Graham

    March 6, 1955: Rev. Billy Graham’s first "Meet the Press" appearance. He tells panelist (and program co-founder) Lawrence Spivak "anything that makes any race feel inferior ... is not only un-American but un-Christian." (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Jackie Robinson

    April 14, 1957: Jackie Robinson, the first man to break the racial barrier in Major League Baseball, also becomes the first athlete to appear on "Meet the Press." Robinson joins moderator Lawrence Spivak in a discussion about civil rights and Robinson’s work with the NAACP. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Eleanor Roosevelt

    October 20, 1957: Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in one of her six "Meet the Press" appearances. Here she talks about her trip to the Soviet Union. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Robert Frost

    December 28, 1958: Poet Robert Frost was introduced by moderator Ned Brooks as "the poet of all America. Indeed, it can be said that he is the poet of all mankind." Two years later, Congress awarded Robert Frost a gold medal in recognition of his poetry, saying it enriched the culture of the United States and the philosophy of the world. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Fidel Castro

    April 19, 1959: Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro appears on "Meet the Press" during his first visit to the United States since the revolution. Castro was annoyed that permanent panelist and producer Lawrence Spivak would not allow him to smoke cigars in the studio. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Martin Luthur King Jr.

    April 17, 1960: Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pictured here in one of his five "Meet the Press" appearances. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. John F. Kennedy

    October 16, 1960: After this interview, then-Senator John F. Kennedy calls Meet the Press the nation's "fifty-first state." (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Jimmy Hoffa

    July 9, 1961:This first "Meet the Press" appearance by Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa had to be rescheduled several times due to Hoffa’s string of indictments. After the interview, Hoffa was furious about being asked whether his insistence on dealing only in cash and keeping few records gave the appearance of impropriety. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Edward Kennedy

    March 11, 1962: Edward Kennedy’s first appearance on the program. The potential Senate candidate was coached by his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy and his aide Theodore Sorensen prepared "Teddy" for his “Meet the Press” debut by staging a run through of questions and answers in the Oval Office. On the day of the program, President Kennedy delayed his departure from Palm Beach in order to watch the show, but later told his brother that he was almost too nervous to watch. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Bob Dole

    July 16, 1972: Bob Dole and "Meet the Press" moderator Lawrence Spivak prepare to discuss the break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. Former Senator Dole holds the record for the most appearances on “Meet the Press” in a career that included service as a Congressman, Senator, RNC Chairman, vice presidential candidate, Senate Majority Leader and finally, Republican presidential nominee. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Prime Minister Wilson

    September 19, 1965: "Meet the Press" conducts television’s very first live satellite interview. The guest is British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Ronald Reagan

    September 11, 1966: Ronald Reagan, making his first bid for public office, appears on "Meet the Press" with his Democratic opponent for the governorship of California, the incumbent Gov. Edmund G. Brown. Reagan appeared on "Meet the Press" seven times -- all before he was elected president. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Robert Kennedy

    March 17, 1968: Senator Robert F. Kennedy makes his ninth -- and final -- appearance on "Meet the Press" with Lawrence E. Spivak. Kennedy was assassinated in California less than 3 months later -- shortly after claiming victory in that state's Democratic presidential primary. He was 42 years old. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. John Kerry

    April 18, 1971: John Kerry, then a former Navy Lieutenant, makes his first "Meet the Press" appearance as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He has since appeared on the program as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts 21 times. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Golda Meir

    December 5, 1971: Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, appears on “Meet the Press” with moderator Bill Monroe to discuss the continuing instability in the Middle East and the prospect of meeting and negotiating with Egypt’s leaders. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Prime Minister Gandhi

    August 24, 1975: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in one of her seven appearances on "Meet the Press" before her assassination in October 1984. After she was elected Prime Minister in 1966, Gandhi grew more concerned about her television image and contacted "Meet the Press" to request makeup samples used during her appearance on the program. The program’s makeup artist consulted her notes and sent Mrs. Gandhi a complete makeup set -- including sponges and instructions for application. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Gerald Ford

    November 9, 1975: President Gerald Ford becomes the first sitting American president to appear on the program. President Ford accepted the invitation as a tribute to "Meet the Press" co-founder Lawrence Spivak, who was making his farewell appearance as moderator of the program. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Jimmy Carter

    January 20, 1980: In one of the most dramatic newsbreaks in the history of "Meet the Press" President Jimmy Carter announces that the U.S. would boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics because of the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Despite initial outrage over Carter’s proposal, 60 nations eventually joined the boycott. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Richard Nixon

    April 10, 1988: In his first Sunday interview in 20 years, Former President Richard Nixon reacts to a comment on "Meet the Press. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Tim Russert's first show

    December 8, 1991: Tim Russert makes his debut as moderator of "Meet the Press." He has since become the longest-serving moderator in "Meet the Press" history. In the center of this photo is then-intern Betsy Fischer, who is now Executive Producer of the program. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Dan Quayle

    September 20, 1992: "Meet the Press" permanently expands from a half-hour to a one hour program. Vice President Dan Quayle is the guest. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Shaheen and Whitman

    February 2, 1997: The broadcast breaks television history as "Meet the Press" becomes the first network television program ever to broadcast live in digital high definition. Governors Jeanne Shaheen and Christie Todd Whitman share a light moment on the set that day. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Bill Clinton

    November 9, 1997: President Bill Clinton appears in studio on "Meet the Press" to mark the program’s 50th anniversary. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Al Gore

    December 19, 1999: In a live Democratic presidential debate, Vice President Al Gore challenges former Sen. Bill Bradley to a "Meet the Press agreement" to have weekly debates in place of running political advertisements. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Dick Cheney

    September 16, 2001: Five days after the September 11th attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney joins moderator Tim Russert in the first live television interview ever broadcast from Camp David. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Senate Debate Series

    September 22, 2002: "Meet the Press" kicks off its "Senate Debate Series" with the Colorado Senate race: Republican Incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard vs. Democratic Challenger Tom Strickland. At the end of the election cycle, the series of three senate debates was awarded the prestigious "USC Walter Cronkite Journalism Award" for "Excellence in Broadcast TV Political Journalism." The debate series continued in 2004 and 2006. (Alex Wong / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. George W. Bush

    February 8, 2004: President George W. Bush kicks off his re-election campaign in an Oval Office interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press." Robert Novak went on to write about the interview, "no president ever before had been subjected to such tough questioning in the Oval Office." (Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. James Carville

    November 14, 2004: In another "Meet the Press" first, Democratic strategist James Carville cracks an egg on his forehead to demonstrate he's got "egg on his face" after his projected outcome of the U.S. presidential election was wrong. Carville predicted 52 percent of the vote for U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), 47 percent for President George W. Bush and 1 percent for Ralph Nader. (Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Jim Webb

    November 19, 2006: The first edition of "Meet the Press" to be available via video netcast on the show’s Web site. U.S. Senator-elect Jim Webb (D-Va.) joins moderator Tim Russert on that program. (Alex Wong / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Barack Obama

    November 11, 2007: "Meet the Press"celebrates its 60th anniversary live from Des Moines, Iowa with Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) for the full hour. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. June 15, 2008: The chair of late moderator Tim Russert sits empty on the set during the first MTP taping following Russert's death. He died June 13, 2008 of a heart attack while at the NBC News bureau in Washington. He was 58 years old. (Alex Wong / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Colin Powell

    October 19, 2008: A record-breaking 9 million viewers tune in to see Gen. Colin Powell, a Republican, announce his endorsement of Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. President-elect Obama

    December 7, 2008: President-elect Barack Obama makes his first Sunday morning television appearance since winning the election to discuss the challenges facing this country and the upcoming transition of power. (Scott Olson / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. David Gregory

    December 7, 2008: Interim moderator Tom Brokaw announces that David Gregory has been chosen as the new moderator of the show. (Alex Wong / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Rendell, Schwarzenegger & Bloomberg

    March 22, 2009: Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Penn.), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared exclusively on Meet the Press one day after meeting with President Obama to discuss the economy. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Hillary Clinton

    July 26, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears for a full-hour on Meet the Press. It's her first appearance on the program since joining the Obama administration. (William B. Plowman / NBC Universal) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. President Obama

    September 20, 2009: President Barack Obama sits down with David Gregory at the White House for Obama's first MTP appearance since taking office. (Pete Souza / The White House) Back to slideshow navigation
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