Ken Salazar gets a vote of confidence (sort of) from Barack Obama despite remaining messes

In an interview in the October 15 issue of Rolling Stone, President Barack Obama defends his administration's overhaul of the Department of the Interior amid agency scandals and outrage over the Gulf oil spill -- and insists Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will keep his job, calling him "an outstanding public servant."

RS publisher Jann Wenner asked Obama why Salazar still has his job, particularly since British Petroleum had jettisoned CEO Tony Hayward over the oil spill and ongoing management problems at Interior's Minerals Management Service contributed to the disaster.

The president's response:

When Ken Salazar came in, he said to me, "One of my top priorities is cleaning up MMS." It was no secret. You had seen the kind of behavior in that office that was just over-the-top, and Ken did reform the agency to eliminate those core ethical lapses -- the drugs, the other malfeasance that was reported there. What Ken would admit, and I would admit, and what we both have to take responsibility for, is that we did not fully change the institutional conflicts that were inherent in that office. If you ask why did we not get that done, the very simple answer is that this is a big government with a lot of people, and changing bureaucracies and agencies is a time-consuming process. We just didn't get to it fast enough.

Having said that, the person who was put in charge of MMS was fired. We brought in Michael Bromwich, who by every account is somebody who is serious about cleaning up that agency. We are committed to making sure that that place works the way it is supposed to. But when I have somebody like Ken Salazar, who has been an outstanding public servant, who takes this stuff seriously, who bleeds when he sees what was happening in the Gulf, and had started on a path of reform but just didn't get there as fast on every aspect of it as needed to be, I had to just let him know, "You're accountable, you're responsible, I expect you to change it." I have confidence that he can change it, and I think he's in the process of doing so.

It's a nimble answer, but one that acknowledges a key fault in the administration's painfully slow approach to reform within Interior, which was rife with conflicts of interest during the Bush years. While Salazar made a splash early on by unveiling a new code of ethics and a spiel about a new sheriff in town, the more deep-rooted "institutional" issues -- too-cozy relationships with industry, inadequate audits and inspections of drilling operations, thoroughly confused signals about protecting resources while ramping up a feel-good quest for "energy independence" -- continued to fester.

For more on the culture clashes within Interior and MMS, see our previous posts here and here.

Whether Salazar is truly making headway on the real "path of reform" after all these months is hard to gauge. Coherent plans for domestic energy development, climate legislation and the re-branding of MMS are still down the road. His boss is still behind him, but the clock is ticking -- and there comes a point where saying "We just didn't get to it fast enough" sounds a lot like too little, too late.