ABC "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS"
HOST: GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS
GUEST: SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning, everyone. And Happy Mother's Day. We begin today back "on the trail" with our exclusive headliner, Barack Obama.
Three months into a presidential campaign after less than three years in the Senate, Obama is raising big money and drawing huge crowds.
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape) Hello, L.A.! (cheers)
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Unlike his top rivals for the Democratic nomination, Obama was against the war in Iraq from the start.
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape) I don't oppose war in all circumstances. What I do oppose is a dumb war.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But here in Iowa this week most of the questions from relatively small crowds hit closer to home.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN IN CROWD: How do we get rid of our dependency on the single automobile and have mass transportation that works?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And at every stop the 45-year-old who would be America's first African-American president addressed the key question of his campaign. Is he ready for the job?
SEN. OBAMA: I'm confident about my ability to lead this country.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: When we sat down in Des Moines, I asked Obama where he got that confidence.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I think it comes from the set of experiences that I've brought with me to this race. As somebody who worked as a community organizer in Chicago not knowing anybody when I arrived and being able to pull people together around the issues that folks were facing after they had gotten laid off of work, the work that I've done as a civil rights lawyer and a constitutional law professor and then in the State Senate being able to get Democrats and Republicans together around tough issues like reforming the death penalty or expanding health insurance for kids, those skills seem to have translated in Washington.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But you've never served in the military.
SEN. OBAMA: Yes.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You've never been an executive.
SEN. OBAMA: Sure.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: What's the most difficult crisis you've had to manage in your public life?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, the truth is in my public life as a legislator, most of the difficult tasks have been to build consensus around hard problems, and what I think the country needs more than anything right now is somebody who has the capacity to identify areas of common interests, common good, build a consensus around it and get things done.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That is part of the question, there's no question about it.
SEN. OBAMA: Yes.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But you know a big part of the job of a president is what you do in a crisis, the crisis you didn't expect.
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And you've never really had to deal with something like that, right?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, what I think is absolutely legitimate is that my political career has been on the legislative side and not in the Executive Branch. Now, that's true for a lot of my colleagues, you know, who aren't governors and one of the things that I hope over the course of this campaign I show is the capacity to manage this pretty unwieldy process of a political race and one of the great things about the press is they're going to be watching very carefully.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Every move you make.
SEN. OBAMA: Every move you make. And to make sure that people have a sense of how I deal with adversity, how I deal with mistakes, who do I have around me to make sure that, you know, we're executing on the things that need to get done.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: One moment that got a lot of scrutiny was at the debate. You were asked what you would do if Al Qaeda attacked two American cities.
MR. BRIAN WILLIAMS: (From videotape) How would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape) Well, the first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response, something this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: What you didn't say in your first answer is you would strike back.
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And a lot of your rivals said, boy, it shows that his instincts are soft.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, I will repeat what I said, which is that the first thing I would do is make sure that the emergency response was appropriate and the people were safe. The second thing I'd do is make sure that we weren't going to have another attack and that we had adequate intelligence to make sure that that was prevented. The third thing I would do is find out who had perpetrated the crime and then I would attack.
Now, that, I think, is how every American should want their president to operate and that is something that I think is the kind of judgment that we're going to need out of a chief executive, somebody who can respond in a crisis to make sure that the American people are safe, that the international community has confidence about the intelligence that we are operating under, but I don't think there can be any doubt that I would strike swiftly, promptly and vigorously if there was an attack.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: One of your heroes is Abe Lincoln.
He was ruthless when he had to be. Can you be ruthless?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, I think that somebody who has arrived where I am out of Chicago politics, has to have a little bit of steel in him. I have the capacity, I think, to make strong decisions even if they're unpopular, even if they're uncomfortable, even if sometimes I lose some friends, and I've shown that. You know, when I opposed the war in Iraq back in 2002 as I was running for the U.S. Senate, Bush's poll ratings were sky high and the conventional wisdom not just in Washington but all across the country was is that it was political suicide to get out front and oppose this thing and I did, knowing the potential consequences because I thought that was the right thing to do and that kind of willingness to stand up in difficult situations, I think, has characterized my career and that, I think, is what people are looking for. It's not just talking tough, because the truth is, nobody has talked tougher than George Bush over the last six years. Being tough means, first of all, not having to talk about it all the time, and the second is being able to apply judgment and understanding where can you get things done by cooperation and where do you have to make tough decisions.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about Iraq. President Clinton says it's ludicrous to characterize Hillary and Obama's positions on the war as polar opposites. Is he right?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I don't think they're polar opposites. I would agree with that. I think that my position, though, has been clear from the start and has been consistent, which is that I thought this was a bad idea. I said so from the start. I also said even as I said it was a bad idea that once we were in, it was going to be tough to get out and that we were going to have some responsibilities to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in and I've been consistent in that position.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But back in 2003, you were against supplemental funding for the war. You gave a speech where you said I would vote against the $87 billion.
SEN. OBAMA: That is true.
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape) I said no unequivocally because at a certain point we have to say "no" to George Bush. If we keep on getting steamrolled, we are not going to stand a chance.
SEN. OBAMA: And the reason was because I was trying to establish a principle at that time and I said this at the time that for us to be giving $20 billion in reconstruction dollars in a no-bid process where money could potentially be wasted was a problem. But what I also said at that time was that the 67 billion that was needed for the troops was something that I would gladly vote for and I've been consistent in saying that as much as I think this has been if not the biggest then one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in history, I want to make sure that our troops who are on the ground who perform magnificently aren't caught in the political cross fire in Washington.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But you said then you have to say "no" to George Bush because we can't get steamrolled. Yet you go in the Senate, your critics say, and vote for the funding every single time.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Because at that point you've got hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have to carry out the mission on behalf of the American people. It's not their fault that our civilian leadership made bad decisions and what I wanted to make sure of was that they had night vision goggles that they needed, the humvees that they needed and I also felt and I continue to feel this way that if we could create some semblance of stability and success in Iraq that would be a good thing.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So your position now is that we should get 16 senators, you're giving the speech everywhere, to come forward and vote for the Democratic bill.
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape) That's how much it takes for a veto-proof majority to tell the president that it's time to bring our troops home.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That is not going to happen.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, see that I disagree with. There's a reason why there were 11 Republican House members, all of whom had been loyal soldiers to the president who went to the White House this week and told him, "we need a change of policy."
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet they all said they would vote for the funding right now.
SEN. OBAMA: Of course they all said that right now, but the point is that we have to ratchet up pressure. We have to get those members to recognize that the time for us to bring this war to a close is now, and that we can do it in a responsible way. We can do it in a way that doesn't play games with our troops on the ground.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So does that mean next week or the week after when the war funding bill comes forward it doesn't have the time line for withdrawal but it does have benchmarks, you vote for it?
SEN. OBAMA: It's going to depend on what the bill looks like. I don't believe in giving George Bush a blank check.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So there would have to be some kind of restriction.
SEN. OBAMA: There's got to be something that signals the president is changing course and that there are consequences to the Iraqi government failing to meet some of the benchmarks that we're talking about.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So you want troops to come out, combat troops to come out by the end of March next year.
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: What's your assumption of what Iraq looks like on April 1st, 2008?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think that if we've done it responsibly, if the commanders on the ground have been able to do it in an orderly process and if we've got the diplomatic efforts that are needed to ensure that parties are talking to each other, then my assumption is there might be some spikes in violence, some places in Iraq, but that we will have triggered a conversation, a changed dynamic in Iraq and in the region where people start recognizing, you know what, we're going to have to carry some weight here.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That is certainly the hope but what if you're wrong? What if al Qaeda continues to build? What if the Shiites unleash a genocide on the Sunnis? Does President Obama go back in?
SEN. OBAMA: There are no good options in Iraq right now. We have bad options and worse options. That's why I didn't think we should go in in the first place. It is my judgment that the only thing that can change the political dynamic is the phased redeployment.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But do you believe that the United States has responsibility to go back in if we don't get the results you hope for?
SEN. OBAMA: I think that we have a national security interest in the region. That means that we can't abandon the field entirely. It means that we're going to have to ensure that you don't have spillover of violence throughout the region. I think we have some moral and humanitarian responsibilities to the Iraqi people and that has to be factored in. I can't anticipate what Iraq will look like a year from now because so much depends on how we carry out this phased redeployment and how effective we are when it comes to diplomacy.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: One of your big issues is ethics reform, but you faced a lot of criticism back home in Chicago about a land deal you entered into with a longtime friend and contributor of yours called named Resco. You bought a house. He bought an adjacent plot the exact same day. Several months later, you bought part of the plot back from him. All at that time it was known that he was being investigated for corruption and kickbacks. What were you thinking?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, obviously I wasn't thinking enough. I'm very proud of my ethics record.
I mean, I was famous in Springfield for not letting lobbyists even buy me lunch. So this is one time where I didn't see the appearance of impropriety because I paid full price for the land. There has been no allegations of anything other than that. But it raised the possibility that here was somebody who was a friend of mine who was doing me a favor and I said it was a bone-headed mistake.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you explain the blind spot?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think that, you know, we had bought a house for the first time and, you know, we were trying to figure out how to set the whole thing up and, you know, this is somebody that I had known for some time. It was an above-board legal transaction. I paid more than the price of the property that I purchased and so the assumption was this was all above-board and the important thing, though, is to note that in all my conduct, there's never been any implications including in this situation that I in any way used my office to do favors for people, to help folks, betray the public trust in any sort of way. And that is something that I'm very proud of and that's part of the reason why in this campaign it's so important for me to talk about the need not just to win elections but to change how our politics work.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about taxes. In the town meeting you said you were willing to roll back President Bush's tax cuts to help pay for your health care plan when you announce it.
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape) Rolling back the bush tax cuts on the top 1 percent -- people who don't need it -- would be a good way of helping to pay for the additional services that were needed.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Edwards said he would consider going farther, raising taxes beyond that on the wealthy. Are you?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think the starting point has to be are we spending our current money wisely? That has to be the starting point, and I think that's true on health care, that, you know, we can save about $75 billion a year by increasing prevention, managing the chronically ill, applying medical technology, once we have seen what savings can be obtained then my absolute commitment is to make sure we've got universal health care in this country and I will find the money to make up the difference.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So if it takes new taxes, so be it?
SEN. OBAMA: If it takes a rollback of those tax cuts, I think that will be sufficient to pay for the health care fund. Now, there are other areas where we've got to make some investments. I have not made a promise and I won't make a promise that I'm going to be able to perfectly balance the budget immediately. What I can say is that we're going to pay as you go, that if I start a new program I'll find a way to pay for it. If I want tax cuts, then I'm going to find a way to pay for it and that over the long term we get a stable budget that is not simply running up the credit card on our children.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You've also said that with Social Security everything should be on the table.
SEN. OBAMA: Yes.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Raising the retirement age?
SEN. OBAMA: Everything should be on the table.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Raising payroll taxes?
SEN. OBAMA: Everything should be on the table. I think we should approach it the same way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did back in 1983. They came together, I don't want to lay out my preferences beforehand, but what I know is that Social Security is solvable. It is not as difficult a problem as we're going to have with Medicaid and Medicare.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Partial privatization?
SEN. OBAMA: Privatization I'm not -- is not something that I would consider and the reason is this, Social Security, I think, is -- that's the floor. That's the baseline. Social Security is that safety net that can't be frayed and we shouldn't put at risk.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Your candidacy brings the issue of race right to the top --
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: -- of the national conversation. You've been a strong supporter of affirmative action and you're a constitutional law professor so let's go back in the classroom. I'm your student and I say, "Professor, you and your wife went to Harvard Law School. Got plenty of money. You're running for president. Why should your daughters, when they go to college, get affirmative action?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there's nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities. I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.
So I don't think those concepts are mutually exclusive. I think what we can say is in our society race and class still intersect, that there are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be first generation as opposed to fifth or sixth generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together to help build this country.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that in 25 years affirmative action may no longer be necessary. Is she right?
SEN. OBAMA: I would like to think that if we make good decisions and we invest in early childhood education, improved K through 12, if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it, that affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You have a very cool style when you're doing those town meetings where you're out on the campaign trail, and I wonder, how much of that is tied to your race?
SEN. OBAMA: That's interesting.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: One of your friends told "The New Yorker" magazine that the mainstream is just not ready for a fire-breathing black man. So do you turn down the temperature on purpose?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, I don't think it has to do with race. I think it has to do with when I'm campaigning, I'm in a conversation, and what I don't do when I'm campaigning is to try to press a lot of hot buttons and use a lot of cheap applause lines because I want people to get a sense of how I think about this process, I want them to have some ability to walk through with me the difficult choices that we face.
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape) We're spending $275 million a day, a day, in Iraq.
SEN. OBAMA: And I think that one of the problems with political speeches is that we all know what folks want to hear. We know who the conventional stereotypical enemies are on any given issue, and, you know, we have a tendency I think to play up to that, and I actually think that we're in this moment in history right now where honesty, admitting complexity is a good thing.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: How about passion? How about anger? I mean you've written about how you dealt with issues of anger. Don't you think sometimes voters need to see that too?
SEN. OBAMA: Oh, absolutely, and I think they do see it. Listen, the one thing I don't think people are going to be able to accuse me of not being able to give a fiery speech. I came on to the national scene after getting folks fired up pretty good.
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape) There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America.
SEN. OBAMA: But keep in mind, I'm not interested in bringing people together just for the sake of bringing people together. I'm not naive enough to think that if we all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" that somehow health care gets solved or education gets solved. Right now, what we need right now to make significant ogress on these problems is to be able to build enough bridges to get things done. So I'm furious about the young men that I see standing on the corners on the south side of Chicago without hope, without opportunity, without prospects for the future. I am furious about the mothers I meet here in Iowa who are giving me hugs and telling me about their son who died in a war and asking did their son die for a mistake? It breaks my heart but what I know is that the only way we're going to solve the problem is not to assign blame, it's to say, here's a vision for the future that we can do something about.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You've had to ask for Secret Service protection awfully early in this campaign. Were you reluctant?
SEN. OBAMA: Yes.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?
SEN. OBAMA: I'm not an entourage guy, you know, up until recently I was still taking my wife Michelle's grocery list and going to the grocery store once in a while and, you know, so obviously it's constraining, but I'm obviously appreciative of their efforts, they're extraordinarily professional.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Durbin, your friend, who talked to the review board said a lot of the threats that were coming in are racially-motivated. How serious are they? How much are you told? How much do you worry about it?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it or considering the details of this, but just to broaden the issue, are there people who would be troubled with an African-American president? Yes. Are there folks who might not vote for me because I'm African-American? No doubt. What I'm confident about, though, as I travel around the country is that people are decent at their core in America, the vast majority of folks want to do the right thing. If I don't win, it's not going to be because of my race. It's going to be because I didn't project a vision of leadership that gave people confidence. It's going to be because of something I didn't do as opposed to because I'm African-American.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You've been thinking about running for president a long time. Your brother-in-law said you talked about it in the early 90s.
SEN. OBAMA: He might have brought it up. I'm not sure --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You dispute that? (laughs)
SEN. OBAMA: You know, what's wonderful about this whole process is that everybody has -- everybody looks at me now through the lens of where I am now. You know, I had my high school teacher saying what a wonderful, you know, studious guy he was and I was goofing off the whole time and they were, you know, calling up the principal. I think there's a lot of, you know, self-correction that --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: There's one more. Valerie Jared, a good friend of the family, says you told her in your Senate race, "I just think I have some special qualities and wouldn't it be a shame to waste them?"
SEN. OBAMA: That I think I probably did say that.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: What are they?
SEN. OBAMA: I think that I have the capacity to get people to recognize themselves in each other. I think that I have the ability to make people get beyond some of the divisions that plague our society, and to focus on common sense and reason and that's been in short supply over the last several years. You know, I'm not an ideologue, never have been. You know, even during my younger days when I was tempted by, you know, sort of more radical or left wing politics, there was a part of me that always was a little bit conservative in that sense, that believes that you make progress by sitting down, listening to people, recognizing everybody's concerns, seeing other people's points of views and then making decisions.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: One final question. Everyone is going to be watching this on Mother's Day and a lot of America is going to get a to know a lot about you over the next year, but they're never going to know your mom. She passed away a little more than ten years ago. What's the most important lesson she taught you?
SEN. OBAMA: She was the sweetest soul I've ever known, and I think that quality that I just talked about, the capacity to see the world through somebody else's eyes or stand in their shoes is what she gave to me in great abundance and I think that capacity is what's needed right now in this moment. There have been other moments in history where maybe some other skills were needed. But I think bringing the country together and by the way bringing the world together so that there's that sense of mutual recognition is something that I get directly from my mother and I think her spirit acts powerfully on me throughout the course of the campaign.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, thanks very much.
SEN. OBAMA: Thank you so much, George. I appreciate it.