NBC "Meet the Press" Transcript, with State Senator Barack Obama
MR. RUSSERT: First, the man who will give the keynote address here in Boston on Tuesday night, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois, Barack Obama, welcome.
MR. OBAMA: Thank you so much for having me.
MR. RUSSERT: What do you hope to achieve on Tuesday night?
MR. OBAMA: What I'd like to do is talk about the vision the Democratic Party has for this country. I think that there is enormous strength in the country, enormous resilience in the country, but people are struggling. And as I've been traveling throughout Illinois over the last 18 months, what I have been seeing are people who are concerned about their economic security, concerned about their ability to pay for their health care, their kids, sending them to college. And if we can project an optimistic vision that says we can be stronger at home, more respected abroad, and that John Kerry has the message and the strength to lead us in that fashion, then I think we'll be successful.
MR. RUSSERT: In 1988, a young man from Arkansas named Bill Clinton gave a nominating speech. It went on for 33 minutes. At the 31st minute he said, "In closing" -- and the place erupted in applause. How long is your speech?
MR. OBAMA: It will be less than 20 minutes -- closer to 15.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you something that you said to the Atlantic Monthly, that comes out tomorrow: "'Sometimes Kerry just doesn't have that oomph,' Obama said, punctuating the thought with a tight-lipped shake of the head and a clenched fist." What does that mean?
MR. OBAMA: Well, I think that early on in the campaign -- and this was an interview that took place several months ago -- you hadn't gotten a sense of John Kerry as the man. And I think this convention is going to be consolidating the impression that we've been getting over several months, that this is somebody who is going to be fighting for working families, somebody who has the strength to lead internationally. This is somebody who has the life experience as a soldier, as a prosecutor, as a lieutenant governor, and for two decades as a U.S. senator who is as well prepared as any candidate has ever been to lead our country to the kinds of promise that I think all of us hopeful.
MR. RUSSERT: Is he too cautious?
MR. OBAMA: I don't think he's too caution. I think that when you run for president, it takes some time to ramp up. And this is somebody who historically has always hit his marks when it counted. And I think what we're going to see at this convention during the next several days is people really getting an impression of his strength, his ability to lead. And I think the viewers who are just starting to tune into politics during the convention time, I think this is a demarcation point where people got to rouse themselves and say, you know, Let's take a look at the candidate seriously -- I think they're going to be very impressed with what they see.
MR. RUSSERT: Traditionally the keynoter is a governor, a senator, a congressman. You're the first state legislator in the history of the party. The New York Times said this today: "Already seen as a rising star within the party, Mr. Obama could win wide acclaim or dim his fortune." Are you nervous?
MR. OBAMA: You know, I used to play basketball, and if you weren't a little nervous before the big game, you probably wouldn't play a good game. So I think the adrenaline is going to be pumping, but I think we're going to be well prepared. I'm very happy with the speech.
And what I'm going to be trying to do is tell the story that I'm hearing on the campaign trail, about workers who are being laid off and are looking for jobs they can support their families, about young women and men who want to go to college, have the will, the drive, but don't have the money. If I'm as eloquent as they are when they tell me what their hopes and dreams are, then I think I'll be successful.
MR. RUSSERT: You wrote a book about your life, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance." It's quite interesting. Your dad was from Kenya --
MR. OBAMA: That's correct.
MR. RUSSERT: -- your mom was a white woman from Kansas. They were married in Hawaii. Your dad and mom named you "Barack," which is Swahili for "blessed by God"?
MR. OBAMA: Right. It's a typical biography for an Illinois politicians.
MR. RUSSERT: But your dad left when you were two years old, and you were raised by a white mom and white grandparents. What was it like being someone who was part African American, being raised by white parents?
MR. OBAMA: Well, fortunately I think it was in Hawaii, which is a state which is known for its diversity of cultures. And as a consequence I think I had the benefit of not having some of the polarization that was taken place during the middle and early '60s as a child. And it wasn't until I got older where I think I had to grapple with some of those issues of identity. And I write about it in the book, the fact that I went through an adolescent rebellion that embraced some of the worst stereotypes of young African American men, and rejected school, dabbled in drugs, didn't focus on my future. But, fortunately, I think that my family had such strong values, very much Midwestern values, that I pulled out of that funk and was able to succeed in the future. And part of the reason I wanted to write this book was to indicate that my story is not that unusual. There are young men and young women all across the country who have enormous potential but don't always have the second chance and the helping hand that I had. And that's what I think John Kerry and John Edwards are going to be talking about during this convention.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think the Democratic Party selected you in part because they wanted to present an African American young rising politician?
MR. OBAMA: Well, I think that John Kerry cares a lot about diversity in the party. And I think that certainly made a difference. I also think that the manner in which we won our primary in Illinois was a hopeful sign, because the conventional wisdom was that I would get the black vote and then a sliver of white vote, and instead we won in places people didn't expect us to win, in suburban areas, in rural areas. And it indicates that people are really ready for a message for change. What they want is somebody who has a positive message, who has a tone in their politics that says, We can disagree with the other side without being disagreeable.
And I think that's the kind of message that John Kerry is going to be projecting at the convention during this week.
MR. RUSSERT: President Bush did not go to the NAACP convention but did go to the Urban League --
MR. OBAMA: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: -- where he tried to give some advice to African- American voters. Let's listen:
PRESIDENT BUSH (from videotape): I'm going to ask African- American voters to consider some questions. Does the Democrat Party take African-American voters for granted? Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party? A legitimate question.
MR. RUSSERT: Does the Democratic Party take African-American voters for granted?
MR. OBAMA: I don't think the Democratic Party takes the African- American voters for granted. Now, I'm happy that the president spoke at the Urban League. I think he should have spoke at the NAACP. I want Republicans to compete for the African-American vote. I think the reason that they're not getting the African-American vote -- it's not because African Americans aren't open-minded, it's because the Democrats have consistently championed those issues, civil rights issues, voting rights issues, concern for working families that are of greatest concern to African-American voters. And I think that speeches are good, but ultimately people want to see people walking the walk and not just talking the talk. And that's what -- when you look at John Kerry's record and John Edwards' record, they represent the kinds of policies that are of importance to African-Americans, and I think that's the reason they're going to do very well in the African-American community.
MR. RUSSERT: In the state of Illinois, 77 percent, three out of four, black children born are born to unmarried mothers.
MR. OBAMA: It's heartbreaking.
MR. RUSSERT: What do you do about that?
MR. OBAMA: Well, I think that some of it is just making sure that African-American men have access to jobs. And, you know, there's been the devastation as we lose manufacturing across the state of Illinois that disproportionately hurts African Americans, blue-collar workers, who used to be able to support a family with an unskilled job. That's no longer possible. So we got to have a base of economic security within the African-American community and in other communities in order to build strong families. There's also the cultural component that I think I'm happy to talk about when I'm in the community. You know, we have to make sure that we're taking responsibility for our children, we have to make sure that we're encouraging high achievement. And one of the things that I try to avoid is this either/or approach to solving the problems of this country. I think there are questions of individual responsibility, but I think that there are also questions of societal responsibility that have to be dealt with.
MR. RUSSERT: Bill Cosby, as you well know, was in Chicago a few weeks ago and talked about this.
MR. OBAMA: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me share that with our viewers and come back and talk about it.
MR. OBAMA: Absolutely.
MR. COSBY (from videotape): Hey, men, let me tell you something. Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day. It's cursing and it's calling each other niggers as they walk up and down the street. They think they're hip, they can't read, they can't write, 50 percent of them. They take it into the candy store. They put themselves on the train and on the buses and they don't even care what color or what age somebody else is. It's about them and their cursing and grabbing each other and laughing and giggling and going nowhere. And the book bags are very, very thin 'cause there's no books in them.
MR. RUSSERT: Very strong language.
MR. OBAMA: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree with it?
MR. OBAMA: I understand the basic premise that Bill Cosby was talking about, and I think he's right about it, which is what I just spoke about, that there's got to be an element of individual responsibility and communal responsibility for the uplift of the people in inner-city communities. And, you know, the best example I think is an education. He mentioned the issue of the book bags are thin. One of the things that when I speak to parents, I say, I'm going to insist on making sure that we've got decent funding, that we've got enough teachers, that we've got computers in the classroom, but unless you turn off the television set and get over a certain anti-intellectualism that I think pervades some low-income communities, our children are not going to achieve.
MR. RUSSERT: That's what Cosby said. It's the parents. He said they're buying their kids $500 sneakers but won't spend $200 for Hooked On Phonics.
MR. OBAMA: Well -- and I think that it's legitimate for public figures to talk about these issues. It's not a function of being liberal or conservative. I think it's just common sense. We have to also hold our government accountable for making sure that we've got the kinds of support that parents and children need to succeed, and that's one of the things that's going to be focused on I think at this convention. John Kerry cares about the values of America. He has faith in communities and their ability to work to better themselves, but he also knows that government has a role to play in making America strong.
MR. RUSSERT: But mothers and fathers should be accountable and responsible for their children.
MR. OBAMA: Absolutely.
MR. RUSSERT: Let's me turn to the war in Iraq. Do you believe that it will be a central issue in this campaign?
MR. OBAMA: I think it's going to be important. As I travel around the state, one of the things that is striking is that this is the first war I think since the Vietnam War where every community, particularly in rural areas and in downstate Illinois, are directly affected. They've got reservists, National Guardsmen, the sons, daughters, uncles, aunts of people who are over there for 18 months. They don't see an exit strategy. I think they're deeply troubled in retrospect about how we got into the war, and I think that one of the most important things that John Kerry is going to have to offer is the ability for his administration to be able to set a new tone, reestablish the kinds of relationships with our allies that allow us to internationalize the reconstruction process, make sure that Iraq succeeds and allow our troops eventually to get out.
MR. RUSSERT: In 2002 in October, you gave a speech at an anti- war rally and said this. "What I am opposed to is the attempt by potential hacks like Karl Rove "-- the president's political advisors -- "to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income - to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics." You seem to say that George Bush took a country to war, lost nearly 900 Americans, 5,000 wounded and injured on politics?
MR. OBAMA: What I think is that it was an ideologically driven war. I think that George Bush was sincere and is sincere about his desire to maintain a strong America, but I think there was a single- mindedness to this process that has led our country into a very difficult position. It's a consequence of that single-mindedness that we did not create the kind of international framework that would have allowed success once we decided to go in. And I think that John Kerry is going to be establishing those relationships that allow us now, looking forward, to execute in Iraq and make sure that we are respected abroad and succeed in the difficult but now bipartisan process of making sure that we have a stable Iraqi government.
MR. RUSSERT: But you're not charging that President Bush sent men and women to die for political reasons?
MR. OBAMA: No, I don't think that's the case. As I said, I think that this administration is sincere but I think it's misguided.
MR. RUSSERT: You also said this: "I also know that Saddam possesses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history." The nominee of your party, John Kerry, the nominee for vice president, John Edwards, all said he was an imminent threat. They voted to authorize George Bush to go to war. How could they have been so wrong and you so write as a state legislator in Illinois and they're on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees in Washington?
MR. OBAMA: Well, I think they have access to information that I did not have. And what is absolutely clear is that John Kerry said if we go into war, let's make sure that we do it right. Let's make sure that our troops are supported. Let's make sure that we have the kind of coalition that's necessary to succeed. And the execution of what was a difficult choice to make was something that all of us have to be concerned about. And moving forward, the only way that we're going to be able to succeed is if, I think, we have an administration led by John Kerry that's going to allow us to consolidate the relationships with our allies that bring about investment in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: But if you had been a senator at that time, you would have voted not to authorize President Bush to go to war?
MR. OBAMA: I would have voted not to authorize the president given the facts as I saw them at that time.
MR. RUSSERT: So you disagree with John Kerry and John Edwards?
MR. OBAMA: At that time, but, as I said, I wasn't there and what is absolutely clear as we move forward is that if we don't have a change in tone and a change in administration, I think we're going to have trouble making sure that our troops are secure and that we succeed in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: We can't withdraw the troops immediately?
MR. OBAMA: I don't think so.
MR. RUSSERT: At the Chicago convention in 1996, you said something that caught my eye. "'Chicagoans,' Mr. Obama says, 'have grown especially jaded watching the Democrats raise cash for this month's national convention in Chicago. The convention's for sale, right,' Obama says. `You got these $10,000-a-plate dinners, Gold Circle Clubs. I think when the average voter looks at that, they rightly feel they've been locked out of the process. They can't attend a $10,000 breakfast. They know that those who can are going to get the kind of access they can't imagine.'" A hundred and fifty donors gave $40 million to this convention. It's worse than Chicago, using your standards. Are you offended by that, and what message does that send the average voter?
MR. OBAMA: You know, I think that politics and money are a problem in this country for both parties. And I don't think there's any doubt about that. One of the things I'm proud about, though, is that when you look at John Kerry's record, what you know is here's a person who is consistently voting on behalf of what he thinks is best for America and the country. I don't think a convention changes that. I do think that the more we as Democrats can encourage participation from people who, at this point feel locked out of the process, the stronger we are. One of the strengths of our party has always been the fact that we are closer to the average Joe, the guy who is trying to make a living, the guy who's trying to send his kids to college and pay his bills. And if we are actively reaching those folks and talking about the policies that we have to make this a stronger country, to make us more respected abroad, then I'm absolutely confident that we'll do well in November.
MR. RUSSERT: Is it possible to do that? You've raised $10 million in your campaign. Won't those high-roller donors all have access to you more than the little guy?
MR. OBAMA: You know, one of the things I'm really proud of is that our base of donors is mostly made up of people who gave us 25, 50, $100 contributions. We've got about 15,000 people who contributed to this campaign through a grass-roots effort. And so I feel very confident, and I've got an eight-year track record in the state legislature to back it up, that when I vote on issues, and when I'm listening to my constituents. What I'm looking for are the people who I think need the most help and deserve the kinds of support that government needs to provide them.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you going to be a liberal Democratic senator? The Republican leader in the legislature in Illinois said that you're to the left of Mao Tse-tung.
MR. OBAMA: Yeah. That was a little overblown, particularly since I had co-sponsored about five bills with the guy. You know, the rhetoric of Washington has filtered down into the state legislatures across the country, but I'm really not somebody who's comfortable with liberal-conservative labels. I think what the American people are looking for are common-sense solutions. I think they want to get beyond a lot of slash-and-burn politics. I think one of the most encouraging things about John Kerry's campaign is the degree of hopefulness, reflected in his choice of vice president. I think he's got a story to tell about how we want to make sure that every child in America can tell the same story I tell or the same story you tell or the same story John Kerry tells. Which is that this country remains the greatest on earth, not because of the size of our military or the size of our economy, but because every child can actually achieve as much as they can dream. And that is what is most exciting about this convention: thinking about how we can make that happen for more kids.
MR. RUSSERT: Barack Obama, we thank you for your views. We'll be watching Tuesday night and we'll be watching your campaign between now and November in Illinois for the U.S. Senate.
MR. OBAMA: It was a great pleasure. Thank you so much.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, the September 11 Commission. We'll talk to both the chairman and vice chairman. Could that day have been prevented?
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