Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate
MR. WILLIAMS: As we sit here this, as may you may know, is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. Race was one of the issues we expected to discuss here tonight. Our sponsors expected it of us. No one, however, expected it to be quite so prominent in this race as it has been over the last 10 days.
We needn't go back over all that has happened, except to say that this discussion, before it was over, involved Dr. King, President Johnson, even Sidney Poitier, several members of Congress and a prominent African-American businessman, supporting Senator Clinton, who made what seemed to be a reference to a part of Senator Obama's teenage past that the senator himself has written about in his autobiography.
The question to begin with here tonight is, how did we get here?
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SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think Hillary said it well. You know, we are right now, I think, in a defining moment in our history. We've got a nation at war, our planet is in peril, and the economy is putting an enormous strain on working families all across the country.
Now, race has always been an issue in our politics and in this country, but one of the premises of my campaign and, I think, of the Democratic Party -- and I know that John and Hillary have always been committed to racial equality -- is that we can't solve these challenges unless we can come together as a people and we're not resorting to the same -- or falling into the same traps of division that we have in the past.
I think our party has stood for that. Dr. King stood for that. I hope that my campaign has inspired that same sense, that there's much more that we hold in common than what separates us. And -- and that is how I want to move this campaign forward, and I hope that's how it moves forward.
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MR. RUSSERT: In terms of accountability, Senator Obama, Senator Clinton on Sunday told me that the Obama campaign had been pushing this storyline. And true enough, your press secretary in South Carolina -- four pages of alleged comments made by the Clinton people about the issue of race. In hindsight, do you regret pushing this story?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, not only in hindsight but going forward.
I think that as Hillary said, our supporters, our staff get overzealous. They start saying things that I would not say, and it is my responsibility to make sure that we're setting a clear tone in our campaign. And I take that responsibility very seriously, which is why I spoke yesterday and sent a message, in case people were not clear, that what we want to do is make sure that we focus on the issues.
Now, there are going to be significant issues that we debate and some serious differences that we have, and I'm sure those will be on display today. What I am absolutely convinced of is that everybody here is committed to racial equality, has been historically.
And what I also expect is that I'm going to be judged as a candidate in terms of how I'm going to be improving the lives of the people of Nevada and people all across the country -- that they are going to be ultimately making judgments on can I deliver on good jobs and good wages; can I make sure that our home foreclosure crisis is adequately dealt with; are we going to be serious about retirement security; and are we going to have a foreign policy that makes us safe. And if I'm communicating that message, then I expect to be judged on that basis. And if I'm not, then I expect to be criticized on that basis. And that's the kind of campaign that we want to run and that we have run up until this point.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe this is a deliberate attempt to marginalize you as the black candidate?
SEN. OBAMA: No. As I said, you know, I think that if you look not just at this campaign, but at my history -- my belief is that race is a factor in our society.
But I think what happened in Iowa is a testimony to the fact that the American public is willing to judge people on the basis of who can best deliver the kinds of changes that they're so desperately looking for, and that's the kind of movement that we want to build all across the country. And that, I think, is the legacy of Dr. King that we need to build on.
MR. RUSSERT: In New Hampshire your polling was much higher than the actual vote result. Do you believe in the privacy of the voting booth that people used race as an issue?
SEN. OBAMA: No. I think what happened was that Senator Clinton ran a good campaign up in New Hampshire. And, you know, I think that people recognize we've got some terrific candidates who are running vigorous campaigns. It's going to be close everywhere we go. It's close here in Nevada. It's going to be close in South Carolina. And, you know, at any given moment people are going to be making judgments based on who they think is best speaking to them about the urgent problems that they're facing in this country.
Now, the one thing I'm convinced about, and this was true in Iowa and this is true in New Hampshire as well, is that change is going to happen because the American people determine that change is going to happen. And that's what I draw from Dr. King's legacy.
You know what happens in Washington is important, and we've got to have elected officials that are accountable and serious about moving forward on the goals of opportunity and upward mobility. But if we don't have an activated people, a unified people -- black, white, Latino, Asian -- who are all moving in the same direction and demanding that change happens, then Washington special interests, lobbyists end up dominating the agenda. That's what I want to change.
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MR. WILLIAMS: A question for Senator Obama. You won the women's vote in Iowa, but Senator Clinton won the women's vote in New Hampshire; and there probably isn't an American alive today who hasn't heard the post-game analysis of New Hampshire, all the reasons the analysts give for Senator Clinton's victory. Senator Clinton had a moment where she became briefly emotional at a campaign appearance. But another given was at the last televised debate when you, in a comment directed to Senator Clinton, looked down and said, "You're likable enough, Hillary."
That caused Frank Rich to write, on the op-ed page of The New York Times, that it was your most inhuman moment to date, and it clearly was a factor and added up. Senator Obama, do you regret the comment and comments like that today?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I absolutely regret it, because that wasn't how it was intended. I mean, what -- folks were giving Hillary a hard time about likability, and my intention was to say, I think you're plenty likable. And it did not come out the way it was supposed to.
But you know, I do think that during the course of that debate, there was a tendency to parse out what is, I think, not an issue. I think all three of these candidates are good, capable people. And what we really should be focusing on is, you know, who's got a vision for how we're going to move the country forward?
And I believe that right now, the only way we're going to move the country forward is if we can bring the country together, not just Democrats but independents, Republicans who have also lost trust in government, and we are able to push aside the special interests and the lobbyists, and we are truthful to the American people and enlisting them in changing how our health care system works, how our economy works, what our tax code looks like. And that is going to be an issue that, I think, all of us are going to have to struggle with over the coming days.
It's not going to be an issue of, you know, who's got the nicest smile or, you know, who's going to be fun to have a beer with. It's going to be who can provide the leadership that makes sure the country is moving forward through what I anticipate are going to be some difficult times and who is going to be able to transform how Washington works in a fundamental way.
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MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, you gave an interview to The Reno Gazette-Journal, and you said we all have strengths and weaknesses. You said one of your weaknesses is, quote, "I'm not an operating officer." Do the American people want someone in the Oval Office who is an operating officer?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think what I was describing was how I view the presidency.
Now, being president is not making sure that schedules are being run properly or the paperwork is being shuffled effectively. It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go. It involves having the capacity to bring together the best people and being able to spark the kind of debate about how we're going to solve health care, how we're going to solve energy, how we are going to deliver good jobs with good wages, how we're going to keep people in their homes here in Nevada, and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change. That's the kind of a leadership that I've shown in the past. That's the kind of leadership that I intend to show as president of the United States.
So what's -- what's needed is sound judgment, a vision for the future, the capacity to tap into the hopes and dreams of the American people and mobilize them to push aside those special interests and lobbyists and forces that are standing in the way of real change -- and making sure that you have a government that reflects the decency and the generosity of the American people. That's the kind of leadership that I believe I can provide.
MR. RUSSERT: You said each of you have strengths and weaknesses. I want to ask each of you quickly, your greatest strength, your greatest weakness.
SEN. OBAMA: My greatest strength, I think, is the ability to bring people together from different perspectives, to get them to recognize what they have in common and to move people in a different direction.
And as I indicated before, my greatest weakness, I think, is when it comes to -- I'll give you a very good example. I ask my staff never to hand me paper until two seconds before I need it, because I will lose it. (Laughter.) You know. The -- you know. And my desk in my office doesn't look good. I've got to have somebody around me who is keeping track of that stuff. And that's not trivial. I need to have good people in place who can make sure that systems run. That's what I've always done. And that's why we've run not only a good campaign but a good U.S. Senate office.
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SEN. CLINTON: But I think that, you know, there is a difference here. You know, I do think that being president is the chief executive officer, and I respect what Barack said about setting the vision, setting the tone, bringing people together. But I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy. You've got to pick good people certainly but you have to hold them accountable every single day.
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MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, Senator Clinton invoked your name. I'll give you a chance to respond.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I -- there's no doubt that you've got to be a good manager, and that's not what I was arguing.
The point in terms of bringing together a team is that you get the best people, and you're able to execute and hold them accountable. But I think that there -- there's something, if we're going to evaluate George Bush and his failures as president, that I think are much more important. He was very efficient. He was on time all the time and, you know, had -- (laughter) -- you know, I -- I'm sure he never lost a paper. I'm sure he knows where it is. (Laughter.)
What -- what -- what he -- what he could not do -- what he could not do is to listen to perspectives that didn't agree with his ideological predispositions. What he could not do is to bring in different people with different perspectives and get them to work together. What he could not do is to manage the -- the effort to make sure that the American people understood that if we're going to go into war, that there are going to be consequences and there are going to be costs.
And we have to be able to communicate what those costs are and to make absolutely certain that if we're going to make a decision to send our young men and women into harm's way, that it's based on the best intelligence and that we've asked tough questions before we went in to fight.
I mean, those are -- those are the kinds of failures that have to do with judgment, they have to do with vision, the capacity to inspire people. They don't have to do with whether or not he was managing the bureaucracy properly. That's not to deny that there has to be strong management skills in the presidency. It is to say that what has been missing is the ability to bring people together, to mobilize the country to move us in a better direction, and to be straight with the American people. That's how you get the American people involved.
MR. WILLIAMS: Time for the rebuttal has expired.
Senator Obama, a fresh question here. It may not come as news to you that there is a lot of false information about you circulating on the Internet. We receive one e-mail in particular usually once several weeks. We've received three of them this week. This particular one alleges, among other things, that you are trying to hide the fact that you are Muslim; that you took the oath of office on the Koran and not the Bible; that you will not pledge allegiance to the flag or generally respect it.
How -- how do you -- how does your campaign go on about combatting this kind of thing?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, first of all, let's make clear what the facts are.
I am a Christian. I have been sworn in with a Bible. I pledge allegiance and lead the Pledge of Allegiance sometime in the United States Senate, when I'm presiding. I haven't been there lately because I've been in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Laughter.)
But you know, look, in the Internet age, there are going to be lies that are spread all over the place. I have been victimized by these lies. Fortunately the American people are, I think, smarter than folks give them credit for. And you know, it's a test. These e- mails were going out in Iowa; they were going out in New Hampshire. And we did just fine. If we didn't do well, for example, in New Hampshire, it wasn't because of these e-mails. It was because we didn't do what we needed to do in our campaign.
So my job is to tell the truth, to be straight with the American people about how I intend to end climate change, what I'm going to do with respect to providing health care for every American, how we're going to provide tax relief to hard-working Americans who are really feeling the pinch, and to present my vision for where the country needs to go. If I'm doing that effectively, then I place my trust in the American people that they will sort out the lies from the truth and they will make a good decision.
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MR. WILLIAMS: We are back live in Las Vegas, Nevada with the three top candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. Brian Williams with Tim Russert, Natalie Morales.
We're going to continue the questioning here on the topic of the economy, and then within this portion of the broadcast we're going to try something new for this series, and that is the candidates will have two questions each to ask of their fellow candidates.
So while they think about that, we will start off with the economy. This evening on NBC Nightly News, our lead story was about the fact that Citigroup and Merrill Lynch have both gone overseas, as some put it hat in hand, looking for $20 billion in investment to stay afloat from, among other things, the government of Singapore, Korea, Japan, and the Saudi Prince al-Waleed, the man -- Rudolph Giuliani turned his money back after 9/11.
This is -- strikes a lot of Americans as just plain wrong. At the end of our report, we said this may end up in Congress. What can be done? And does this strike you as fundamentally wrong, that much foreign ownership of these American flagship brands?
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MR. WILLIAMS: Tim?
Oh, Senator Obama. A rebuttal.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, it's not a rebuttal. I just want to pick up on a couple things that have been said.
Number one, part of the reason that Kuwait and others are able to come in and purchase, or at least bail out, some of our financial institutions is because we don't have an energy policy. And we are sending close to a billion dollars a day.
And this administration has consistently failed to put forward a realistic plan that is going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, is going to invest in solar and wind and biodiesel. You look at a state like Nevada. One thing I note is folks have got a lot of sun here, and yet we have not seen any serious effort on the part of this administration to spur on the use of alternative fuels, raise fuel efficiency standards on cars. That would make a substantial difference in our balance of payments, and that would make a substantial difference in terms of their capacity to purchase our assets.
And the second thing I just want to point out is that the -- the sub-prime lending mess, part of the reason it happened was because we had an administration that does not believe in any kind of oversight. And we had the mortgage industry spending $185 million on lobbying to prevent provisions such as the ones that I proposed over a year ago that would say, you know, you've got to disclose properly what kinds of loans you're giving to people on mortgages. You've got to disclose if you've got a teaser rate and suddenly their mortgage payments are going to jack up and they can't pay for them.
And one of the things that I intend to do as president of the United States is restore a sense of accountability and regulatory oversight over the financial markets. We have the best financial markets in the world, but only if they are transparent and accountable and people trust them. And increasingly, we have not had those structures in place.
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MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, the 2001 bankruptcy bill, the 2005 bankruptcy bill.
SEN. OBAMA: I opposed them both. I think they were bad ideas, because they were pushed by the credit card companies, they were pushed by the mortgage companies, and they put the interests of those banks and financial institutions ahead of the interests of the American people. And this is typical.
Now, Hillary's exactly right, but we've got to modify some of the fraudulent practices, predatory lending practices. I put in a bill a year and a half ago to make that happen because it does affect communities, including my own on the South Side of Chicago.
But unless we are able to rid the influence of special interest lobbies in Washington, we're going to continue to see bad legislation like that. And that's why we're going to have to change how politics is done in Washington.
Now, we have an immediate problem. I met with a number of folks up in Reno, just two days ago, who are already seeing their homes being foreclosed upon.
One of the things that we have to do is we have to release people who are in bankruptcy as a consequence of health care. We've got to give them a break. One woman who I was with -- her husband is a police officer. He contracted cancer, went through chemotherapy, ends up being hit by a car while on -- in the line of duty, and they fall three, four months behind on their health care payments, and that's it. They can't make the payments on their house. We've got to provide them some relief.
We've -- I've put forward a $10 billion housing fund that can help bridge people who have been responsible in making their payments. They're not speculators, they're not trying to flip properties, they're in their own homes. We've got to make sure that they can get the kinds of help that they need to stay in their homes and make the payments and live out the American dream that is so important to so many people.
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MS. MORALES: All right. And this one is directed to Senator Obama. It comes from a resident of Miami, Florida. "As a middle- class retiree whose primary source of income is dividends, capital gains from stock investments, what, if any, safeguards would you put in place to protect us from your proposed reversal of the Bush tax cuts on these investment vehicles?"
SEN. OBAMA: Well, what I would do is I would exempt middle- income folks potentially from increases in capital gains and dividends. But what I have insisted upon is that we make our tax code fairer. And if, for example, my friend and Hillary's friend, Warren Buffett, makes $46 million last year and he is paying a lower rate on -- a lower tax rate than his secretary, there is something fundamentally unjust about that.
MR. EDWARDS: Yeah.
SEN. OBAMA: And I think, you know, he acknowledges it. And he -- by the way, he has offered a million dollars to any CEO of a Fortune 500 company who can prove that they pay a higher tax rate than their secretary. Now -- nobody's taken him up on the offer, by the way. (Laughter.)
So the -- part of the reason is because he primarily gets his income from dividends and capital gains, and he's taxed at a lower rate. That has to change. And that's part of a broader shift that I'm proposing in our tax rates.
We were talking earlier about lower- and middle-income people really getting squeezed. I've said we need to provide tax relief to them. If you're making less than $75,000 a year, we are proposing that we offset the payroll tax to give you relief -- $1,000 for the average family. That if you're a senior citizen who's making less than $50,000 a year or getting less than 50,000 in Social Security benefits, then you shouldn't have to pay taxes on that Social Security income.
Homeowners who do not itemize their deductions -- we want to give you a mortgage deduction credit. And we're going to pay for that by closing loopholes, closing tax havens and yes, rolling back some of these breaks that have gone disproportionately to the wealthiest Americans.
That will help the economy grow, because part of the reason we got a bubble financially, first in the Internet sphere and then in the real estate market, is because of what John referred to earlier. You've got all this money going to the top one percent, and they're looking for ways to park the money. We need that money in the pockets of hard-working Americans who deserve it. They will know how to spend it and they will actually help spur business growth across the country.
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MR. WILLIAMS: Now to that segment we promised earlier. We asked the candidates and their campaigns to come here tonight prepared with two questions, one for each of their opposition candidates. It's not our intention that these be novelty or at all throwaway questions, but that they be real questions. And we should know right away here whether this was a good or a very bad idea. (Laughter.)
Senator Edwards, I would like to start with you. A question for Senator Obama and a question for Senator Clinton.
MR. EDWARDS: I get to do both to begin with?
MR. WILLIAMS: Sure.
MR. EDWARDS: (Laughs.) Okay.
Well, let me start this question. This is about campaign finances. And let me start it by saying the obvious, which is, all three of us have raised a great deal of money in this campaign, so this is not preachy or holier-than-thou in any possible way.
What we know is that all three of us want to do something about health care in this country. We also know that until recently, Senator Clinton had raised more money from drug companies and insurance companies than any candidate, Democrat or Republican, until you passed her, Senator Obama, recently to go to number one.
My question is, do you think these people expect something for this money?
Why do they give it? Do they think that it's for good government? Why do they do it?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, let's be clear, John. I just want to make sure that we understand. I don't take money from federal lobbyists. I don't take money from PACs.
MR. EDWARDS: As I don't either.
SEN. OBAMA: As you don't either.
What happens is, is that you've got -- if you've got a mid-level executive at a drug company or insurance company who is inspired by my message of change, and they send me money, then that's recorded as money from the drug or the insurance industry, even though it's not organized, coordinated or in any way subject to the problems that you see when lobbyists are given money. But -- and I'm proud of the fact that I've raised more money from small donors than anybody else, and that we're getting 25, 50, $100 donations, and we've done very well doing it that way.
Now, what I'm also proud of is the fact that in reducing special interest lobbying, I alone of the candidates here have actually taken away the power of lobbyists. Part of the reason that you know who's bundling money for various candidates is because of a law I passed this year which says, lobbyists, if you are taking money from anybody and putting it together and then giving it to a member of Congress, that has to be disclosed. Ultimately what I'd like to see is a system of public financing of campaigns, and I'm a cosponsor of the proposal that's in the Senate right now.
That's what we have to fight for.
In the meantime, what I'm very proud of is to make sure that we continue to make progress at the federal level to push back the influence that lobbyists have right now. And that's something that I'm going to continue to work on.
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SEN. CLINTON: Well, I -- I want to ask Senator Obama to join me in doing something. You know, we both very much want to convince President Bush -- which is not easy to do -- in the remaining year to end the war in Iraq, to change direction.
It appears that not only is he refusing to do that, but that he has continued to say he can enter into an agreement with the Iraqi government, without bringing it for approval to the United States Congress, that would continue America's presence in Iraq long after President Bush leaves office. I find that absolutely unacceptable, and I think we have to do everything we can to prevent President Bush from binding the hands of the next president.
So I have introduced legislation that clearly requires President Bush to come to the United States Congress -- it is not enough, as he claims, to go to the Iraqi parliament -- but to come to the United States Congress to get anything that he's trying to do, including permanent bases, numbers of troops, all the other commitments he's talking about as he's traveling in that region.
And I -- I want to ask, Senator Obama, if you will cosponsor my legislation to try to rein in President Bush so that he doesn't commit this country to his policy in Iraq, which both of us are committed to end.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think, you know, we -- we can work on this, Hillary, because I -- I don't think -- (laughter) -- you know, the -- we got unity in the Democratic Party, I hope, on this.
The notion that President Bush could somehow tie the hands of the next president I think is contrary to how our democracy's supposed to work, and the voices of the American people who spoke out in 2006 and I expect will speak out again in 2008.
I have opposed this war consistently. I have put forward a plan that will get our troops out by the end of 2009. And we already saw today reports that the Iraqi minister suggests that we're going to be in there at least until 2018. 2018, 10 years -- a decade-long commitment. Currently, we are spending nine (billion dollars) to $10 billion a month. And the notion is that we are going to sustain that at the same time as we're neglecting what we see happening in Afghanistan right now, where you have a luxury hotel in Kabul that was blown up by militants and the situation continues to worsen.
My first job as president of the United States is going to be to call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say, you've got a new mission, and that is to responsibly, carefully but deliberately start to phase out our involvement there, and to make sure that we are putting the onus on the Iraqi government to come together and do what they need to do to arrive at peace.
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MR. RUSSERT: In September, we were in New Hampshire together, and I asked the three of you if you would pledge to have all troops out of Iraq by the end of your first term. All three of you said you would not take that pledge. I'm hearing something much different tonight.
(Cross talk, laughter.)
SEN. OBAMA: No, no, I think this is important, because it was reported as if we were suggesting that we would continue a war until 2013. Your question was, could I guarantee all troops would be out of Iraq?
I have been very specific in saying that we will not have permanent bases there -- I will end the war as we understand it in combat missions -- but that we are going to have to protect our embassy, we are going to protect our civilians who are engaged in humanitarian activity there. We are going to have to have some presence that allows us to strike if al Qaeda is creating bases inside of Iraq. And so I cannot guarantee that we're not going to have a strategic interest that I have to carry out as commander in chief to maintain some troop presence there. But it is not going to be engaged in war, and it will not be the sort of permanent bases and permanent -- permanent military occupation that George Bush seems to be intent on maintaining.
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MR. EDWARDS: I just want to say it is dishonest to suggest that you're not going to have troops there to protect the embassy. That's just not the truth. It may be great political theater and political rhetoric, but it's not the truth.
There is, however, a difference between us on this issue, and I don't think it's subtle. The difference is I will have all combat troops out in the first year that I'm president, and there will be no further combat missions, and there will be no permanent military bases.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama.
SEN. OBAMA: I just want to pick up on what John said, because we've had this discussion before.
John, are you saying that you're -- I don't know if I'm using my question here, but --
MR. WILLIAMS: I think you are. (Laughter.)
MR. EDWARDS (?): This is your question.
SEN. OBAMA: I've got to be careful! (Laughter.)
MR. WILLIAMS: This is --
SEN. OBAMA: Instead of -- instead of phrasing it that way --
MR. WILLIAMS: No, no, no, no. That sounded like the start of a question to me. (Laughter.)
MR. RUSSERT: You're about -- you're half (pregnant ?), Senator. (Laughter.)
SEN. OBAMA: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. (Laughter.)
Look, I think it's important to understand that either you are willing to say that you may go after terrorist bases inside of Iraq if they should form -- in which case there would potentially be a combat aspect to that, obviously -- or you're not. And you know, if you're not, then that could present some problems in terms of the long-term safety and security of the United States of America. So I just wanted to be sure that we got that clarification.
MR. EDWARDS: I'll be happy to respond to that. Is that a question?
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think we've ruled it a question. (Laughter.)
MR. EDWARDS: My answer to that is as long as you keep combat troops in Iraq, you continue the occupation. If you keep military bases in Iraq, you're continuing the occupation. The occupation must end.
As respects al Qaeda -- public enemy number one -- they're responsible for about 10 percent of the violence inside Iraq, according to the reports. I would keep a quick reaction force in Kuwait in case it became necessary.
SEN. OBAMA: Well --
MR. EDWARDS: But that is different, Barack, than keeping troops stationed inside --
SEN. OBAMA: John --
MR. EDWARDS: Excuse me. Let me finish, please.
SEN. OBAMA: I'm sorry.
MR. EDWARDS: That is different than keeping, say, our troops stationed inside Iraq, because keeping troops stationed inside Iraq, combat troops, and continuing combat missions -- whether it's against al Qaeda or anyone else -- at least from my perspective, is a continuation of the occupation. And I think a continuation of the occupation continues the problem not just in reality, but in perception that America is occupying the country.
SEN. OBAMA: Let me suggest I don't -- I think there's a distinction without a difference here.
If it is appropriate for us to keep that strike force outside of Iraq, then that obviously would be preferable.
The point is, at some point, you might have that capacity. And that's the -- that's the clarification I wanted to make sure was --
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MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama. Will you vigorously enforce a statue which says colleges must allow military recruiters on campus and provide ROTC programs?
SEN. OBAMA: Yes. One of the striking things as you travel around the country, you go into rural communities and you see how disproportionately they are carrying the load in this -- in this war in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan. And it is not fair.
Now, the -- the volunteer army, I think, is a way for us to maintain excellence. And if we are deploying our military wisely, then a volunteer army is sufficient -- although I would call for an increase in our force structure, particularly around the Army and the Marines, because I think that we've got to put an end to people going on three, four, five tours of duty, and the strain on families is enormous.
I meet them every day.
But I think that the obligation to serve exists for everybody, and that's why I've put forward a national service program that is tied to my tuition credit for students who want to go to college. You get $4,000 every year to help you go to college. In return, you have to engage in some form of national service. Military service has to be an option. We have to have civilian options as well, not just the Peace Corps, but one of things that we need desperately are people who are in our Foreign Service, who are speaking foreign languages, can be more effective in a lot of work that's going to be required, that may be not hand-to-hand combat but is going to be just as critical in ensuring our long-term safety and security.
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SEN. OBAMA: Just one thing that I wanted to --
MR. WILLIAMS: Go ahead, Senator Obama. Thirty seconds each, Senator Obama and Clinton.
SEN. OBAMA: Very briefly, because I think this shows you how this administration has failed when it comes to our veterans. I went to Walter Reed to talk to the wounded warriors who had come back to discover that they were still paying for their meals and phone calls while in Walter Reed, while rehabbing, which I could not believe. And I was able to gain the cooperation of a Republican-controlled Senate at the time and pass a bill that would eliminate that. But that indicates the callousness with which we are often treating our veterans. That has to stop.
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MR. WILLIAMS: We have to, at this point, turn a bit more local. And let's talk for a moment about Yucca Mountain.
As sure as there is somebody at a roulette table not far from here convinced that they're one bet away from winning it all back, every -- every person who comes here running for president promises to end the notion of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. And the people of Nevada have found it's easier to promise to end it than it is to end it. Anyone willing to pledge here tonight, beginning with you, Senator Obama, to kill the notion of Yucca Mountain?
SEN. OBAMA: I will end the notion of Yucca Mountain because it has not been based on the sort of sound science that can assure the people of Nevada that they're going to be safe. And that, I think, was a mistake.
Now, you hate to see billions of dollars having already been spent on a mistake, but what I don't want to do is spend additional billions of dollars and potentially create a situation that is not safe for the people of Nevada.
So I've already -- I've been clear from the start that Yucca, I think, was a misconceived project. We are going to have to figure out how we store nuclear waste. And what I want to do is to get the best experts around the table and make a determination, what are our options based on the best science available?
And you know, I think there's a solution that can be had that's good for the country but also good for the people of Nevada.
MR. WILLIAMS: 30 seconds each, Senators Clinton and Edwards.
SEN. CLINTON: Well, I voted against Yucca Mountain in 2001. I have been consistently against Yucca Mountain. I held a hearing in the environment committee -- the first that we've had in some time -- looking at all the reasons why Yucca Mountain is not workable. The science does not support it. We do have to figure out what to do with nuclear base.
You know, Barack has one of his biggest supporters, in terms of funding, the Exelon Corporation, which has spent millions of dollars trying to make Yucca Mountain the waste depository. John was in favor of it twice, when he voted to override President Clinton's veto and then voted for it again. I have consistently and persistently been against Yucca Mountain and I will make sure it does not come into effect when I'm president.
MR. WILLIAMS: Your rebuttal to the mention.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think it's a testimony to my commitment in opposition to Yucca Mountain that despite the fact that my state has more nuclear power plants than any other state in the country, I've never supported Yucca Mountain. So I just want to make that clear.
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MR. RUSSERT: I want to pick up on that. Senator Obama, a difference in this campaign, you voted for the energy bill in July of 2005; Senator Clinton voted against it. That energy bill is described by numerous publications, quote, "the big winner, nuclear power." The secretary of Energy said this would begin a nuclear renaissance.
We haven't built a nuclear power plant in this country for 30 years. There are now 17 companies that are planning to build 29 plants based on many of the protections that were provided in that bill and incentives for licensee, construction and operating costs. Did you realize when you were voting for that energy bill that it was going to create such a renaissance of nuclear power?
SEN. OBAMA: The reason I voted for it was because it was the single largest investment in clean energy -- solar, wind, biodiesel -- that we had ever seen. And I think it is -- we talked about this earlier.
If we are going to deal with our dependence on foreign oil, then we're going to have to ramp up how we're producing energy here in the United States.
Now, with respect to nuclear energy, what I have said is that if we could figure out a way to provide a cost-efficient, safe way to produce nuclear energy, and we knew how to store it effectively, then we should pursue it because what we don't want is to produce more greenhouse gases. And I believe that climate change is one of the top priorities that the next president has to pursue. Now, if we cannot solve those problems, then absolutely, John, we shouldn't build more plants.
But part of what I want to do is to create a menu of energy options, and let's see where the science and the technology and the entrepreneurship of the American people take us. That's why I want to set up a cap-and-trade system. We're going to cap greenhouse gases. We are going to say to every polluter that's sending greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we are going to charge you a dollar for every -- we're -- we're going to charge you money for every unit of greenhouse gas that you send out there. That will create a market. It will generate billions of dollars that we can invest in clean technology. And if nuclear energy can't meet the rigors of the marketplace -- if it's not efficient and if we don't solve those problems -- then that's off the table. And I hope that we can find a(n) energy mix that's going to deliver us from the kinds of problems that we have right now.
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MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think that one thing that we haven't talked as much about that we need to is reducing the consumption of energy. We are inefficient. And oftentimes during the presidential campaign people have asked what do we expect out of the American people in bringing about real change. This is an example of where ordinary citizens have to make a change. We are going to have to make our buildings more efficient; we are going to have to make our lighting more efficient; we are going to have to make our appliances more efficient.
That is actually the low-hanging fruit if we're going to deal with climate change. That's the thing that we can do most rapidly. And there's no reason why, with the kind of presidential leadership that I intend to provide, that we can't make drastic cuts in the amount of energy that we consume without any drop in our standard of living.
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MR. RUSSERT: So let me ask Senator Obama. Do you believe there is a history of a division where Latino voters will not vote for a black candidate?
SEN. OBAMA: Not in Illinois. They all voted for me. (Laughter.) And so -- (applause) -- (chuckles) -- you know, if this is -- if this is being asked in the context of -- of my candidacy, one of the things that I know is that when Latinos voters know of my commitment to them and the work that I've done for years, then they gravitate towards my candidacy.
We were talking earlier about immigration reform, and I think that John and myself and Hillary may agree on the broad outlines of where we need to go. But two years ago I stood with Ted Kennedy and John McCain and took on this tough issue and have consistently been involved in making sure that we've got the kind of comprehensive plan that makes us a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That's the kind of leadership that I've shown, and when Latino voters read or hear about that leadership, then they know that they're going to have an advocate, even if it's politically tough. And I think that's -- you know, that's the real test of leadership, not when it's easy, not when the things poll well, but how do you do when you've got a contentious issue like how we solve this immigration problem. That's an area where I've consistently stepped up.
MR. WILLIAMS: Time is up.
E-mail question, Natalie Morales.
MS. MORALES: And this one is to Senator Obama. And this comes to us from one of our cosponsors of tonight's debate, the 100 Black Men of America. They ask: To what do you attribute the disproportionately high dropout of black males at every level in our educational process? And what would you do to stem the tide of black men exiting the educational system?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think it's similar to the reason that Latinos have such a high dropout rate. What you see consistently are children at a very early age are starting school already behind. And that's why I have said that I'm going to put billions of dollars into early childhood education that makes sure that our African-American youth, Latino youth, poor youth of every race are getting the kind of help they need, so that they know their numbers, their colors, their letters.
Every dollar that we spend in early childhood education, we get $10 back in reduced dropout rates, improved reading scores. And that's the kind of commitment we have to make early on. We've got to improve K through 12. And that means not just talking about how great teachers are, but rewarding them for their greatness by giving them higher salaries and giving them more support and professional development, and making sure that No Child Left Behind is not a tool to punish people and we're not just basing how we fund our schools on a standardized test. We need after-school programs and summer school programs because minority youth and poor youth are less likely to get the kind of environment and supplemental activities that they need.
But let's be clear. We have good answers for how to make these schools work.
What we don't have is a sense of urgency in the White House. And you know, I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. I did not get money and privilege when I was young, but I did get a good education. And we've got to have that attitude for every single child in America.
And that also means, last point I'll make, because sometimes this doesn't get talked enough about. We have to have our parents take their jobs seriously, and particularly African American fathers, who all too often are absent from the home, have not encouraged the kind of, you know, nurturing of our children that they need. And as somebody who grew up without a father, I know how important that is. That is something that, as president, I intend to talk about. The schools can't do it all by themselves. Parents have to parent.
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MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, when you were in the state senate, you talked about licensing and registering guns and gun owners. Would you do that as president.
SEN. OBAMA: I -- I don't think that we can get that done. But what I do think we can do is to provide just some common-sense enforcement. One good example -- this is consistently blocked -- the efforts by law enforcement to obtain the information required to trace back guns that have been used in crimes to unscrupulous gun dealers. That's not something that the NRA has allowed to get through Congress, and as president I intend to make it happen.
But here's the broader context that I think is important for us to remember. We essentially have two realities when it comes to guns in this country. You've got the tradition of lawful gun ownership that all of us saw as we travel around rural parts of the country. And it is very important for many Americans to be able to hunt, fish, take their kids out, teach them how to shoot. And then you've got the reality of 34 Chicago public school students who get shot down on the streets of Chicago.
We can reconcile those two realities by making sure the Second Amendment is respected and that people are able to lawfully own guns, but that we also start cracking down on the kinds of abuses of firearms that we see on the streets.
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MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, you look just outside where we are tonight, they're building 40,000 new hotel rooms in this city. National security is never far from their minds in Las Vegas, either. You are fond of saying you won't use 9/11 as a kind of hook.
Do you think some of that goes on in both parties?
SEN. OBAMA: I think there's no doubt that we've been dominated by a politics of fear since 9/11. Now, some of that's understandable, that we have real enemies out there. The tragedy in New York was a -- a trauma to the country that it is going to take a long time for us to work out. And Senator Clinton did good work in terms of helping the city recover.
But I have to say that when Senator Clinton uses the specter of a terrorist attack with a new prime minister during a campaign, I think that is part and parcel with what we've seen the use of the fear of terrorism in scoring political points. And I think that's a mistake.
Now, I don't want to perpetuate that. I think that's part of why we ended up going into Iraq and made a big strategic error that has made us less safe. Resources that could have been spent on homeland security have been spent in Baghdad. Resources that could have been spent hunting down bin Laden have been diverted to Iraq. And that's what happens when your judgment is clouded.
And what I intend to do as president of the United States is to be honest and straightforward with the American people about how I'm going to implement all the 9/11 commission report findings, make sure that we are hunting down bin Laden, getting out of Iraq so that we can refocus our attention on building the networks and alliances that are required to reduce terrorism around the world.
That's going to be my priority and that's part of the reason I'm running for president of the United States.
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MR. WILLIAMS: We promised this audience we would read a particularly thoughtful e-mail. And we're going off the air in a matter of minutes, so we're going to truly enforce the time limits: 30 seconds, from all of you, to answer the following from Jim Milton of California. "Given the decision to run for president in the first place has to be and should be one of the most important and memorable decision-making moments any American can make, tell us when you made that decision."
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SEN. OBAMA: It was December of '06, while I was on vacation with my wife and kids. And I asked myself two big questions. Number one, could my family survive the rigors of a presidential campaign, since I've got two young children? And because my wife is extraordinary and my children are above average, I figured they could manage it. (Laughter.)
But the most important question was not whether I -- whether I could win the presidency, but whether I should. Was there something that I could provide this country in terms of leadership that would be -- that I could do more effectively than any other candidate? And I concluded I could bring the country together, break out of some of the old arguments, make sure that we are speaking honestly with the American people, bringing in -- them into the process of change.