Copyright ©2008 by Federal News Service, Inc., Ste. 500, 1000 Vermont Ave, Washington, DC 20005 USA. Federal News Service is a private firm not affiliated with the federal government. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, Inc. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person's official duties. For information on subscribing to the FNS Internet Service at www.fednews.com, please email Carina Nyberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-202-216-2706
Thank you very much. Thank you so much.
A few acknowledgements, if you'll indulge me. I want to thank Dean Singleton for the kind introduction; Tom Curley, the president and CEO of the Associated Press.
I understand that Chaplain Barry Black is here, and I hope he's not noticing my absences on the floor of the Senate.
I want to acknowledge some AP reporters who -- with whom I've spent more time over the last year than I have my wife: Nedra Picker and -- Nedra Pickler and -- and Beth Fouhy and Tom Raum, Dave Espo, Matt Apuzzo, Chris Wills, Ron Fournier, Jim Kuhnhenn, Mike Glover and Phil Elliott. I thank you all for your patience and indulgence with both me and my communications team. And I want to acknowledge -- I think Ann Marie Lipinski is here as well, from my hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.
I know that I've kept a lot of you guys busy this weekend with the comments I made last week. Some of you might even be a little bitter about that. (Laughter.)
As I said yesterday, I regret some of the words I chose, partly because the way that these remarks have been interpreted have offended some people and partly because they have served as one more distraction from the critical debate that we must have in this election.
I'm a person of deep faith, and my religion has sustained me through a lot in my life. I even gave a speech on faith before I ever started running for president, where I said that Democrats "make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives."
I also represent a state with a large number of hunters and sportsmen, and I understand how important these traditions are to families in Illinois and all across America. And contrary to what my poor word choices may have implied or my opponents may have suggested, I've never believed that these traditions or people's faith has anything to do with how much money they have.
But I will never walk away from the larger point that I was trying to make and have made in the past. For the last several decades, people in small towns and cities and rural areas all across this country have seen globalization change the rules of the game on them. When I began my career as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago, I saw what happens when the local steel mill shuts its doors and moves overseas.
You don't just lose the jobs in the mills, you start losing jobs in businesses throughout the community. The streets are emptier, and the schools suffer.
I saw it during my campaign for the Senate in Illinois, when I'd talk to union guys who had worked at the local Maytag plant for 20, 30 years before being laid off at 55 years old when it picked up and moved to Mexico, and they had no idea what they're going to do without the paycheck or the pension that they had counted on. One man didn't even know if he was going to be able to afford the liver transplant his son needed, now that his health care was gone.
I've heard these stories almost every day during this campaign, whether it was in Iowa or Ohio or Pennsylvania. And the people I've met have also told me that every year, in every election, politicians come to their towns, and they tell them what they want to hear, and they make big promises, and then they go back to Washington when the campaign's over, and nothing changes. There's no plan to address the downside of globalization. We don't do anything about the skyrocketing cost of health care or college or those disappearing pensions. Instead of fighting to replace jobs that aren't coming back, Washington ends up fighting over the latest distraction of the week.
And after years and years and years of this, a lot of people in this country have become cynical about what government can do to improve their lives. They are angry and frustrated with their leaders for not listening to them, for not fighting for them, for not always telling them the truth. And yes, they are bitter about that.
Now, Senator McCain and the Republicans in Washington are already looking ahead to the fall and have decided that they plan on using my comments to argue that I'm out of touch with what's going on in the lives of working Americans. And I don't blame them for this; that's the nature of our political culture. If I had to carry the banner for eight years of George Bush's failures, I'd be looking for something else to talk about too.
But I will say this. If John McCain wants to turn this election into a contest about which party is out of touch with the struggles and the hopes of working America, that's a debate I'm happy to have. In fact, I think that's a debate that we have to have, because I believe that the real insult to the millions of hardworking Americans out there would be a continuation of the economic agenda that's dominated Washington for far too long.
I may have made a mistake last week in the words that I chose, but the other party has made a much more damaging mistake in the failed policies they've chosen and the bankrupt philosophy that they've embraced for the last three decades. It's a philosophy that says there's no role for government in making the global economy work for working Americas; that we have to just sit back watch those factories close and those jobs disappear; that there's nothing we can do or should do about workers without health care, or children in crumbling schools, or families who are losing their homes, and so we should just hand out a few tax breaks and wish everyone the best of luck.
Ronald Reagan called this trickle-down economics. George Bush called it "the ownership society." But what it really means is that you're on your own. If your premiums or your tuition is rising faster than you can afford, you're on your own. If you're that Maytag worker who just lost his pension, tough luck. If you're a child born into poverty, you'll just have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
This philosophy isn't just out of touch; it's put our economy out of whack. Years of pain on Main Street have finally trickled up to Wall Street and sent us hurtling toward recession, reminding us that we're all connected, that we can't prosper as a nation where a few people are doing well and everyone else is struggling.
Now, John McCain is an American hero and a worthy opponent. I say that all the time. But he's proven time and time again that he just doesn't understand this. It took him three tries in seven days just to figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was an actual problem.
He's had a front row seat to the last eight years of disastrous policies that have widened the income gap and saddled our children with debt, and now he's promising four more years of the very same thing.
He's promising to make permanent the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest few who didn't need them and didn't ask for them -- tax breaks that are so irresponsible that John McCain himself once said they offended his conscience. He's promising four more years of trade deals that don't have a single safeguard for American workers, that don't help American workers compete and win in a global economy.
He's promising four more years of an administration that will push for the privatization of Social Security, a plan that would gamble away people's retirement on the stock market, a plan that was already rejected by Democrats and Republicans under George Bush.
He's promising four more years of policies that won't guarantee health insurance for working Americans, that won't bring down the cost of college tuition, that won't do a thing for the Americans who are living in communities where the jobs have left and the factories have shut their doors.
And yet, despite all this, the other side is still betting that the American people won't notice that John McCain is running for George Bush's third term. They think that they'll forget about all that's happened in the last eight years, that they'll be tricked into believing that it's either me or our party that is out of touch with what's going on in their lives. I am making a different bet. I'm betting on the American people.
Men and women I've met in small towns and big cities across this country see this election as a defining moment in our history. They understand what's at stake here because they're living it every day. And they are tired of being distracted by fake controversies. They are fed up with politicians trying to divide us for their own political gain. And I believe they'll see through the tactics that are used every year, in every election, to appeal to our fears or our biases or our differences, because they've never wanted or needed change as badly as they do now.
The people I've met during this campaign know the government cannot solve our problems. They don't expect it to. They don't want our tax dollars wasted on programs that won't work or on pork for special interests who don't work for us. They understand that we can't stop every job from going overseas or build a wall around our economy, and they know that we shouldn't.
But they believe it's finally time that we make health care affordable and available for every single American, that we bring down costs for workers and for businesses, that we cut premiums and stop insurance companies from denying people care or coverage who need it most. They believe it's time we provided real relief to the victims of this housing crisis, that we help families refinance their mortgages so they can stay in their homes, that we start giving tax relief to the people who actually need it -- middle-class families and seniors and struggling homeowners.
They believe that we can and should make the global economy work for working Americans, that we might not be able to stop every job from going overseas, but we can certainly stop giving tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas and start giving tax breaks to companies who are creating good jobs right here in the United States of America.
They know that we can invest in the types of renewable energy that won't just reduce our dependence on oil and save our planet but create up to 5 million new jobs that can't be outsourced.
They believe we can train our workers for these new jobs and keep the most productive workforce the most competitive workforce in the world, if we fix our public education system by investing in what works and finding out what doesn't; if we invest in early childhood education and finally make college affordable for everyone who wants to go; if we stop talking about how great our teachers are and start rewarding them for their greatness, by paying them higher salaries and asking more from them and giving them more professional development.
They believe that if you work your entire life, you deserve to retire with dignity and respect, which means a pension you can count on and Social Security that's always there.
This is what the people I've met believe about the country they love. It doesn't matter if they're Democrats or Republicans; whether they're from the smallest town or the biggest cities; whether they hunt or don't hunt; whether they go to church or temple or mosque or not. We may come from different places and have different stories, but we share common hopes and one very American dream.
That is the dream I am running to help restore in this election. If I get the chance, that is what I'll be talking about from now until November. That's the choice I'll offer the American people -- four more years, of what we had for the last eight, or fundamental change in Washington.
People may be bitter about their leaders and the state of our politics. But beneath that, they are hopeful about what's possible in America. That's why they leave their homes on their day off, or their jobs after a long day of work, and they travel -- sometimes for miles, sometimes for hours, sometimes in the bitter cold -- to attend a rally or a town hall meeting held by Senator Clinton or Senator McCain or myself. Because they believe that we can change things in this country. Because they believe in that dream.
And I know something about that dream. Contrary to current reports, I wasn't born into a lot of money. I didn't have a trust fund. I wasn't born into fame and fortune. I was raised by a single mother with the help of my grandparents, who grew up in small-town Kansas and went to school on the GI Bill and bought their home through an FHA loan.
My mother had to use food stamps at one point but she still got her education. And she still made sure that through scholarships, I got a chance to go to some of the best schools around, which helped me get into some of the best colleges around, which gave me loans that Michelle and I just finished paying off not that many years ago.
In other words, my story is a quintessentially American story. It's the same story that has made this country a beacon for the world -- a story of struggle and sacrifice on the part of my forebearers, a story of overcoming great odds.
I carry that story with me each and every day. It's why I wake up every day and do this. And it's why I continue to hold such hope for the future of a country where the dreams of its people have always been possible.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MR. SINGLETON: Thank you, Senator. Thank you, Senator Obama. We collected some questions before you came, and I will ask them, and I know you'll be excited to answer them.
SEN. OBAMA: (Fire away ?).
MR. SINGLETON: First one: Can a Democrat talk about guns, God and immigration without getting in trouble?
SEN. OBAMA: (Chuckles.) I actually think it's possible. And not only is it possible, but I think it's necessary. These are the so-called wedge issues that have divided us in repeated elections. And one of the things that I have tried to do for the last five years, 10 years, certainly since I started running for the United States Senate, is to see how we can bridge these divides. And I'll give you a couple of examples.
You know, I believe that, for example, on guns, that if you look at a state like mine in Illinois, there are two realities and two traditions that I think are representative of what takes place in the country. If you go to downstate Illinois, which is closer to Kentucky than it is to Chicago, people view gun ownership as part of deeply held traditions that are passed on from one generation to the other. And, not understanding the importance of those traditions, the memories that people carry with them about going hunting with their fathers or their mothers or their grandparents, means that you're ignoring something essential in their lives. What's also true is that in Chicago, so far this year there have been 22 Chicago public school children who have been gunned down on the streets, most of them faultless victims.
And so we keep on talking past each other on that issue. And the question then becomes, is there a way for us, on the one hand, to acknowledge the importance of gun ownership in huge swathes of the country, and recognize -- as I've said repeatedly and long before this recent part of the campaign -- that the Second Amendment actually means something; can we acknowledge that and at the same time recognize that for us to put in place strong, tough background checks, to close the gun show loophole, to be able to trace guns that have been used in crimes to the gun dealers who sold those guns to see if they're abiding by the law, and making sure that they're not working with straw purchasers to dump illegal handguns into vulnerable communities -- that those two visions are compatible, that they're not contradictory. That, I think, is important for us to be able to move forward.
On issues of religion, obviously the most contentious one is abortion, and we had a long conversation about that last night at the Compassion Forum. And as I've stated before, it strikes me that part of what is required is, those of us who are pro-choice have to acknowledge that there's a moral element to the abortion issue. When we fail to do so, then we're denying something that is deeply held and understood by millions of Americans, including those who support a woman's right to choose.
At the same time, I think it's important to recognize that women don't make these decisions lightly, and that they are in the best position, in consultation with their doctor and their pastor and their family, to work out what is typically a wrenching decision.
I guess the point is, is that on all these issues, what's most needed is an ability to listen and acknowledge the values and the ideals of those who are on the other side of a particular debate. And that strikes me as something that's just been lacking in Washington. And our political culture and, frankly, our media culture makes that pretty hard to do because we feed on controversy and we feed on conflict. It's not that interesting to say, well, I disagree with the guy but I see his point. That doesn't catch headlines.
But at a time when we've got such urgent problems, some of the biggest challenges that we've faced certainly in a generation, it seems to me that for us not to make that effort means that we are -- you know, we are inevitably going to be caught up in the same cycle of political silliness that prevents us from tackling these real problems.
And the one thing I'm certain about -- people have noticed that, you know, we've been able to generate some Republican support in this campaign despite the fact that I'm supposedly this -- this card- carrying liberal. I think the reason is, is because not just Democrats, but also independents and Republicans, are recognizing that how we function politically is not working; that it's become a sport, it's become a game. And we never get to the point of governing and solving problems. And some of these problems are difficult and, you know, will require a lot of work and a lot of tough choices. But we're not even getting to the point where we're making progress on these issues, and it strikes me that's what the American people are looking for.
MR. SINGLETON: Senator Obama, today's event is sold out. Thank you. You have been drawing large crowds wherever you travel. What's your take on the sense of excitement around your candidacy?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, when I first announced, I was pretty certain, just based on my travels around the country on behalf of other candidates during the congressional race in '06, that the country was hungry for something new.
And I think that initially, at least, I've certainly benefited just from novelty and some media attention. You know, here's this 46- year-old black guy, funny name, big ears; he's out there; he talks pretty good; this might make for an interesting story. So I think that accounted for some of it initially. Now, keep in mind, it wasn't that long before that phase of the campaign played itself out, you know, thanks, I think, to some properly skeptical and cynical reporting.
And so I don't think that we would have sustained that excitement and interest, had there not been something else that worked. And I think what it is, more than anything, is the sense that our campaign has actively tried to cultivate and organize, that the American people want to move past the old arguments and also want to be involved and participate and be engaged and enlisted in, you know, the project of American renewal.
They feel a part of this campaign. They feel ownership of this campaign. I think they feel as if I'm a useful prop for the campaign, but that it's theirs and that, you know, what excites them most is -- you know, when you see some of the crowds, sometimes, they're not -- some reporters have written, oh, look, they're all fawning over Obama and, you know, it's cult-like and so forth. That's not it. I think people are missing the story. People are excited by each other.
I can't tell you how many times I've received letters or comments from people where they say, you know, "I've never seen a room where there's so many different kinds of people in the room, and they're all talking about issues together," or parents who come and say, "I've never seen my 15-year-old interested in politics before." And that thrills me, because I remember when I was excited about politics, back in the 60s, and to see that in my own children, you know, really makes a difference. Or a 70-year-old woman that I met recently in a rope line and she whispered to me, she leaned over, she said, "I've never voted before." Never voted before, 70 years old.
And so I think part of what is accounting for the excitement in the campaign is just people being excited about their own possibilities of changing the country. They're seeing that, for example, when we decided not to take PAC money or lobbyist money that suddenly, through the Internet, they could fund a major presidential contest. And then that feeds on itself.
It gives them a sense that, you know, they can actually make a difference.
And part of what I hope my presidency could do is to open up government again so the people continue to feel that sense that they're being involved, they're knowing the issues, they're becoming engaged, that that can have an impact. Because I -- you know, that's something I fundamentally believe, that change does not happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up.
We need leaders who are responsive to the voices of the American people. We need leaders who can help shape public opinion and challenge public opinion. But it was a pretty good president, the last one who came out of Illinois, who said that without public opinion, all the great ideas in the world go nowhere. And so what this campaign I think more than anything about is -- has been about is to help give voice to public opinion so that it can start having an impact on a politics that's been very insulated and very cut off from public opinion for a long time.
MR. SINGLETON: President Reagan was known as a great communicator. President Johnson was a master of congressional arm- twisting. President Bush has used executive orders and declarations to assert powers. Can you give us a sense as to how you would use the power of the presidency?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I gave a hint of one aspect of it, which is I think the importance of getting the American people involved. And I think one of the biggest problems of the last eight years has been the degree to which President Bush has taken almost the opposite tack; that secrecy and concentrations of power in the Oval Office, and a disdain, to some degree, for public opinion has left the American people feeling like they have no influence over their government, and to some degree they don't know what's going on. And I think the fact that lobbyists and special interests have been so dominant in how Washington works has contributed to that sense.
So, one of the things I want to do is open things up. I want transparency. I want accountability. Since I worked in the state legislature, I've always been interested in ethics reforms and disclosure. One of the laws that I'm proud of passing was working with one of the most conservative members of Congress, Tom Coburn, for a searchable Internet database so that not just the press, but also the public, can discover every single dollar that's being spent by the federal government, whether it's a bridge to nowhere or a no-bid contract to somewhere, so that we can shine the light and hold people more accountable. I think that's important.
A second thing that I think is important is getting people to sit around the table and work things out. And one of the things that I -- one of the skills that I bring to the -- potentially to the presidency is, although I've got some very strongly held views and some very clear principles and an idea about where I want to take the country, I think I'm very good at getting people of different perspectives to listen to each other and to pay attention to each other and to try to find common ground.
We haven't done enough of that. I actually think that there are a lot of members of Congress who feel constrained and confined and unable to have those conversations. I think the president sets the tone.
And people have noted, you know, they looked at the National Journal and they say, oh, Obama, look, he's a liberal, most liberal guy in the Congress. I have to point out first of all that one of the criteria -- I don't know if you guys are out there -- National Journal. But one of the criteria you used to determine this was the fact that I was in favor of a independent ethics committee, that would be separate from the Senate Ethics Committee, to actually investigate ethics violations.
I don't know that that's liberal. I think conservatives don't like corruption in their governments either. But setting that aside, people have suggested, well, you know, because of these votes, that indicates that he must not actually be, quote-unquote, "bipartisan."
Well, I reject that. The problem we have is that the way votes are structured in Washington -- they're designed to polarized. They're designed to score points.
And oftentimes what that means then is if you are to be bipartisan, it means you basically swallow a law that you know is bad or wrong, because you're worried politically that it might hurt you and make you look too liberal or conversely make you look too conservative if you're worried about a challenge from your right in a Republican primary.
I think the president has an enormous role in shaping the agenda, so that we are not trying to score cheap political points or force people into votes that don't reflect real consensus, but rather that we do the hard work ahead of time before laws appear before Congress, so that compromises have been made and people feel like they've been listened to. And that involves not being dogmatic, not being ideological. And that's something I'm not.
You know, I think that the American people are a very pragmatic people. They're a practical people and a common sense people. And they don't walk around with this idea in their head that they're conservative or liberal. They want to solve problems. And that problem-solving approach is one that I think will be very important.
The last point I guess I would make would be, I don't believe that government can solve every problem. And using the bully pulpit -- I know Senator Clinton says, well, speeches not solutions. You know, it turns out that speeches and words, I think, can not just shape public opinion about politics but can maybe get people thinking about how our entire culture operates.
So for example, when I talk about education, I always make sure not just to talk about putting more money into early childhood education, which I think is a must; putting more money into training our teaching corps and paying them better, which I think is a must; not just about making college more affordable, with a tuition credit. I talk about the responsibility of the parents to turn off the television set and put away the video game and meet with the teacher and find out whether the homework's being done and instilling a thirst for knowledge in our kids.
And that is particularly true when I'm talking to African- American communities, because I think that unless we change some of the culture, we're not going to see the kind of impact that we need in our education system. I think that is the power of the presidency that has been underutilized, and that's something I intend to use.
MR. SINGLETON: Senator Obama, do you believe that a sitting administration or a federal judge should decide if a confidential source should be protected?
SEN. OBAMA: I think that that is an issue that should be determined by the courts.
And this raises, I think, a broader issue of civil liberties and our various freedoms at a time when we have real enemies and real conflict.
Oftentimes in these debates, certainly over the last eight years, those who challenge the administration were accused of either being unpatriotic or being naive and willing to open up the United States to attack. The notion that somehow I or any other Democrat -- I, with a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old daughter -- somehow are less committed to protecting the American people against terrorism is a joke.
What I have said and I will continue to say is that the essence of our constitutional principles is that not only do we have these civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights but that we also have mechanisms in place to make sure that there are checks and balances between the branches. And so, for example, if we are going to ramp up surveillance in order to prevent a terrorist attack, that may be necessary, and the -- an administration may be entirely justified in saying we have to -- we have to give law enforcement the tools that are necessary in order to impede an attack.
But what we have to make sure of is that there is somebody watching over the administration to ensure that it's not being abused. And that simple principle that there's somebody watching the watcher, that there is not simply a somebody in the White House somewhere who is making unilateral decisions about how we strike the balance between our civil liberties and out safety, whether that's on an issue of freedom of the press or it's an issue of wireless wiretaps -- that simple principle is one that we can't give up and we don't have to give up, you know, because it turns out that actually the courts generally are pretty good at this stuff.
And if you present them with good evidence that there is a national security risk involved they generally respond.
And we've structured a FISA Court to deal with this specific issue. And it's worked. And it's not as if FISA is going around saying, boy, let's really stick it to the administration. This is a -- out of the reams of requests made to the FISA Court, they've rejected a handful, and I suspect for good reason. And it's that general notion of overreach by the chief executive that I think is something we've got to change.
And I think -- the American people believe in that. It's interesting; when I'm traveling around the country -- it doesn't matter where I am, whatever the demographic is -- when I talk about the need for us to protect and abide by the Constitution, people respond. Republicans respond; Democrats respond. That is not a conservative or liberal issue. That is -- well, ironically, it's actually a very conservative notion. It's conservative in the sense that we are being true to the principles of our founding fathers and the essence of what makes this a free society.
MR. SINGLETON: The latest AP/Ipsos poll, out last week, shows John McCain erasing your 10-point lead in February in a head-to-head matchup. Now you are tied. The polls suggest that the extended primary campaign may have damaged your standing against McCain. For that reason, should Senator Clinton step aside? (Laughter.)
SEN. OBAMA: I suspect that she will have a response for that tomorrow. Look, this has been a hard-fought contest. And I won't lie to you. My wife reminded that I had told her sometime last year that no matter what happens, by February 5th, this thing will be over, one way or another. (Laughter.)
And she keeps on looking at her watch.
This has been a hard-fought contest, partly because Senator Clinton is a formidable candidate. You know, there aren't many figures in American politics who could sustain 11 straight losses and hang into a race and raise $35 million. And so in that sense, she's unique, and the fact that, you know, former President Clinton is there to -- and the structure that he has of loyalty all across the country and the brand name that they have, I think, makes them very tough.
Now, maybe I'm a contrarian here, but I actually do believe that this has been good for the party, because each state where we've participated, you've seen record turnouts, record registrations, people being engaged and excited about politics like they haven't been before, and I've now campaigned in 47 states actively. And I think South Dakota's the last state that I have not had a campaign event in. Now, that doesn't mean that I expect that I will win all 50 -- or 48 states and Alaska and Hawaii, all 50 states, but what it does mean is that we're building a structure in those states, that the Democratic Party is building its voter base in those states, that people are being trained as leaders and organizers in those states, and I think that's going to serve us well in November.
You know, obviously the fact that our contest is still going on means that John McCain comes in here and he's feeling pretty good. You know, he's getting a good -- you know, I suspect he's getting more sleep than either myself or Senator Clinton are getting. And he can be a little more deliberate and pace himself. And -- and that probably explains -- explains the close in the polls. But I am absolutely confident that come -- come August and the convention, that the Democrats are going to be unified, because they feel very strongly about the need to bring about change in this country. And I think that once the Democrats are unified, our appeal -- the appeal of our message among independents and among a lot of disaffected Republicans is going to be powerful.
One of the good things, despite the fierceness of the contest between myself and Senator Clinton, is that there aren't a lot of ideological divisions in the Democratic Party. It's not as if -- it's not like the Carter-Kennedy battle, where it really represented two clear, distinct wings of where the party needed to go. There's been a lot of convergence. That was true when there were eight candidates. And that's been part of the problem with the debates, is finding things to disagree about.
So I'm confident that we can pull together.
I have tried to figure out how to show restraint and make sure that during this primary contest we're not damaging each other so badly that it's hard for us to run in November. Obviously, it's a little easier for me to say that since, you know, I lead in delegates and states and popular vote. Senator Clinton may not feel that she can afford to be as constrained. But I'm sure that Senator Clinton feels like she's doing me a great favor, because she's been deploying most of the arguments that the Republican party will be using against me in November. And so it's toughening me up. (Laughter.) And I'm getting a run through the paces, here.
MR. SINGLETON: Senator, we have time for one last question, which means we're going to avoid the "bitter" question. So you won't have to answer that one. You said you want to reduce the number of troops in Iraq. Can you imagine shifting a substantial number of -- a substantial number to Afghanistan, where the Taliban has been gaining strength, and Obama (sic) bin Laden is still at large.
SEN. OBAMA: I think that was Osama bin Laden. (Laughter, applause.)
MR. SINGLETON: If I did that, I'm so sorry.
SEN. OBAMA: No, no, no, this is part of the -- part of the exercise that I've been going through over the last 15 months -- (laughter, applause) -- which is why it's pretty impressive I'm still standing here. (Laughter, applause.)
I think it is -- I've been very clear. We need to move our troops out of Iraq. Now, even if we set aside Afghanistan for a moment, I think it's the right thing to do for our national security. And this is going to be a debate that I'm looking forward to having with John McCain. You know, during my questioning of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, you know, what I asked them and Chuck Hagel asked and Joe Biden asked and just about every member of the Foreign Relations Committee asked and the Armed Services committee asked was: What scenarios are going to create the kind of political accommodations that will allow us to move on? And that question was never answered.
And the reason is, is because unless, I believe, the Iraqi leadership across the board feels some sense of urgency, they are going to continue to try to jockey for position, power, contracts, jobs, oil revenues without regard to the consequences of them acting irresponsibly. And I am convinced that the only real way to apply measured pressure is by saying to them, "We are leaving. We are going to leave in an orderly and deliberate fashion." I've said one to two brigades per month. At that pace we're looking at 16 months, assuming George Bush doesn't reduce our troop levels before the time that I was sworn in. We're talking about two years from now. That is not a precipitous withdrawal, you know. And when McCain and others suggest that it is, they're not being honest.
At that point, we will have been in Iraq for seven years. If we cannot get the Iraqi government to start functioning effectively in seven years, we will not be able to do it in 14 years or 21 years or 28 years or 35 years. And that's why, when John McCain says that he is willing to have a troop presence in Iraq for as long as a hundred years, we should pay attention. Senator McCain's team and some editorialists said, "Obama's being unfair because John McCain didn't say that he wanted to fight a war for a hundred years. He said that if troops weren't dying and we were not actively engaged in combat, there'd be nothing wrong with us having troops there for a hundred years like we had in South Korea."
I think he is absolutely wrong about that. A troop presence in Iraq means that we are effectively an occupying presence in Iraq. And the Iraqi government is not going to be challenged to change its behavior, and these various factions are not going to sort themselves out. Not to mention we can't afford it.
We're spending $400 billion -- $400 million a day, $10 billion a month. Even with a scaled-down presence, the mountain of debt that we are piling up on behalf of our kids is inexcusable. It's inexcusable. There has never been a nation on Earth that bankrupted itself and still maintained its military preeminence, who saw its economy decline but somehow was able to maintain its military power. Our national security depends on a strong economy. And if we are racking up trillions of dollars of debt over the course of decades in an occupation in Iraq, that's bad news.
In addition, it will continue to fan the flames of anti-American sentiment and make it easier to recruit terrorists.
Now, Afghanistan is a war that we have to win, so now factoring in Afghanistan, the only way that we're going to be able to put in the resources that we need in Afghanistan and make certain that our NATO allies see that we're serious, and we can challenge them on the need to do better in Afghanistan and in the hills of Pakistan, where al Qaeda still is, is if we get our troops out of Iraq. Otherwise, we don't have the troops, we don't have the money and we don't have the legitimacy to focus on what Ambassador Crocker himself acknowledged is our main strategic threat, which is al Qaeda, that is based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And when I hear the administration use Osama bin Laden's language to say, well, they say that the central front is Iraq -- of course they say it's Iraq, because as long as they have us there, tied up, that frees them to do what they need to do. If I were Osama bin Laden, I'd want us to consider Iraq the central front as well. It keeps the pressure off them. It's bad for our national security, it's bad for our Treasury, and I intend to change it when I'm president of the United States.
All right. (Applause.)
MR. SINGLETON: Thank you, Senator Obama. We appreciate your coming. And I'll look forward to seeing you next summer in Denver.
SEN. OBAMA: Look forward to it.
Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)