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VICE PRES. JOE BIDEN: Good to be back.
MR. GREGORY: Good to have you here. And it's an important time. The end of the week saw you and the president closing a very important deal, this compromise over an extension of the Bush -era tax cuts , a bill signing at the White House , striking in that you had a Republican there...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ... Mitch McConnell , for the first time . So a new era, perhaps, in Washington . The bottom line is the focus on getting people back to work. What does this deal mean to the end of that goal?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: This means two things. Number one, every econometric model, every basic economist out there says, look, this is going to grow the economy faster next year than it would have. The projections are instead of the economy growing at a -- the GDP growing at a roughly 2.5 percent, some suggest it would grow as high as 4 percent. That means employment. That means more people employed, number one. Number two, this wasn't just extending the Bush -era tax cuts . It extended all the tax cuts for the middle class and all the tax cuts for the poor that were in our legislation, the Obama legislation. We came up with a tax cut of two percent for everybody who gets a payroll check, and on their -- not the employer, the employee gets a two percent. For example, someone making $60 grand a year is going to get another $1,200 on top of the middle -class tax cut . We continued all those tax cuts for the working poor , the so-called EITC , earned income tax credits , and maybe most importantly, were able to extend for another 13 months unemployment insurance for those devastated by this recession.
MR. GREGORY: What about the prospect of eliminating uncertainty? In what may be the first salvo of the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney said, "Look, this really doesn't solve the problem. This is not good for the economy because businesses understand that in a couple of years these rates are going back up."
VICE PRES. BIDEN: No. Look , here's the -- businesses don't care about the top-end tax cut except those people making a million bucks. They're the ones that care. What the businesses care about are the extension of all of those tax cuts for business that we extended, the so-called extenders. For example, we provided for 100 percent expensing. The guy run -- runs a contracting company, he goes buy a $50,000 backhoe, he can expense it in one year now. That's going to encourage him to go out, invest, buy, build. And so all of those we hope we're going to be able to continue. The one target for us in two years is no longer extending the upper income tax credit for millionaires and billionaires, and scaling back what we had to do to get the compromise , the estate tax for the very wealthy.
MR. GREGORY: But the president has said he thinks he can win this argument on the merits in...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: I think he can.
MR. GREGORY: Well, then why not do it now? Why wait until 2012 , an election year? Do you really expect, in an election year, that anybody's not going to vote to extend the tax cuts ?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah, I do. I do.
MR. GREGORY: What'll be different?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, I think what'll be different is that we will have had the outcome of the deficit commission , we will be able to make the case much more clearly that spending $700 billion over 10 years to extend tax cuts for people whose income averages well over a million dollars does not make sense, number one. Number two, we're not going to be -- we're not in a position, David , where we're going to have, God willing , the shaky economy where we could not afford to continue uncertainty for a month or two or three in the next year had we not made a deal which would actually grow the economy . The, the obverse was equally as true. Had we kicked this into next year, it would have created such uncertainty, and there are a number of economists who thought that it would -- may, in fact, induce a double-dip recession. So we not only avoided it getting worse, we made it -- the prospects much better for the economy .
MR. GREGORY: The, the irony of achieving this tax deal is that it does represent a broken promise by this president in how he campaigned, and how you campaigned as well. In September you were interviewed by my colleague Rachel Maddow , and you had an exchange about this fight over extending the tax cut for wealthier Americans . Let me play a portion of that.
MS. RACHEL MADDOW: Does that mean that letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the richest people in the country while pushing for their extension, a middle -class tax cut for everybody else , is that a black and white issue? Is that a -- we haven't heard a veto threat, for example, from the president on that.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: No, it, it is a black and white ...
MS. MADDOW: Is -- it's a black and white issue. That's something that the administration's going to go to the mat for.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: It's a black and white issue. Yes, absolutely.
MR. GREGORY: That was September.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: By the way, we did...
MR. GREGORY: By January, you didn't go to the mat.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: By the -- we did go to the mat. We did go to the mat. We went through every -- I went into a total of 130 races out there campaigning for Democrats . Every single race I made this case. Here's what happened. We got to the end, we couldn't get it done, and we had
to make a decision: Were we going to let the middle -class tax cuts expire? Let me remind everybody, the House passed middle -class tax cut only. It got to the United States Senate , we supported that provision, and the Senate could not pass it. So now we're left with, do we let those folks who are going to bed tonight staring at a ceiling wondering whether they're going to be in that same bed next month, or those two million people who already lost their unemployment insurance this month, seven million more losing it next month, and economic uncertainty occur? Life is a matter of really tough choices.
MR. GREGORY: The president wrote in " Audacity of Hope " that he found the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy morally troubling.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: They are.
MR. GREGORY: Is that still his belief?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: It's still his belief.
MR. GREGORY: Your belief as well?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Mine as well.
MR. GREGORY: But you're willing to compromise on that?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Look, it's -- the idea -- to compromise to save people who are drowning -- there's people out there drowning. There are two million people this month that can't afford to go get a Christmas tree , let alone buy any gifts, because their unemployment has run out, which means they've been unemployed for well over a year to two years. It is unfortunate we were put in the position where the Republicans made it clear they were ready to let everything fall unless they got these tax cuts . They're for two years. They're for two years, and we're coming back and going at it again.
MR. GREGORY: Can you be thought of as being serious about cutting the deficit when 80 -- within 80 hours of, of announcing the deficit commission 's proposals this administration agrees to add a trillion dollars to the deficit ?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Absolutely, positively. Look what the deficit commission suggested. They suggested we do exactly what we did. They suggested we have a payroll tax . They suggested that we stimulate the economy this year into next year. They suggested that this has no impact on long-term debt because it's for two years. Look, you know this, the only people who are going to agree with me when I say this are the economists listening, left, right and center. In the middle of a recession, where we're just climbing out of it, where the economy -- unemployment is still at 9.7 percent, the idea of raising taxes and reducing spending is a prescription for disaster. No one is suggesting that.
MR. GREGORY: Is the balance -- to that point, do we think the balance is out of whack? There's so much attention on austerity...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...on cutting the deficit . And yet, Larry Summers , the president's outgoing top economic adviser...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...saying, look, at this particular moment in time, the priority next year should be more spending. You're the shovel-ready projects guy. There should be more investment in infrastructure. Should there, should there be more of that before we really focus on bringing down the deficit ?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: We can do both. Let me explain what I mean. In the budget we submitted and the omnibus or the, or the, the, the -- I'm sorry to sound like a senator here, or a wonk. But in the spending proposal for next year, we freeze discretionary spending . Freeze it. Freeze it. We think we have to start by all those things that have tails on them, the long-term impact , we should not be spending in those areas and we should be freezing or reducing. On those issues that have no long-term deficit -- look, the entire recovery bill -- I know you know this, but the entire recovery act of the last 18 months, over roughly $800 billion, you know how much it added to the long-term debt? Two-tenths of one percent to GDP . Two-tenths of one percent. The places where we have to go are those things that have tails, that are long-term commitments to the government . That's where the problem is, and that's what we have to attack.
MR. GREGORY: You brought up spending and I want to talk about this earmark issue, not to sound wonkish, these are the pet projects that lawmakers...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: No. Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...put into the budget ; and you had a lot of back and forth here, and ultimately Democrats had a defeat. They pulled back their big spending bill, eliminated the earmarks . And yet, Harry Reid , the leader of the Democrats , took on the White House , wasn't
happy with all of this and said this, this week: I am convinced that I do not want to give up more power to the White House , whether it's George Bush or Barack Obama. And I 'm going to fight as hard as I can against President Obama on these earmarks and my Republican colleagues who hate to vote for them, but love to get them.
MR. GREGORY: Bottom line is, if there is some temporary measure to keep the government funded, will the president down the road veto a bill that includes earmarks or not?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: David , if the question is, in order to keep the patient alive, we have to use medicine we don't like, we may have to do it. I'm not going to second -- if...
MR. GREGORY: But the president said he regretted when he's done that in the past.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well...
MR. GREGORY: He regretted signing a bill with earmarks ...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well...
MR. GREGORY: ...and that after the election it was a new day.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, look, in this budget that was -- is being debated for -- to keep the government running for the next month and year, there is a freeze in discretionary spending . Also, there is an increase in spending for our troops that are in the middle of a war. Those two things we think are essential. Now, if you say to me, do we have to accept a project in -- and by the way, there were six Republican appropriators who supported this who had earmarks in it. If we say we have to support a, a levy in Mississippi in order to make sure my kid, who's out in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan gets what he needs, I'm going to say yeah. I don't want to do it, but I may have to do it. It depends on the proportions. It depends on what to say. Harry just reinforced the point we've been making. We don't like earmarks . You have the Democratic leader criticizing the president of the United States because we say we don't want earmarks .
MR. GREGORY: So, so you may not like it, but there's no veto threat.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: No, there -- it depends on the proportion. It could be very well that you wind up in a situation where you say, "OK, in order to be able to have the funding for the continuation, the support for the troops in Afghanistan , we have to accept an earmark, and that's what the Congress sends us." Are we going to veto a bill that will jeopardize troop safety? Probably not. Conversely, if there's a bunch of earmarks in a bill that we think is funding for several agencies that we're willing to fight over and can take a chance on losing on, yeah, we'll veto.
MR. GREGORY: I want to button up a couple of other very important agenda items in this lame duck session .
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Sure.
MR. GREGORY: As we sit here today, it looks like a repeal of the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military will be successful. It will be repealed.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: We hope so.
MR. GREGORY: That, that is, as we sit here today, how it looks. What will be the impact of that happening?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: The impact , David , is we'll be in line with seven other of our allies around the world. We will not be squandering the abilities of combat soldiers as well as interpreters who happen to have a different sexual preference, who happen to be gay or happen to be lesbian. Look, all of our major allies have, for some time now, provided for all -- the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff , the secretary of the Defense , the vast majority of the American people say you're -- whether you are gay or straight, it does not affect whether you can shoot straight or whether you can speak Urdu .
MR. GREGORY: What about the START treaty , the nuclear arms treaty with Russia? Do you have the votes as we sit here to get that ratified?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: I believe we do. I believe we do.
MR. GREGORY: So what's holding this up? Is this political gamesmanship by Republicans or are there substantive criticisms?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Both. With some, with John McCain , there are substantive criticisms. He was worried about whether or not we're going to make good on our commitment to deploy all four phases of the missile defense system in Europe. We are. That's a legitimate concern. There's other legitimate concerns. There have been 18 hearings, 1,000 questions we've answered and -- but another is they just simply are against any arms control agreement. That's the category that, when I say any, they're simply against this arms control . Senator DeMint is absolutely four square against it. It wouldn't matter what it said. And conversely, and there are people like Senator McCain and leading Republicans like Johnny Isakson in Georgia who think this is a good, substantive thing for U.S. security. I might add, every former Republican secretary of Defense , secretary of State , national security adviser, and head of strategic command says this is essential for U.S. security.
MR. GREGORY: Let me move on to foreign affairs . I want to talk about the fallout from the WikiLeaks scandal. Julian Assange appeared on the "Today" show on Friday morning and he said there are more leaks to come. This is what he told Matt Lauer in part:
MR. JULIAN ASSANGE: As we have seen, WikiLeaks is a robust organization. During my time in solitary confinement in the basement of a Victorian prison, we continue to release, our media partners continued to write stories. The important revelations from this material continue to come out. We have approximately 2,000 cables into 250,000.
MR. GREGORY: More to come. Should the United States do something to stop Mr. Assange?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: We're looking into that right now. The Justice Department is taking a look at that, and I'm not going to comment on, on that process.
MR. GREGORY: Do you think he's a criminal?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: If he conspired to get these classified documents with a member of the U.S. military , that's fundamentally different than if somebody drops on your lap, "Here, David , you're a press person, here is classified material."
MR. GREGORY: Mitch McConnell says he's a high tech terrorist, others say this is akin to the Pentagon Papers . Where do you come down?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: I would argue that it's closer to being a high tech terrorist than, than the Pentagon Papers . But look, this guy has, has done things that have damaged and, and put into jeopardy the lives and, and occupations of people in other parts of the world. He's made it more difficult for us to conduct our, our business with our allies and our friends. For example, in my meetings, you know I meet with most of these world leaders , there is a desire now to meet with me alone rather than have staff in the room. It makes things more cumbersome. And so it is, it has done damage.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about Afghanistan . The president's review released this week, you've been described in The New York Times as " Obama 's in- house pessimist on Afghanistan ." Are we winning or losing in Afghanistan?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Let me separate this out, remind everybody what our goal is. Our overarching goal and our rationale for being there is to defeat and -- to dismantle, ultimately defeat al-Qaeda , residing -- central al-Qaeda residing in the Fatah , the western regions of the mountains of, of Pakistan . Secondly, to make sure that terrorists do not, in fact, bring down the Pakistani government , which is a nuclear power . Toward that end, we think it's important that there be stability in Afghanistan so that al-Qaeda cannot re-establish it as a base from which to attack the United States of America. With regard to our efforts to degrade al-Qaeda , we're making great progress . The so-called C.T. , that is counterterrorism, the use of special forces and the like to go after individuals who make up the leadership of al-Qaeda and of the Taliban . On the issue of counterinsurgency, that is where we clear, hold and build and transfer, we're making progress not as rapidly as we are on the other front . President's been frank to say that in his release, pointing out that we need two things that we're working on very hard and we're making some progress: one, Pakistan and safe havens; and two, governance in Afghanistan. All of this is so complicated.
MR. GREGORY: It is.
MR. GREGORY: After 10 years, Mr. Vice President, can't you just say straight whether we're winning of losing?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well...
MR. GREGORY: Don't the American people deserve to know something about where we stand?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, no -- they -- I, I -- the one thing I've never been accused of is not being straight. They are -- we are making progress .
MR. GREGORY: Yeah...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Are we making sufficient progress fast enough? The answer remains to be seen. Here's what we said. We said we were going to -- we -- after seven years of neglect of an Afghan policy when we came to office, we had to sit down. I went off to Afghanistan at the president's request, came back with a recommendation, and said we have to clarify our objectives and then decide what forces we need in order to sustain the possibility of making sure we accomplish those objectives. We've done that. We said we'd sit down in December and make -- and look at it and review the progress we're making. We were honest with the American people , we're making progress in all fronts, more in some areas than in others. We are going to, come July, begin to draw down American forces and transfer responsibility to the...
MR. GREGORY: Will that be a token amount of soldiers? Will it be a couple of thousand troops and no more?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: No. Well, well -- it, it will not be a token amount, but the degree to which we draw down -- if I can make an analogy to Iran -- I mean, excuse me, to, to Iraq , which I've been put in charge of.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: What happened there? We signed, three years ago, an agreement with the Iraqis saying that what we're going to do is, two summers ago we're going to draw all combat troops out of the cities , populated areas. Then we said, our administration, we're going to draw 100,000 troops out the next summer. And we're going to be totally out. In the meantime, we're going to help build a government , we're going to transfer responsibility, and we're going to be gone. That's exactly what we did at the recent Lisbon conference, the NATO conference, where we said, "We're starting this process, just like we did in Iraq. We're starting it in July of 2011 , and we're going to be totally out of there come hell or high water by 2014."
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about something that's on a lot of Americans ' minds. As we talk about Afghanistan , number one goal is preventing another terror state in Afghanistan from, from where terrorist attacks can be launched. We know what happened with the Christmas Day bomber during the holidays last year. What is the capacity of al-Qaeda or affiliated organizations to pull off a large scale terror attack against this country?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, you never say never, OK? But we are, our intelligence community , is united in the view that the ability of central al-Qaeda , that is Osama bin Laden and company in the Af-Pak area, in those mountains, has been significantly degraded, and we don't believe they have the capacity from there to pull of a, a 9/11 type operation. But what has also happened, as you've noticed, you've seen in the Arabian peninsula , you've seen in other parts of the world where there are al-Qaeda , al-Qaeda -related affiliates not under the direct control of, of Osama , but yet engaged with him. They are planning much smaller-bore but yet deadly attempts to go after the United States of America. We saw that in the underpants bomber last Christmas , we saw that in the Times Square effort. So there are going to be continued efforts to be able to, coming, quite frankly, more likely out of places other than the Fatah -- excuse me, other than Pakistan , where bin Laden is. But we have significantly degraded and knocked off a lot of the main planners and organizers and trainers. Does that mean we've succeeded? No. Does that mean we're in much better shape than we were a year ago and two and three? Yes.
MR. GREGORY: I want to ask -- let's spend a couple minutes talking about leadership and politics here as we look ahead to 2011 . You know this town pretty well. You know politics in this town very well. President Obama has just come through a real tough election . What is the key to turning things around for him?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: The key to turning things around is that having everyone understand the message of that election . We understand it. The message is the American public wants us to cooperate, wants us to work together. That's why, if we get the START agreement, we will have this lame duck session , since the election , heard the message and the Republicans will have heard the message that they want us to reasonably compromise to move the business of the nation forward as we just did on the economy with regard to taxes and growth, and as, God willing , we're going to do on national security with regard to START . And I think that is the message of the election .
MR. GREGORY: But don't you -- can't you understand, though, a lot of voters look up at this president and say, you know, "We're not sure we get him. Is he, is he a liberal, is, is he a moderate, is he a pragmatist? What is he, exactly?"
VICE PRES. BIDEN: What he is, is he is a progressive leader who, in fact, understands that politics is all in the art of the, the possible, and it's critically important to do two things. He knows his job as two overarching responsibilities: Promote economic growth and keep America safe. And so, to the extent that he has to make compromises that don't compromise those two objectives, he will.
MR. GREGORY: This is not a guy who campaigned saying, "Look, politics is the art of the possible." This is someone who campaigned, both of you did, coming to Washington saying, "Business is going to change around here."
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well...
MR. GREGORY: And that's why so many new voters came into the process. They expected more.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: By, by the way, that's exactly what the president did say, that business was going to change. You remember, I ran against him in, in the primaries. I've always been a little less optimistic about the idea that somehow the Republicans last year were going to join hands with us. The president reached out. He reached out in every way to the Republicans last year to say, "Hey, let's work on health care . Let's work on this. let's work..." They made a very calculated decision. You know it and I know it. I'm not -- most people know it. I know it, that they decided that it was in their best interest to not see much move forward cooperatively and it would hurt the Democrats because they were in charge. They turned out to be right. But they got a second message . They found out that, that the public didn't like the Democrats , but they sure in the devil didn't like the Republicans either. And most polls showed they liked the Republicans less. And so the message that came out, I believe, and would -- you saw what Mitch McConnell and John Boehner , both who are friends of mine, who I've worked with for years, they came out of this and say, "Hm, we better get, get a compromise ." Can you imagine last year, the Republicans agreeing on a compromise like the one we had here, where they took things that are religion to them, which are, "No earned income tax credit, that's not a tax, that's a giveaway, that -- we're not going to do that." Guess what? There's $200 billion of that stuff now.
MR. GREGORY: When you look at compromise , does Vice President Biden become the negotiator-in-chief from here on in? You've got the relationships on the Hill.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, by the way, you know, every -- I, I, I get asked that a lot lately since this worked. That's been my role from the beginning. For example, I've repeated -- I've met with -- I, I'm the guy that's gone up on the important issues to the House , and I'm the guy that goes -- I'm vice president of the United States . They know when I speak, I speak for the president. So last year, everybody said, " God , you -- you know, if Rahm Emanuel were here, he would have been the one going up to the House and the House caucus." Not true. It would have been me, whether he were here or not. Just like it was last year. On three important occasions, I was the guy that went to the House to try to sell them, and in two cases sold them, on what to do. And look, I have -- one of the things that matters in this town, and you know it as well as I do, your word matters. There's not a single Democrat or Republican who's ever worked with me that will not look you in the eye and say, " Biden has never, ever, ever broken his word." So that's why I'm able to go up there. I don't always succeed, but I like these guys, they're my friends. I've got -- a lot of these Republicans are my friends.
MR. GREGORY: Final question, Mr. Vice President. I know you're a Phillies fan. I've been talking about the Phillies a lot here...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ... and I 'm a Dodgers and a Nationals fan.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: I know, I know.
MR. GREGORY: But I've got to ask you, quickly, are they the odds-on favorite to win the championship with that rotation?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: I think they are. I think they are. I honest to God think they are.
MR. GREGORY: That's the prediction?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: But last time we spoke, I told you I still thought we had a chance to make it to the series this year. I was obviously wrong about that. But I really do. I mean, and how many people said, "We'll never, ever, ever sign him"?
MR. GREGORY: That's right . We'll leave it there. Mr. Vice President. Merry Christmas.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Where there's life, there's hope.
MR. GREGORY: Thank you very much . Appreciate it.
VICE PRES. BIDEN: Thank you very, very much. Appreciate it.
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