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MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript

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MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript
Sunday, January 22, 2006

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: This United States senator has just returned from a fact-finding mission to Iraq and the Middle East and has now become the Democrats' point man for lobbying reform. With us: an exclusive interview with Illinois' junior Senator Barack Obama.

Then, two men who helped elect Bill Clinton president of the United States have a new blueprint for Democrats: "Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future." They'll be joined by someone with very different views. Our political roundtable with Paul Begala, Mary Matalin and James Carville.

But first, joining us now is the Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

Senator, good morning and welcome.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): Great to talk to you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: You just came back from Iraq, and I noted this comment in the Chicago Daily Herald. "Everything is up for grabs." What does that mean?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, one of the impressions that I got was what a great job the troops were doing. You know, we have a military that is unsurpassed in its ability to execute a mission, and so we've got troops who are building roads and hospitals and schools. And I was extraordinarily proud of their service.

But you have a political situation that I think is still undetermined, how it's going to play itself out. We just got the results from the recent election. It's promising because we have more Sunnis participating in the legislature than we had last time. We don't yet know, though, whether or not the Shias and the Kurds are going to accommodate Sunni interests or ignore them. And we don't yet know whether the Sunnis are going to recognize that they are in fact a minority. And one of the key points I came away from, talking to both military officials as well as civilians, is that there's not a long-term military solution to the problem there, that political accommodation is what's going to determine the future of Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: The question is, here at home what are the politics, and you said this according to the Chicago Tribune. "It is arguable that the best politics going into '06 would be a clear, succinct message, 'Let's bring our troops home.' It's certainly easier to communicate and I think would probably have some pretty strong resonance with the American people right now." Why do you think that's the best political message?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, one of the things that I think in politics you're always looking for is contrast, and obviously that gives a sharp, clearly-defined contrast to administration's policy. Keep in mind, though, that that quote was presented in me explaining that that's actually not the approach that I'm pursuing. My position has been that it would not be responsible for us to unilaterally and precipitously draw troops down regardless of the politics, because I think that all of us have a stake in seeing Iraq succeed. We need to get the policy right, and it's inappropriate, I think, to have politics intrude at this point in such a critical stage and in the development of the Middle East.

MR. RUSSERT: When you ran for office back in September of '04 you said this about Iraq. You-and I'll read it on the screen from the Associated Press. "Democratic senator candidate Barack Obama who opposed invading Iraq, but pulling out now, he said, would make things worse. A quick withdrawal would add to the chaos there and make it an extraordinary hotbed of terrorist activity. He said it would also damage America's international prestige and amount to a 'slap in the face' to the troops fighting there." Is that still your position?

SEN. OBAMA: It remains my position that we have a role to play in stablizing the country as Iraqis are getting their act together. But I have to emphasize that there is a cost for our presence there. We are an irritant, and we help spur the insurgency even as we are defending a fledgling Iraqi government against that insurgency. And so, we have this difficult balance that has to take place, but the critical point is that Iraqis have to take responsibility now that the final election has taken place. They have a legally constituted government. It is time for them to arrive at the peaceful accommodations that can drain away some of the impetus behind the insurgency, and it's time for Iraqis to take seriously institution-building.

You know, when I was there, there were reports that the Ministry of the Interior, which is headed by a Shia, part of the religious Shia party there, that the minister of the interior, which is in charge of the police, was rounding up Sunnis-prominent Sunni leaders-in ways that were abhorrent. And that kind of behavior and irresponsibility on the part of institutions like the police, like the various ministries is the kind of thing that helps spur the insurgency, and we can't solve those kinds of problems militarily.

MR. RUSSERT: When you say we're an irritant, who we are-who are we an irritant to?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think we are an irritant primarily to certain portions of the Sunni population that still feel disenfranchised. And they may feel that, in fact, the United States is the guy with the club standing behind the Shias and putting them in a position in which they have no power. You know, when you go out to some of the western provinces of Iraq that are predominantly Sunni, you've got 50, 60 percent unemployment in these areas. There's a great sense of disaffection. And if American troops are the face of the occupation, then the perception at least is that there is no interest on the part of the Shias to accommodate Sunnis, that they have the United States backing them up. And we need to get ourselves out of a position where it's perceived that we are giving Shias and Kurds an excuse not to negotiate with the Sunnis, and we also have to let the Sunnis know that they're in fact a minority within Iraq, and they're not going to have the same power that they had under Saddam Hussein's regime.

MR. RUSSERT: Let's talk a little bit about the language people are using in the politics now of 2006, and I refer you to some comments that Harry Belafonte made yesterday. He said that Homeland Security had become the new Gestapo. What do you think of that?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I never use Nazi analogies, because I think those were unique, and I think, you know, we have to be careful in using historical analogies like this. I think people are rightly concerned that we strike the right balance between our concerns for civil liberties and the uniform concern that all of us have about protecting ourselves from terrorism.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Belafonte went to Venezuela, as you well know, some time ago and met with Hugo Chavez, leader of that country, and said some things that obviously were noted in this country and around the world. Let's listen, and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, January 8, 2006)

Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE: And no matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we're here to tell you not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people, millions, support your revolution, support your ideas, and we are expressing our solidarity with you.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Is it appropriate to call the President of the United States the greatest terrorist in the world?

SEN. OBAMA: I don't think it's appropriate. That's not language that I would use. But keep in mind that, you know, one of the great things about the United States is all of our citizens have the right to, you know, speak our minds about what's going on politically.

What I do think we have to focus on is-in the context of the Middle East and Iraq, Iran-is the fact that we are at a very delicate time right now, which requires not just military might, but also diplomacy. And there've been times where we have not used all the tools in our tool kit. There's been a tendency on this part of this administration to talk tough, to act first and plan later. And coming back from Iraq what was clear to me is is that we have a six- to nine-month window in Iraq in which things can either turn out much better or turn out much worse, depending on how effectively we apply pressure to the Shia-dominated government to make sure that they're bringing everybody into the fold.

MR. RUSSERT: Should we negotiate with the insurgents to try to bring about a political solution?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think that what we want to do is we want to reach out to Sunni leadership that clearly has connections to the insurgency. And there are potential accommodations that can be made with the Sunni population that will drain away support from the insurgency. It is critical, for example, who gets placed in Cabinet positions in various ministries. If there's no significant Sunni representation, then that's going to send a signal to that population that they should continue, maybe serruptitiously, tacitly, to support the insurgency.

We want to divide the foreign jihadists-which will brook no compromise, and we essentially have to hunt down-and those elements within the Sunni population that are resistant right now of what's happening, but I think potentially recognize the possibilities of becoming involved in the political process.
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MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the political situation here at home. Your colleague Senator Hillary Clinton said some things that have been talked about all week long. Let's listen to that and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, Monday)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D-NY): We have cronyism, we have incompetence. I predict to you that this administration will go down in history as one of the worst that has ever governed our country.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree with Senator Clinton that the Bush administration will go down in history as one of the worst?

SEN. OBAMA: I agree with her remarks about cronyism and incompetence. I don't think that anybody who's been watching the news over the last year who's seen what happened in New Orleans, who's seen some of the botched planning that took place post-war in Iraq would not think that there is a competence issue when it comes to this administration. I think that with respect to cronyism, we have seen, I think, consistently, a tendency on the part of this administration to appoint people on the basis of their politics as opposed to their abilities and their merits, and that has real consequences for the American people. We saw that it had consequences with respect to Katrina. But it also has competence up and down the line in terms of how well we're regulating our environment. How well are we prosecuting all sorts of issues that have deep concerns to the American people?

MR. RUSSERT: Will George Bush be considered one of the worst presidents in history?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, that's a tough standard to meet. We've had some pretty bad ones. So, I, you know, I don't prognosticate in terms of where George Bush will place in American history.

MR. RUSSERT: But in terms of the dialogue and the civility in Washington, is it appropriate to be talking in these terms?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, here in Chicago we've got a saying that "politics ain't beanbag." And sometimes I think that we get overexcited, or we fasten on remarks that people are making in the heat of political battle. I agree that generally we need to improve the tone of civility in politics. I think that that starts, by the way, with the White House and some of those closest to George Bush. I'm always happy if we can tone down the rhetoric and focus on the problems that the American people care about.

MR. RUSSERT: You've been appointed, selected as the Democrats' point man on lobbying reform in the Senate. I want to talk about Jack Abramoff and the scandal now in terms of lobbying and potential reform. According to the Center for Responsive Politics and The Washington Post, Mr. Abramoff and his clients and his associates gave about $3 million to Republicans, about $1.5 million to Democrats. Is this a bipartisan scandal?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think the problem of money in politics is bipartisan. I think that all of us who are involved in the political process have to be concerned about the enormous sums of money that have to raised in order to run campaigns, how that money's raised, and at least the appearance of impropriety and the potential access that's given to those who are contributing. That's a general problem with our politics. The specific problem of inviting lobbyists in who have bundled huge sums of money to write legislation, having the oil and gas company companies come in to write energy legislation, having drug companies come in and write the Medicare prescription drug bill-which we now see is not working for our seniors-those are very particular problems of this administration and this Congress. And I think Jack Abramoff and the Case Freak Project, that whole thing is a very particular Republican sin.

MR. RUSSERT: No sin for the Democrats?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, with respect to how Tom DeLay consolidated power in the House of Representatives, invited lobbyists like Abramoff in to help write legislation, leveraging those lobbyists and telling them that they can only hire Republicans, manipulating the rules of the House and the Senate in order to move forward legislation that was helpful to special interests. There is a qualitative difference to what's been happening in Washington over the last several years that has real consequences. It means a prescription drug bill that doesn't work for our seniors. It means an energy policy that does nothing to help relieve high gas prices at the pump. These aren't just abstractions, these are problems that have very real consequences to the American people. And my hope is is that, on a bipartisan basis, we can come up with a solution that returns some semblance of responsiveness to Washington.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you see a direct quid pro quo between contributions and government action?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think in the case of people like Duke Cunningham, obviously there have been-and that's why there have been criminal prosecutions. But, you know, there's a wonderful saying that the scandal isn't what's illegal, the scandal is what's legal. And I think that when you have, for example, the chairman of the House committee that is responsible for putting together the Medicare bill at the same time as he's negotiating with the big pharmaceutical companies to head up their lobbying operation, then you have to assume that the interests of the pharmaceutical companies are being better represented in the halls of Congress than the interests of the American people.

MR. RUSSERT: You talked about money being a political problem and a bipartisan problem. This was in the St. Louis paper the other day, "Senator Obama has served as a money magnate for his party and for himself, easily raising loads of campaign cash for Senate Democrats, filling the coffers and his own political action committee. 'I have a lot of fund-raising capital,' Obama acknowledged. He headlined an Arizona Democratic Party event that raked in $1 million, wrote an e-mail that helped raised more than $800,000 dollars for Senator Robert Byrd, set up a special leadership PAC called Hopefund Inc. so he could raise even more money, collecting more than $850,000 so far this year."

This is the very thing that you warned about, Senator, back in 1996. And we talked about this before, but let me talk-raise it on the screen again. This is Obama in 1996. "You got these $10,000-a-plate dinners and Golden Circle Clubs. I think when the average voter looks at that, they rightly feel they're locked out of the process. They can't attend a $10,000 breakfast, and they know that those who can are going to get the kind of access they can't imagine." Isn't that a necessity of your job right now, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for yourself and your colleagues, the very thing that you criticized in '96?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, a couple of points. In terms of the fund-raising that you put up on the screen-for example, $800,000 that was raised for Senator Byrd was through, and those were contributions that were coming in from ordinary citizens at $100 a pop.

But the larger point you're making is absolutely true; this is the part of the job I dislike the most, which is having to raise money. It is something that none of us are immune from because of the amount of money that has to be raised in order to get on television and run campaigns. It is a problem that I have to deal with, it's a problem that John McCain has to deal with, it's a problem that Russ Feingold has to deal with. It's something that all of us wrestle with.

My belief in terms of moving forward on the ethics legislation is that we've got some low-hanging fruit that we should take care of right away. For example, it shouldn't be tough to say lobbyists can't buy you a fancy meal. I saw one of my colleagues remark in the paper the other day, "How are we going to be able to meet with lobbyists? Where are we going to eat, at McDonald's, if the limit is only $20?" Well, the truth is most Americans spend less than $20 for lunch. But more importantly, there's no law that obligates you to get a free lunch from lobbyists.
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So there are some easy things that we can do that hopefully will build momentum for some of the tougher stuff, which involves, how do we reduce the enormous amounts of money in politics generally? And those are going to be some tough questions, because they might involve, for example, asking the question, "Why don't we have free television time, or candidates, to reduce the amounts of costs?" My suspicion is that NBC, just like ABC and CBS, wouldn't necessarily be wild about those approaches, but that's the kind of conversation over the long term we're going to have to have. This is the starting point.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you consider public financing of campaigns?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that we should consider all approaches that would reduce the amounts of money that are required for campaigns.

MR. RUSSERT: Fred Wertheimer, who's been covering this issue for a long time for Common Cause, Democracy 21 project, said the problem is as follows, and let's listen to Fredh Werthheimer.

(Videotape, Wednesday)

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER: The bottom line here is we've bee operating in Washington and in Congress without a sheriff. And that leads to a wild West where anything goes, and now that has to change. You can't just change the rules. You've got to add real enforcement of those rules if you're going to get compliance from the members.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Should there be a new enforcer of lobbying and ethical rules?

SEN. OBAMA: I think so. And I think that one of the differences between the Democratic proposals for reform so far and the reform proposals that have come out from the Republican House is setting up an office of public integrity that has the capacity to track and monitor what's taking place more effectively than we've seen over the last several months. There's got to be some mechanism that's not subject to politics that can oversee how we are operating.

MR. RUSSERT: There's been enormous speculation about your political future, Senator. The man you succeeded in the Senate, Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican, said this recently. "I think there's a very good chance that Senator Obama is on the Democratic ticket in 2008 as the vice presidential nominee." Do you agree?

SEN. OBAMA: No. I can't speculate on those kinds of things. What I have said is that, you know, I'm not focused on running for higher office, I'm focused on doing the job that the people of Illinois sent me to do.

MR. RUSSERT: But there seems to be an evolution in your thinking. This is what you told the Chicago Tribune last month: "Have you ruled out running for another office before your term is up?" Obama answered, "It's not something I anticipate doing." But when we talked back in November of '04 after your election I said, "There's been enormous speculation about your political future. Will you serve your six-year term as United States senator from Illinois?" Obama, "Absolutely."

SEN. OBAMA: I will serve out my full six-year term. You know, Tim, if you get asked enough, sooner or later you're going to get weary and you start looking for new ways of saying things. But my thinking has not changed.

MR. RUSSERT: So you will not run for president or vice-president in 2008?

SEN. OBAMA: I will not.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator, thank you very much for your candor and for joining us and sharing your views.

SEN. OBAMA: Had a great time, Tim. Thank you.

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