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MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript

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MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Only 16 days until the midterm elections. Will the Democrats retake control of the Congress? What would they do if they did? With us: the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention, and author of his new book, "Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Then, insights, analysis and even a few predictions from our roundtable: David Broder of The Washington Post, Charlie Cook of the National Journal, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal, and Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun- Times.

But first, he has crisscrossed the nation, campaigning for his fellow Democrats and perhaps positioning himself for his own presidential run. With us: Senator Barack Obama.

Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

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

MR. RUSSERT: Let me start with Iraq, because you write about it in your book and you've been talking about it on the campaign a little bit. This is what you told New Yorker magazine: "There's an old saying in politics: when your opponent's in trouble, just get out of the way. ... in political terms, I don't think that Democrats are obligated to solve Iraq for the Administration." Is there an obligation in non-political terms?

SEN. OBAMA: Yes, and then, you know, if you follow up the quote in that magazine article, what I said is, despite the politics, we have young men and women who are putting their lives at stake in Iraq, we're making an enormous investment on the part of the American people, and so we do have an obligation to step up. And so what I've been saying of late on the campaign trail is that, given the rapidly deteriorating situation down there, it is incumbent upon all the leadership in Washington to execute a serious change of course in Iraq, and I think that involves a phased—the beginnings of a phased withdrawal that would put more of the onus on the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people to make a decision about what kind of Iraq they want, and also to engage the regional powers—whether it's Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria—to say, "You can't sit on the sidelines. You have a stake in a stabilized Iraq."

MR. RUSSERT: In your book, page 302, you write that we should begin this phased withdrawal by the end of 2006.

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: That's within the next 70 days.

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: That's your position.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, the—I—what I would do is to sit down with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at this point and say, "We are going to begin this phased withdrawal. How quickly can we begin this in a responsible way, in consultation with the Iraqi government?" And it may be now—keep in mind, I was writing this three or four months ago—it may be, at this point, that it happens at the beginning of the year. But the most important thing is to send a strong signal that we can't arbitrate a civil war. We can't impose a military solution on the problems in Iraq. What we're going to have to do is make all the parties involved come to some sort of political accommodation. And they're going to have to make a decision about the kind of country that they want to live in.

MR. RUSSERT: Two years ago in September of ‘04, this is what you told the Associated Press: "Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama ... 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." So two years from now—from then, you no longer believe pulling out would damage our prestige our slap our soldiers in the face?

SEN. OBAMA: I—at the time, as you know, I, I thought this whole venture was, was poorly conceived. Not just poorly executed, but poorly conceived. I think it was a mistake for us to go in. I felt that once we had gone in, it made sense for us to try to make the best of the situation. And my hope was is that the Iraqi government could in somewhat—some ways, bring about some sort of stability in the region.

What we've seen is such a rapid deterioration of the situation. There was an article in The New York Times on Saturday where the government isn't even venturing into some neighborhoods in Baghdad to pick up bodies. And the—a Iraqi was quoted as saying, "If a government can't come to pick up the bodies because it's too afraid, is it really a government?" And I think that's the question that we have to ask ourselves right now.

Given the deteriorating situation, it is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve, and we have to do something significant to break the pattern that we've been in right now.

MR. RUSSERT: What if we do get out and more foreign terrorists pour across the borders and create in Iraq something like Afghanistan in the ‘90s? What do we do?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, the—by the president's own national intelligence assessments, we've ben creating more terrorists as a consequence of our occupation of Iraq. There are no good options in Iraq. There are bad options and worse options. What we can't do is continue a pattern in which we effectively say we are supporting this government, we send in troops into Baghdad to do policing work, our casualties spike up, the administration feels political heat, pulls them back, and we continue on this cycle, which could continue on indefinitely. We've got to change the pattern and get Iraqis and the regional powers to take seriously the task of trying to figure out how they can live together.

MR. RUSSERT: You write about the Democratic Party in your book, and this is part of it: "We Democrats are just, well, confused. ... Mainly, though, the Democratic Party has become the party of reaction. In reaction to a war that is ill conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action." What are you saying?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I, you know, I think that after 9/11, all of us rallied around the president. It was an enormous shock to the system and we were rooting for this administration to execute a national security plan that would make sense. That put Democrats, I think, on the defensive because they didn't want to appear to be challenging a wartime president. And that is what I'm writing about, that sense that we can't challenge and come up with our own national security plan. What I've seen in this election, and I think part of the reason Democrats are doing well all across the country, is that free pass is, I think, over. And you've seen Democrats emboldened and have a sense that we cannot continue on the path that we're on now. And so as a consequence, you're seeing, I think, much more straightforward, much more aggressive questioning of the administration and hopefully an exploration by the Democrats of how we can actually improve the situation.

MR. RUSSERT: You write this: "Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?" Would you invade North Korea?

SEN. OBAMA: No, I don't think that's an option. They've got a million troops in uniform, very well trained. The point I was making in that passage is that after 9/11, we had an opportunity to do what Truman and Marshall and Acheson did after World War II, which is to say, how are we going to come up with an overarching national security strategy that will allow us to engage our allies, rebuild international institutions, many of which are creaky and, and, and have outlived their usefulness. How do we determine where our national interests necessitate deploying troops and where do we use diplomacy and other tools? That national security strategy has never been forthcoming. And because of that, not only have our military actions lacked legitimacy around the world, but the American people have questioned them.

And, and you know, there's a saying in the military that legitimacy is, you know, is a force multiplier, that, that if the American people are bought into our efforts and our allies are bought into our efforts, then we are going to be more successful than when it appears that we are just acting randomly or based on ideological predispositions, and that, I think, has been one of the central problems of this administration.

MR. RUSSERT: But if North Korea and/or Iran continue to develop their nuclear arsenal...

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...and sanctions don't work...

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: would be opposed to military action?

SEN. OBAMA: No. Look, I think that military options have to be on the table when you're dealing with rogue states that have shown constant hostility towards the United States. The point that I would make, though, is that we have not explored all of our options, and I'll give you one very good example. You know, James Baker said recently, he does not know why we would not talk to our enemies. During the entire Cold War, at the peak of the Cold War, when there were nuclear missiles pointing at every major U.S. city, there was a direct line between the White House and the Kremlin. We have not explored any kind of dialogue with either Iran or North Korea, and I think that has been a mistake. As a consequence, we have almost no leverage over them. We end up having to use surrogates in order to try to communicate to them to find out what their interests are, what their bottom lines are and to send clear messages to them about what we think is acceptable or unacceptable. So I think military options always have to remain on the table, but I think that when we leave all the other tools in the tool kit, then we are doing a disservice to the American people.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you have direct negotiations between the president of the United States and Kim Jong Il?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, what I would do is, at this point, given the provocation of the recent nuclear test, I think let's try to get these sanctions to work. I think the administration—which had not done a very good job on the North Korea issue, partly because it had been bogged down in Iraq—right now is taking some of the right steps. Let's reconvene the six-party talks. China and South Korea are central to those efforts. But I think that in time it would make sense for us to initiate some bilateral conversations on—in parallel with the six-party talks, partly because it would strengthen, I think, the commitment of China and South Korea to really put some pressure on North Korea.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you commit U.S. troops to Darfur?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, what I would do is I would take more leadership than we have taken in forming an international protective force in Darfur. I think, you know, when you have situations involving genocide, it is important for us as a world community—and the United States is the world's sole super power—for us to take that seriously, and to make commitments of resources to deal with it. The problem is, we haven't prioritized that, partly again because of Iraq. Iraq has consumed all our foreign policy. We have almost no political capital around the world on anything else, and that's part of the reason why—despite very sincere efforts, I believe, on the part of the administration to do something about Darfur—I think this is an area where, partly because the evangelical community has shown extraordinary and sincere concern, so has the administration—it has not been backed up by any serious diplomatic effort.

MR. RUSSERT: You write in your book this: "I also think my party can be smug, detached, and dogmatic at times. I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don't work as advertised." Which programs?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that if you look at how our health care system is structured right now—I'm, I'm a big supporter of Medicaid and Medicare, but I think that there's no doubt that we could squeeze more efficiencies out of those, those systems there. Simple example, we don't, we don't use electronic billing for Medicare and Medicaid providers. Now, the—there's no other business on earth that still has people filling out paper forms to get reimbursed, especially for a system that large. We could drastically reduce the costs of those systems.

So the—overall, when you look at the federal budget, one of the problems that I've discovered, you know, during the time that I've been in Washington, is we don't seem to have any mechanism where we look at the entire budget, and we make priorities. It is a piecemeal, haphazard process. And part of what I'd like to see is some more discipline and structure to how our budget process proceeds, part of the reason why I worked, for example, with Republican Tom Coburn. Recently a bill was signed by the president that we had passed, that would call for all federal spending to be on a searchable Internet database. That's part of the reason why one of the provisions that I included in a recent appropriations bill called for the end to no big contracts when it came to Katrina reconstruction.

There, there are a number of steps where we could obtain significant savings, and that money could be applied to programs that do work. And one of the things that I've always said is, is that if you're progressive, you have at least as much of a stake, if not more, in efficient government as fiscal conservatives, because money wasted on things that we don't need is money that we could have put into programs that do help the American people.

MR. RUSSERT: You talk and write a lot about bipartisanship, and I was quite taken by this comment about federal judges. Let me share it with you. "Because federal judges receive lifetime appointments and often serve through the terms of multiple presidents, it behooves a president—and benefits our democracy- -to find moderate nominees who can garner some measure of bipartisan support." John Roberts, chief justice of the Supreme Court, confirmed 78 to 22. That's some measure of bipartisan support.

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: And yet you voted against him.

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah. But I, but I—the—I did not support a filibuster in that situation. So the—I mean, there's a situation where I thought John Roberts was a highly legitimate nominee. I anguished over that vote. I thought he was highly qualified for the job. I had some concerns about his record on the margins. I chose to vote against him, but I would not have supported a filibuster in that instance, because I think that he was a good nominee on the part of the Bush administration. So the point I'm making there was in the context of judicial nominations, it's important to distinguish between somebody that you may not vote for because you're not sure that their views on the Constitution comport with yours. That doesn't mean that you take extraordinary measures to block their appointment, and that is a good example of it.

MR. RUSSERT: You talk about visiting the White House and how the president was very gracious meeting members of the Congress and made a presentation, and then in the middle of the presentation, this is how you write about it, "The President's eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty."

SEN. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: "Messianic certainty." Those are strong words.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I, I think the president is, is a complicated person. As I say in the book, I think he is a decent person, and, and the—I like him personally. I think that the president has come to approach the problems we face in very ideological, absolutist terms, and I think that's, to a large degree, characterized how the Republicans who've been controlling Congress have operated over the last several years. And I think that has been a mistake. I think that the American people are historically a nonideological people. I think when we operate on the basis of common sense and pragmatism, we end up with better outcomes. And I think that part of the reason the Republican Party is going to—has been doing poorly in this election is because people have said, you know, when we look at issues like health care or education or Social Security or foreign policy, it seems as if the president has only one narrow approach and is not taking in the advice and dissenting views that might make for better proposals. And, and that is something that, you know, I think anybody who's in power for a while can fall victim to; I think this administration has been particularly victimized by that problem.

MR. RUSSERT: But when you say "messianic certainty"...


MR. RUSSERT:'re suggesting that it's almost as if he believes God wills it.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I, I don't presume to know what is in the president's heart. I think that one of the president's strengths from a political perspective is that certainty. I think that the problem has been that that certainty has precluded him from looking at issues based on facts as opposed to based on ideology. And I, you know, I quote in the book one of my favorite stories from the Senate when Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York is in an argument with a colleague on the floor, and the colleague's probably not doing too well in that argument, Pat Moynihan was a pretty smart guy, and at some point, the other senator gets frustrated and says, "Well, you know what, Pat? You're just entitled to your own opinion and I'm entitled to mine." And, and Moynihan frostily, I—I'm sure, says, "You are entitled to your opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts." And I think this administration has, has not always understood that distinction. And that's part of the reason why we've had problems in Iraq and that's part of the reason why we've had problems with our, with our budget. There's been an unwillingness to look squarely at the facts in making decisions.

MR. RUSSERT: You did say the president gave you some advice, and this is what you write, "You've got a bright future," said President Bush, "very bright. But I've been in this town awhile and, let me tell you, it can be tough. When you get a lot of attention like you've been getting, people start gunnin' for ya. And it won't necessarily just be coming from my side, you understand. From yours, too. Everybody'll be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean? So watch yourself." Good advice?

SEN. OBAMA: Absolutely good advice. I—the—you know, I think that it is important to not buy into your own hype or, or your press clippings. And one of the advantages I have, I think, in that is I've got a wife who knocks me down a peg any time I start thinking that what they're writing about me is true.

MR. RUSSERT: You do write this, and it's a very interesting observation, "When you watch Clinton vs. Gingrich or Gore vs. Bush or Kerry vs. Bush"—so that's ‘98, 2000, 2004--"you feel like these are fights that were taking place back in dorm rooms in the sixties. Vietnam, civil rights, the sexual revolution, the role of government - all that stuff has just been playing itself out, and I think people sort of feel like, Okay, let's not re-litigate the sixties 40 years later." Are you suggesting that those political players are, are the past and you represent a new generation that won't get caught or bogged down in those kinds of debates?

SEN. OBAMA: I think, I think the categories we've been using were forged in the ‘60s. You know, I think the arguments about big government vs. small government, the arguments about, you know, the sexual revolution, military vs. nonmilitary solutions to problems. I think, in each and every instance, a lot of what we think about is shaped by the ‘60s, and partly, you know, the baby boomers is—are a big demographic. I write about the fact that, whether it's the market for Viagra or how many cup holders are going to be in, in a car, a lot of it's determined by what the baby boomers want. Our politics isn't that different, and my suggestion is that—take the example of big government vs. small government. My instinct is is that the current generation is more interested in smart government. Let's have enough government to get the job done. If, if we're looking at problems, if the market solution works, let's go with the market solution. If a solution requires government intervention, let's do that. But let's look at what are the practical outcomes. And I think that kind of politics is what the country's hungry for right now.

MR. RUSSERT: You told Vogue, Men's Vogue magazine, that if you wanted to be president, you shouldn't just think about being president, that you should want to be a great president. So you've clearly given this some thought.


MR. RUSSERT: And what would, in your mind, define a great president?

SEN. OBAMA: Obviously, most of the time, it seems, that the president has maybe 10 percent of his agenda set by himself and 90 percent of it set by circumstances. So, you know, an Abraham Lincoln is defined by slavery and the war, FDR defined by the Depression and, and World War II. So I'm not sure that I can categorize what is, is—are those ingredients in each and every circumstance.

But I think, when I think about great presidents, I think about those who transform how we think about ourselves as a country in fundamental ways so that, that, at the end of their tenure, we have looked and said to ours—that's who we are. And, and our, our—and for me at least, that means that we have a more expansive view of our democracy, that we've included more people into the bounty of this country. And, you know, there are circumstances in which, I would argue, Ronald Reagan was a very successful president, even though I did not agree with him on many issues, partly because at the end of his presidency, people, I think, said, "You know what? We can regain our greatness. Individual responsibility and personal responsibility are important." And they transformed the culture and not simply promoted one or two particular issues.

MR. RUSSERT: The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, said this: Barack Obama, who he thinks has the intelligence and the toughness necessary to be president, but has to be careful about running too soon. Is that a fair comment?

SEN. OBAMA: I think it's a fair comment, absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think the—President Clinton has some self-interest in making that comment?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, the—I don't know how the president's thinking. I'm a big admirer of Bill Clinton's work. I think that—the one thing I'm clear about in terms of the presidency is, is it can't be something that you pursue on the basis of vanity and ambition. I think there's a, there's a certain soberness and seriousness required when you think about that office that is unique. And at some point, the bargain you're making with the American people is, is that, "You put me in this office and my problems are not relevant. My job is to think about your problems."

And so anybody, I think, who's pursuing it, has to, has to understand the gravity of it, and, and make sure that the reason they want to do it is not simply because they want to see their name in the headlines.

MR. RUSSERT: You've been a United States senator less than two years, you don't have any executive experience. Are you ready to be president?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I'm not sure anybody is ready to be president before they're president. You know, ultimately, I trust the judgment of the American people that, in, in any election, they sort it through. And that's, you know, we have a long and rigorous process, and, you know, should I decide to run, if I ever did decide to run, I'm confident that I'd be run through the paces pretty good, including on MEET THE PRESS.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, nine months ago, you were on this program and I asked you about running for president. And let's watch and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, January 22, 2006):

MR. RUSSERT: 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 full six-year term as a 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 get weary and you start looking for new ways of saying things, but my thinking has not changed.

MR. RUSSERT: But, but—so you will not run for president or vice president in 2008?

SEN. OBAMA: I will not.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: You will not.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, the—that was how I was thinking at that time. And, and, you know, I don't want to be coy about this, given the responses that I've been getting over the last several months, I have thought about the possibility. But I have not thought it—about it with the seriousness and depth that I think is required. My main focus right now is in the ‘06 and making sure that we retake the Congress. After oh—after November 7, I'll sit down and, and consider, and if at some point, I change my mind, I will make a public announcement and everybody will be able to go at me.

MR. RUSSERT: But it's fair to say you're thinking about running for president in 2008?

SEN. OBAMA: It's fair, yes.

MR. RUSSERT: And so when you said to me in January, "I will not," that statement is no longer operative.

SEN. OBAMA: The—I would say that I am still at the point where I have not made a decision to, to pursue higher office, but it is true that I have thought about it over the last several months.

MR. RUSSERT: So, it sounds as if the door has opened a bit.

SEN. OBAMA: A bit.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Barack Obama, we'll be watching. Thanks for joining us.

SEN. OBAMA: It was my pleasure, Tim. Thank you.

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