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MSNBC Interview with Senator Barack Obama (D-IL); Subject: Reaction to the State of the Union Address


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MR. OLBERMANN: But let's stay on point here and talk to Senator Barack Obama of Illinois about the State of the Union address tonight.

Senator, good evening. Thank you for your time again.

SEN. OBAMA: Thank you, guys.

MR. OLBERMANN: What did you think? Was that -- that was a speech that seemed to be, from the president -- there were certainly waves, if not necessarily handshakes, out to the Democrats. Did you perceive it as a somewhat moderate speech?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that the president put forward some proposals on health care and on energy that were legitimate, serious proposals. They're not ones that I would have put forward, obviously; we've got different political philosophies. But I think that he tried to find some areas of potential common ground, and I think that we as Democrats should meet him part of the way and sit down and figure out, are there areas of potential agreement.

Obviously, the entire second half of the speech, though, was devoted to foreign policy and in particular Iraq. And I think what you saw as evidenced by the response not just from Democrats, but Republicans is an enormous amount of skepticism within Congress that's matched in the country about this plan to escalate troop levels.

MR. MATTHEWS: Senator, as the best writer in politics since U.S. Grant, what did you think of this speech tonight? You are the best. What did you think of the quality of the writing tonight?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, it's hard, I think, to separate style from substance.

And when the president, I think, is feeling forceful and confident and clear about a direction, then a president's going to be more effective. I think that tonight the writing reflected the fact that there's a lot of confusion, not just in the country but, I think, in the White House, as well, about how to proceed particularly on the foreign policy front.

You know, frankly, the strongest responses that the president received were right at the end when he was talking about the four wonderful stories of the individuals that were in the gallery. That's normally something that you put up front in a speech, that's not how you'd end. And I think that indicates that the overall approach on foreign policy is not one that I think really sold tonight.

MR. OLBERMANN: Then what kind of lead did he give you. If your party controls the Senate and the House but is really not supposed to be establishing an international policy but following an international policy, did the president say to you, here, help me go in one direction, or are you left confused, as you think the voters might be having listened to this thing?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, Keith, I guess I would just dispute one area, and that is that Congress has a co-equal responsibility, I think, with respect to foreign policy. There's no doubt that the executive has to execute that foreign policy. But right now what we have is, I think by all accounts, a disaster unfolding in Iraq. We all have a responsibility, Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the White House, to make sure that we can come up with the best strategy.

I don't think the president's strategy is going to work. We went through two weeks of hearings on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; experts from across the spectrum -- military and civilian, conservative and liberal -- expressed great skepticism about it.

My suggestion to the president has been that the only way we're going to change the dynamic in Iraq and start seeing political commendation is actually if we create a system of phased redeployment. And, frankly, the president, I think, has not been willing to consider that option, not because it's not militarily sound but because he continues to cling to the belief that somehow military solutions are going to lead to victory in Iraq.

MR. MATTHEWS: This is about your father's homeland of Kenya. I've visited so many times, and I know you got a rousing reaction went you went over there recently. What do you think, having studied the president's program for HIV/AIDS and now the new 1.2 billion (dollar) commitment on malaria, which kills a million people a year over there -- do you think he's doing enough in that particular -- I know it's much smaller than his commitment to the war in Iraq, but is he doing enough?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I have to say -- and I've said this publicly; I said it in Africa -- this is an area where I think the president has stepped up and done some excellent work. The fact is is that the president's AIDS programs in Africa, in South Africa, in Kenya have been quite successful.

They have saved lives. You are seeing excellent work done on the ground, cooperation between international agencies and local agencies. And it's also building capacity.

I think the whole issue of malaria is critical. You know, malaria kills as many people as just about any disease on the continent. And so for us to make a modest investment that can save millions of lives I think is entirely appropriate. I think this is an area where the president deserves credit, and I hope that we see strong bipartisan support.

MR. MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the central question of our times -- and you've addressed it forcefully and clearly, and you are clearly against the policy. But what can you do about the war in Iraq, as a senator?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, we are going to be doing a couple of things. Number one, my hope is, is that you see a bipartisan vote sending a strong signal to the president, even though it's non- binding, that he should not take this approach. Now, the president may choose to ignore that, but it sends a signal that not only the country, but also Congress is unified against the escalation of troop levels.

From there, we have to consider options like a cap on troops. Senator Kennedy has an option to begin to cut off funding. I think that there's going to be a lot of discussion about what our options are. It's difficult because want to give discretion to the commander in chief and commanders on the ground to make many of these military decisions. At some point, though, despite the extraordinary work that's being done by our troops, if the mission is unsound, if the strategy is not workable, I think that we in Congress have an obligation to not only communicate that to the president, but also see if we can have some impact on his decision-making.

MR. OLBERMANN: You're watching MSNBC's coverage in the wake of the president's State of the Union address, his sixth. Alongside Chris Matthews, I'm Keith Olbermann. We'll continue now with Senator Obama of Illinois.

On the subject of Iraq, in Senator Webb's official response on behalf of your party, he said the president took us into this war recklessly. Does any kind of non-binding resolution -- does any kind of binding resolution -- have to ascribe responsibility or even guilt in the terms that Senator Webb described tonight, in your opinion?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think that the resolution's going to be pretty straightforward. What it's going to say is this strategy is not going to work, and Mr. President, you need to come up with a different course of action that is going to change the political dynamic in Iraq.

Look, three months ago I offered an alternative plan. I have tried to be as constructive as possible. Back in 2002, as the president was launching this war and as Congress was forced to vote on it, I was very clear in opposition precisely because I felt that once we got in, it would be very hard to extricate ourselves. That, unfortunately, has proven to be true.

I think we have an obligation to be responsible about how we approach this. Nobody that I know has talked about a precipitous withdrawal. And oftentimes when you see contrasts being made between those who want to escalate troop levels and those who don't -- Senators McCain and others will suggest there's going to be total disaster if we don't take their approach.

Well, the fact of the matter is that nobody is suggesting all our troops are going to leave tomorrow. What we are saying is, is that if you start drawing troop levels in a responsible way in conjunction with the commanders on the ground, then we are going to find ourselves in a better position to leverage the Iraqi government and powers in the region to start making progress. And that's the only way we're going to end the violence there. We cannot impose a military solution on what has become an all-out civil war.

MR. MATTHEWS: Senator, we all know we're at war. We know we're taking casualties. We know we've lost 3,000 men and some women. And we know this war is bloody and that we've killed 50(,000) to 100,000 Iraqis on the other side, they've been killed in this war. And yet the president talks about the war as an heroic struggle but doesn't talk about the costs.

I was watching, I think it was another network the other night, and I was talking -- listening to a young serviceman who was having treatment at a field hospital in Iraq. And he was telling the doctor -- well, the doctor told him we're going to have to take off your left leg, and he was pleasing with the doctor, but in a very manly way.

He said, "You know, can't you try to save it, Doctor? Can't you try to save my leg?" And the doctor, who was doing his job, said, "No, we can't. We can't save it. We just can't save it. But we can save your right leg."

And the young service guy, God, he must have been on morphine, but, God, he was bold. He just said, "Well, good."

You know, that kind of courage and sacrifice it doesn't get talked about. It's all about vague heroism and the medals people win, but there's nothing about what's going on in all our military hospitals now.

Why don't we focus on the cost of this damn thing?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, the stories like the ones that you just eloquently described, Chris, are ones that we hear all across the country. You know, on my flight back from Chicago, back from D.C. I had a Purple Heart winner who wanted me to sign his Purple Heart. You could see the scars across his face. You know, he was humble and extraordinarily proud of his service. But, you know, he's going to bear those scars for life. Families have lost loved ones.

And I think that one of the unfortunate things is that too little of the sacrifices of this war have been born by all of us. They've been focused on those families who are fighting, and we haven't even been honest about how we're paying for this war. We've essentially borrowed this off the books and left it for the next generation.

And so I think you're right that we have to understand the costs. We have to understand the enormous toll and sacrifice that's been made by those families. We have to express our gratitude in terms of making sure that veterans' payments and disability payments and services for post-traumatic stress disorder, and all those things are provided.

But the best thing we can do for those families is to make sure that for those young men and women who are still there, we are coming up with the most effective strategy, compatible with our national security.

And one thing I want to make clear. We absolutely have a national security interest in the Middle East. And we can't abandon that. We have a vital interest there that have to be served. And we don't want a complete collapse of Iraq. But we also have to recognize that the president's general approach and philosophy has ended up strengthening some of our most powerful enemies there. Everybody would acknowledge that Iran is stronger now than it was before this war started and that they have always been a significant threat -- in fact, a much more significant threat than Saddam Hussein was. They actually are developing weapons of mass destruction. And you know, so we've got to make some much more sober, serious, fact-based strategic decisions than are being made right now. That's the best way that we can honor the sacrifices that have been already made by so many of these brave soldiers.

MR. MATTHEWS: Senator, thank you very much. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

SEN. OBAMA: Thank you guys. Appreciate it.

MR. OLBERMANN: Yeah, thank you, Senator.


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