MSNBC "COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN" INTERVIEW WITH SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL)
SUBJECT: NOVEMBER 2006 MIDTERM ELECTION INTERVIEWER: KEITH OLBERMANN
MR. OLBERMANN: Proposing an alternative course for American politics, one that replaces fear with, of all things, hope -- Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, and his new book, The Audacity of Hope. Senator Obama, good enough to join us now from Boston.
Good evening, Senator. Welcome to the program.
SEN. OBAMA: Great to talk to you, Keith.
MR. OLBERMANN: I want to talk about the book and this buzz in the second half of our interview. But let me begin, if I can, by asking about the current political climate as epitomized by that new Republican ad, and keep in mind that, you know, 18 days before the midterm elections -- it's crunch time. How do you -- how does your party overcome the politics of fear, especially down the stretch like this?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all I think it's important for us to directly engage the issue of national security. You know, after 9/11, it was understandable that everybody rallied around the president, and I think that Democrats were hesitant to challenge the president on his national security agenda.
I think this election you're seeing the fever break and people step back and say the consequences of a series of decisions by this administration have resulted in a fiasco in Iraq; a climate in which terrorists are actually growing in numbers around the world; we haven't done much about homeland security; and we've got two hostile nations -- Iran and North Korea -- rapidly developing or already having developed nuclear weapons. And I think that's a conversation that we should welcome.
One of the interesting things I'm seeing around the country, though, is those kinds of ads are not working very well. And that's why -- your previous guest I think pointed out -- the number of potential races that are up for grabs this time out are actually growing as opposed to diminishing.
MR. OLBERMANN: Nonetheless, the Republicans have succeeded in the last -- certainly the last two elections with great measure, with a divide and conquer kind of strategy. Is there -- do you respond to that by saying, "Hey, we will listen to both sides," or is there some responsive punch required to just stop that Republican divide and conquer strategy?
SEN. OBAMA: First of all, we have an advantage in this election in that there are facts on the ground that are indisputable and the American people are seeing each and every day when they see reports back from Baghdad. And so it's very difficult to spin the deteriorating situation in Iraq, and that's driving the impression of a lot of Americans about this administration's problems in the foreign policy area.
The second thing, though, is, I get a sense of seriousness in the American people right now that is making them immune to these slash and burn political tactics. You know, I've been traveling all across the country for the last several weeks, and what strikes me is people really are paying attention this time. They recognize both in the areas of foreign policy and domestic policy that we've got a set of challenges on health care and energy and education and foreign policy that aren't amenable to sound-bite answers; that require us to think in common sense, practical terms, not ideological terms, about how to solve them. And that I think is going to play to the advantage of Democrats in this election.
MR. OLBERMANN: There's a remarkable passage in your book in which you describe your first meeting with President Bush, and I think it's both -- this is both a question about your book and also about the events of the last few weeks. Specifically it's about the shift in his demeanor when he began talking about his second-term agenda at a White House breakfast meeting in January of 2005.
Let me quote it exactly: "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. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and appreciated the Founders' wisdom in designing a system to keep power in check."
My question to you, sir: Has the power of the president been kept in check? Because it would seem to many, over the past six years Congress has failed to do that job -- pretty much wrote President Bush a blank check, especially with the Military Commissions Act and this kind of terrifying watering down of habeas corpus.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, I was talking to your producer, and I think the best segment you've done in a while, Keith, was that checklist around the habeas corpus issue.
We lost that vote. But I think it's interesting to point out what happened there. When that first came out, that was going to be the capstone of the Republican approach to this election -- focus on terrorism, focus on fear, and then go into November 7th with this victory of this bill having been passed. And the conventional wisdom in Washington was that it would pass with maybe eight or 10 votes. And I remember speaking repeatedly in Democratic caucus about the issue of habeas corpus -- that this is a core principle that we can't sacrifice, that it's central to who we are as a people.
In the end we lost, but almost all Democrats voted against it, which was a significant shift from, I think, what might have been true even a year ago. And it indicates the degree to which, I think, some of the arguments that the president is making are proving less tenable to the public, and, I think, the willingness for Democrats to start standing up to some of these things.
But the fact is we haven't done the kind of oversight and serious investigations of how we're prosecuting this war on terrorism that I think the American people deserve.
MR. OLBERMANN: Senator Obama, I want to get into the message in the book and get your reaction to this seemingly ever-increasing expectation surrounding your political future, but with your permission, we need to take a commercial break. Give us a second.
SEN. OBAMA: You have my permission.
MR. OLBERMANN: Thank you.
MR. OLBERMANN: It's the kind of political success story that seemingly could only have been written by Horatio Alger or Frank Capra.
An obscure state senator from Illinois with a name few had ever heard, let alone had been able to pronounce, makes a long-shot bid for an open seat in the U.S. Senate, ends up winning by a landslide -- a turn of events that would propel Barack Obama from the statehouse in Springfield to being -- (audio break) -- Senator Obama, who of course is the author of the new book, The Audacity of Hope.
Thank you for staying with us, Senator.
SEN. OBAMA: You bet.
MR. OLBERMANN: The last time I think any of us heard this kind of -- again, that word -- buzz about a Democratic presidential candidate, potential or otherwise, the candidate's name was Howard Dean, and we know that did not turn out perhaps as Mr. Dean wanted. Does that level of hype that you're receiving now -- the sheer height of the expectations -- is it disturbing or scary to you at all? Because it might be good for selling books, but it might not be great for winning elections.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, I think it's been a little overdone. And you know, as a friend of mine put it, it's a high-class problem to have.
MR. OLBERMANN: (Laughs.)
SEN. OBAMA: So I don't want to cry poor about the thing.
But look, I've been very fortunate, and some of it has to do with timing and luck. Some of it has to do with, I hope, the tone and the kind of message that I've been delivering in politics. I think it connects with a real hunger generally in the population for a different kind of politics.
I'm in Boston right now, and you're seeing Deval Patrick -- who nobody gave a chance of winning the Democratic nomination to be governor here in Massachusetts -- with a 20-point lead over his Republican challenger, despite having been victim to withering ads, because he projects a message of hope rather than fear.
And I think you're seeing that in candidates all across the country. I might just be somebody who maybe came to the public's notice a couple of years ahead of the curve.
MR. OLBERMANN: You've been on this book tour just long enough that to ask whether or not you would run in 2008 for the Democratic nomination would be pure folly. But what might be of interest to me or to the viewer, here -- given the legacy that the next president of United States -- whoever he is, whatever party he's from, or she's from -- from the Bush administration, the legacy that that person inherits, why in the world would you or anyone want that job?
SEN. OBAMA: (Laughs.) Listen, it's a good question, because we're going to have some serious problems.
There's no easy answer in Iraq. I think there are bad options and worse options. And I've called for a phased withdrawal starting as soon as possible, and to send a message to the Iraqis as well as the regional powers -- including Iran and Syria -- that they have to take some ownership for creating some stability there.
We've got a deficit that's going to make it difficult for us to move forward aggressively on some of the issues that we face on health care and energy and education. Some of what we're going to have to do is just dig ourselves out of the hole.
On the other hand, I think any of us who go into politics and public service hopefully think that somehow we can be useful, and that even if there are some challenging situations, that we can apply some pragmatic, practical, common sense solutions to these problems.
And that's a lot of what the book is about, is that if we start recognizing some of the common values and ideals that we have as a country and get beyond ideology to think in terms of what works, that we can't solve every problem overnight, but we can make progress. And I think the American people would appreciate at least some progress on some of these vital issues.
MR. OLBERMANN: Do you have a criteria or a set of criteria or a process in place for your own thinking on this -- your own decision- making -- regarding 2008?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, a lot of this has happened very quickly. I'm focused on 2006. We've got three weeks -- less than three weeks now for what's going to be, I think, the most important congressional races -- the most important midterm election that we've seen in a very long time. And so that's my entire focus.
After the election I'm going to sit down and take a deep breath and take a look at what's going on and figure out how I can be useful both in my current job and whatever plans I may have for the future.
MR. OLBERMANN: Yeah, I didn't ask what it was. I just wondered if there was one. Okay.
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, author of The Audacity of Hope, which is just wiping the floor with my book.
Thanks a lot for that. But thanks for joining us tonight, sir.
SEN. OBAMA: Who are you picking in the Series?
MR. OLBERMANN: I picked the Tigers as -- from the start of Spring Training as the underdog team of the year and a wildcard team, so I have to stick with them, I think. And yourself?
SEN. OBAMA: Same thing.
MR. OLBERMANN: Okay. We'll see how it turns out.
SEN. OBAMA: All right. Talk to you soon.
MR. OLBERMANN: Thank you, sir.
SEN. OBAMA: Thank you.