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Democratic Presidential Candidate Forum


Location: Philadelphia, PA

Democratic Presidential Candidate Forum

MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, we'll begin with you.

You gave an interview to The New York Times over the weekend pledging in it to be more aggressive, to be tougher in your campaign against your chief rival for the nomination, the leader among Democrats so far, Senator Clinton, who is here next to you tonight.

To that end, Senator, you said that Senator Clinton was trying to sound Republican, trying to vote Republican on national security issues, and that was, quote, "bad for the country and ultimately bad for the Democrats." That is a strong charge, as you're aware.

Specifically, what are the issues where you, Senator Obama, and Senator Clinton have differed, where you think she has sounded or voted like a Republican?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think some of this stuff gets overhyped. In fact, I think this has been the most hyped fight since Rocky fought Apollo Creed, although the amazing thing is I'm Rocky in this situation. (Laughter.)

But look, we have big challenges. We're at war. The country is struggling with issues like rising health care. We've got major global challenges like climate change. And that's going to require big meaningful change, and I'm running for president because I think that the way to bring about that change is to offer some sharp contrasts with the other party. I think it means that we bring people together to get things done. I think it means that we push against the special interests that are holding us back, and most importantly, I think it requires us to be honest about the challenges that we face.

It does not mean, I think, changing positions whenever it's political convenient.

And Senator Clinton in her campaign, I think, has been for NAFTA previously, now she's against it. She has taken one position on torture several months ago and then most recently has taken a different position. She voted for a war, to authorize sending troops into Iraq, and then later said this was a war for diplomacy.

I don't think that -- now, that may be politically savvy, but I don't think that it offers the clear contrast that we need. I think what we need right now is honestly with the American people about where we would take the country. That's how I'm trying to run my campaign. That's how I will be as president.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, let's get at this another way. Red line is the current expression of the moment where Iran is concerned in Washington. What would your red line be concerning when to, if to attack Iran? What would make it crystal clear in your mind that the United States should attack Iran?

SEN. OBAMA: I don't think we should be talking about attacking Iran at this point, for some of the reasons that Chris and Joe just talked about.

Look, we have been seeing, during the Republican debates, the drumbeat of war. The president has been talking about World War III. That is a continuation of the kinds of foreign policy that rejects diplomacy and sees military action as the only tool available to us to influence the region.

And what we should be doing is reaching out aggressively to our allies but also talking to our enemies and focusing on those areas where we do not accept their actions, whether it be terrorism or developing nuclear weapons, but also talking to Iran directly about the potential carrots that we can provide, in terms of them being involved in the World Trade Organization, or beginning to look at the possibilities of diplomatic relations being normalized.

We have not made those serious attempts. This kind of resolution does not send the right signal to the region. It doesn't send the right signal to our allies or our enemies, and as a consequence, I think over the long term it weakens our capacity to influence Iran.

Now, there may come a point where those measures have been exhausted and Iran is on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon, where we have to consider other options, but we shouldn't talk about those options now when we haven't tried what would be a much more effective approach.


MR. RUSSERT: I want to ask each of you the same question.

Senator Clinton, would you pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president?


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama.

SEN. OBAMA: I think all of us are committed to Iran not having nuclear weapons. And -- and so, you know, we -- we -- we could potentially short-circuit this. (Laughter.)

But -- but I think there is a larger point at stake, Tim, and that is we have been governed by fear for the last six years, and this president has used the fear of terrorism to launch a war that should have never been authorized. We are seeing the same pattern now. We are seeing the Republican nominees do the same thing. And it is very important for us to draw a clear line and say we are not going to be governed by fear.

We will take threats seriously. We will take action to make sure that the United States is secure. As president of the United States, I will do everything in my power to keep us safe.

But what we cannot continue to do is operate as if we are the weakest nation in the world instead of the strongest one, because that's not who we are. And that's not what America has been about historically, and it is starting to warp our domestic policies, as well. We haven't even talked about civil liberties and the impact of that politics of fear, what that has done to us in terms of undermining basic civil liberties in this country, what it has done in terms of our reputation around the world.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Clinton, elsewhere in the region, let's talk about Iraq. One of your military advisers, retired Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy, while campaigning for you in New Hampshire, was recently quoted saying, quote, "I don't oppose the war. I have never heard Senator Clinton say, I oppose the war," closed quote.

Senator Clinton, do you oppose the war in Iraq?

SEN. CLINTON: Absolutely but I do not, and I don't think any of us do, oppose the brave young men and women who have fought this war with such distinction and heroism.

You know, I have said repeatedly that I will begin to bring our troops home as soon as I am president, because it is abundantly clear that President Bush does not intend to end the war while he is still president. In order to do that, we're going to have to get the Joint Chiefs and my secretary of Defense and advisers together to start the planning, to move as quickly as possible, because I don't believe that the planning has been sufficiently undertaken in the Pentagon under this administration. But we've got to do more. We have to try to get the Iraqi government to understand its obligations, because there is no military solution, and they have thus far failed to do so.

And finally, we need to engage in diplomacy with respect to Iraq. You know, we have a big diplomatic apparatus. This president doesn't use it. He relies on a very small group of people. I think that's a terrible mistake. In addition to the Foreign Service officers, I would bring in a lot of other distinguished Americans who have experience, people, you know, like my colleagues Bill and Joe and Chris.

We need a lot of Americans trying to fan out across the world following President Bush because he's going to leave so many problems. His policies have alienated our friends and emboldened our enemies. And Iraq and Iran are tinderboxes, the Middle East, Pakistan. I agree with Joe. The Afghanistan situation. Everywhere you look in the world, we've got work to do. And I think we've got to do more than just send our young men and women out. That is not an appropriate use of their power.

MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, was Senator Clinton's answer to the opposition of the Iraq war question consistent, in your view?

SEN. OBAMA; Well, I don't think it's consistent with the Iran resolution, for example, which specifically stated that we should structure our forces in Iraq with an eye towards blunting Iranian influence. It is yet another rationale for what we're doing in Iraq, and I think that's a mistake.

Now, I agree that we've got to focus on diplomacy. The president has to lead that diplomacy, which is why I've said I would convene a meeting of Muslim leaders upon taking office because I think we have to send a strong signal that we are willing to listen and not just talk, and certainly not just dictate or engage in military action.

But the -- the real key for the next president is someone who has the credibility of not having been one of the co-authors of this engagement in Iraq. And I think I am in a strong position to be able to say I thought this was a bad idea from the first -- in the first place, we now have to fix it, we have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in, but we nevertheless have to take steps that are not only engaging Iraqis -- the Shi'a, the Sunni and the Kurds -- but also engaging Iran, Syria and other powers in the region.


MR. RUSSERT: But there was a letter written by President Clinton specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012. Would you lift that ban?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, that's not my decision to make. And I don't believe that any president or first lady has. But certainly we'll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, your hand's up?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, I'm glad that Hillary took the phrase "turn the page." It's a good one. But this is an example of not turning the page. We have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history, and not releasing, I think, these records at the same time, Hillary, as you're making the claim that this is the basis for your experience, I think, is a problem.

Part of what we have to do is invite the American people back to participate in their government again. Part of what we need to do is rebuild trust in our government again.

And that means being open and transparent and accountable to the American people.

And that's one of the hallmarks of my previous work in the state legislature, in the United States Senate -- making sure that Americans know where our money's going, what earmarks are out there, what kinds of pork barrel spending is being done, who's bundling money for who. And that, I think, is part of the job of the next president, is making Americans believe that our government is working for them because right now, they don't feel like it's working for them. They feel like it's working for special interests, and it's working for corporations.

One last point I want to make: Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that's a fight they're very comfortable having. It is the fight that we've been through since the '90s. And part of the job of the next president is to break the gridlock and to get Democrats and independents and Republicans to start working together to solve these big problems, like health care or climate change or energy.

And what we don't need is another eight years of bickering. And that's precisely why I'm running for president. Because one of the things I've been able to do throughout my political career is to bring people together to get things done.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, to you let's apply the -- what we'll call the Giuliani question about having run a city, a state, a payroll.

What specifically is your relevant experience for being president?

SEN. OBAMA: The experience I have in politics is primarily legislative, but here's the experience that I think the next president needs. I think the next president has to be able to get people to work together to get things done even when they disagree, and I've done that. You know, when I was in Illinois we brought police officers and civil rights advocates together to reform a death penalty system that had sent 13 innocent men to death row, and we ended up passing it unanimously, even though originally people had said it couldn't be done.

Dennis earlier was talking about the need to work on nonproliferation issues. I've worked with Dick Lugar, Republican spokesperson for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to focus on the next generation of nonproliferation efforts. Now that I think is critical experience.

I also think it is critical for the next president to be experienced to stand up to special interests. I'm glad Hillary's talking about it, but I'm the only person on this stage who has worked actively just last year passing -- along with Russ Feingold -- some of the toughest ethics reforms since Watergate -- making sure that lobbyists could not provide gifts and meals to congressman, making sure the bundling of monies by lobbyists was disclosed.

And finally, I think we've got to have a president who has the experience of standing up even when it's not easy, which is what I did in 2002 when I stood up against this war in Iraq 10 days before the authorization. It is -- that is the kind of judgment that I'm displaying during this campaign when I go to Detroit and I say to the automakers that they need to raise fuel efficiency standards; not in front of some environmental group.

That kind of consistency and principled leadership, I think, is what is going to move us in the next direction. That's what I'll provide as president.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, you said in May that, quote, "Everything is on the table" when it comes to Social Security. You now have an ad up in Iowa which says that any benefit cuts are off, and raising retirement age are off. Why have you changed your mind?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, what I say is, is that that is not my plan.

Now, I just want to go back to -- to what Senator Clinton said, because I think it's important for us not to engage in business as usual on Social Security, and talk straight. Everybody on this stage is against privatization, and we all fought against it, everybody.

I absolutely agree that Social Security is not in crisis. It is a fundamentally sound system, but it does have a problem, long term.

Even if we deal with the issue of fiscal responsibility, the trust fund is no longer being raided -- that's something that all of us are in favor of -- we've got 78 million baby boomers who are going to be retiring over the next couple of decades. That means more retirees, fewer workers to support those retirees. It is common sense that we are going to have to do something about it. That is not a Republican talking point. And if we don't deal with it now, it will get harder to deal with later.

So what I've said -- and I know some others on this stage have said -- is that among the options that are available, the best one is to lift the cap on the payroll tax, potentially exempting folks in the middle -- middle-class folks -- but making sure that the wealthy are paying more of their fair share, a little bit more.

Now, it is important, if we are going to lead this country, to be clear to the American people about what our intentions are. And this is part of the politics that we have been playing, which is to try to muddle though, give convoluted answers. Ultimately, we then don't have a mandate and we can't bring about change, in part because we're afraid to give Republicans talking points. I am not fearful, just as Joe isn't, to have a debate about this with Rudy Giuliani because we've got the facts on our side. But we've got to be clear about those facts and not pretend that those facts don't exist.

MR. RUSSERT: But when asked by The New York Times whether Senator Clinton has been truthful, you said no.

SEN. OBAMA: What I said is that she has not been truthful and clear about this point that I just made, which is, we can talk about fiscal responsibility, and all of us agree with it. All of us oppose privatization. But even after we deal with those issues, we are still going to have an actuarial gap that has to be dealt with. It is not going to vanish. And if we have a moral responsibility to the next generation to make sure that Social Security is there -- the most successful program to lift seniors out of poverty that we've ever devised -- then we need to start acting now and having a serious conversation about it.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, we're going to transfer into a new area here, a question specifically for you because you're in a rather unique position. It's about religion and misinformation.

Governor Romney misspoke twice on the same day confusing your name with that of Osama bin Laden. Your party is fond of talking about a potential swift-boating. Are you fearful of what happened to John McCain, for example, in South Carolina a few years back, confusion on the basis of things like names and religion?

SEN. OBAMA: No, because I have confidence in the American people, and I don't pay much attention to what Mitt Romney has to say -- at least what he says this week; it may be different next week.

But there is no doubt that my background is not typical of a presidential candidate. I think everybody understands that, but that's part of what is so powerful about America is that it gives all of us the opportunity -- a woman, a Latino, myself -- the opportunity to run.

And listen, when I was running for the United States Senate, everybody said, "Nobody's going to vote for a black guy named Barack Obama. They can't even pronounce it." And we ended up winning by 20 points in the primary and 30 points in the general election.

The way to respond to swiftboating is to respond forcefully, rapidly and truthfully. And I have absolute confidence in the American people's capacity to absorb the truth as long as we are forceful in that presentation. And we are seeing it as we travel all across the country. We have received enormous support in states where, frankly, there aren't a lot of African Americans and there aren't a lot of Obamas.


MR. WILLIAMS: We are back from the campus of Drexel University here in Philadelphia. Our debate continues.

Now we're going to introduce some rule changes as we go. And for this next question alone in this segment, we're going to enforce a -- or try to -- a 30-second limit on responses. We're going to begin with Senator Dodd and go right down the panel.

Most experts believe we're looking at $100 a barrel oil prices, perhaps very soon. Most experts further believe there are some folks in America who may be paying 50 percent more for things like heating oil this winter, let's say where winters are difficult in two states that come to mind, Iowa and New Hampshire, say nothing of your home state of Connecticut. As a member of the U.S. Senate, are these people doomed to paying more, to suffering through these energy costs this winter, Senator? Aside from blue-ribbon panels, what can be done right now about what afflicts the United States on this issue of energy?


SEN. OBAMA: As Joe pointed out, out of the $90 that it's costing right now for a barrel, about 30 percent of that is just risk; it's not dictated by supply and demand. If we can lower the rhetoric with respect to military action in the Middle East, that will have an immediate impact. All the other suggestions that have been made are sound, but one of the things that we have to do with respect to conservation is increase fuel efficiency standards on cars. And we have to make that commitment not just by going to environmentalist groups and saying we're going to do it, but doing what I did, which is go to Detroit, talking to the automakers. Joe and I have been working on legislation that would provide them the incentives to start making those shifts.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, would campaign on the Rangel plan?

SEN. OBAMA: No, because I don't know all the details of it, and I may not agree with some aspects of it.

But let's broaden the conversation here. We're all traveling all across the country -- Iowa, New Hampshire. Everywhere you go you'll meet a single mother who is raising her kids, working at the same time, trying to go to college, and every one of her costs from health care to college tuition has gone up; home heating oil is going up. She can't even imagine the idea of saving.

Now, in the meantime, we've got a 10,000-page tax code that is rife with corporate loopholes. There's a building in the Cayman Islands that supposedly houses 12,000 U.S. corporations, which means it's either the largest building in the world or the biggest tax rip- off in the world, and I think we know which one it is. So there has to be a restoration of balance in our tax code to help that single mom, to help a two-parent working family that are struggling to make ends meet.

And so I put forward a very specific plan. I've said we are going to offset some of the payroll taxes that people are experiencing so that families who are making less than $50,000 a year get a larger break.

I want to make sure that seniors who are making less than $50,000, that they get some relief in terms of the taxes on their Social Security.

Those kinds of progressive tax steps, while closing loopholes and rolling back the Bush tax cuts to the top 1 percent, simply restores some fairness and a sense that we're all in this together as opposed to each of us being in it on our own.


SEN. OBAMA: I do think that we have to have more instruction in the classroom. We're going to have to pay for that, and the federal government has to help strapped local districts in order to make that happen.

We also have to -- if we want to develop math and science curriculums, we've got to make math and science jobs attractive, which means increasing research grants. And this is something that is important not just for our competitiveness but also for our long-term national security. And when George Bush requests $196 billion for next year's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is seeing a flat-lining of investment in science research, that makes it more difficult for us to encourage our children to go into sciences.


MR. WILLIAMS: We are back in Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Something we'd like to institute as the lightning round. We've put a clock and a noise, perhaps not loud or severe enough, on the screen. (Laughter.) As we tried this out in the previous segment, we're going to get try to get tougher and heavier concerning our enforcement.

I promised to begin with a question handed me by a Drexel student today. It dovetails -- and Senator Dodd, we'll start with you -- it dovetails with what physicians have asked me to ask in this room, to this group here tonight.

With so many young people choosing not to go into medicine, so many veteran physicians choosing to get out or losing heart because their ability to earn an income is going down, how do you expect this nation to attract, to continue to attract quality people to medicine, Senator?


SEN. OBAMA: We need to deal with the insurance companies. On Medicare and Medicaid, the reimbursement system is not working the way it should. And by the way, instituting a universal health care system that emphasizes prevention will free up dollars that potentially then can go to reimbursing doctors a little bit more, but we've got to deal with the cost of medical education. We have to deal with college costs generally. And that's why I've put forward proposals to get banks and middlemen out of the process and expand national service to encourage young people to go into these helping professions where we need a lot more (work ?).


MR. WILLIAMS: Governor -- Governor, thank you.

Senator Obama, a question to you. More than one columnist covering the field of transportation has compared our current commercial aviation business to Aeroflot in the old Soviet Union. One writer said, hold on, that's insulting to Aeroflot. They have raised their service.

The question to you is: How did this country get into a state where point to point air travel is no longer truly dependable? But more important, what would you be truly willing to do as president to fix it?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, this is a problem that's been building for a long time. The airlines got into trouble after deregulation, and it has continued and compounded. And they have now tried to make more money, and they're seeing better solvency, but they've done it on the backs of consumers. And anybody who's flying commercial knows that service has gone down and deteriorated further and further and further.

So as president of the United States, we have to look at making sure that there's enough airport capacity. We've got to place, potentially, some restrictions on some flights and encourage airlines to deal with the problems of remote areas that are having difficulty, in terms of making connections.

But this is going to require the kind of leadership that we have not seen from this president not just on transportation in the airlines industry, but in transportation generally. We haven't seen that kind of commitment on --


SEN. OBAMA: -- Amtrak -- I'm sorry; I didn't realize this was the lightning round.

MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Yeah, sorry, the rules --

SEN. OBAMA: But generally speaking, this president has failed on this issue. We've got to keep -- we have to make much bigger progress than we've done.


MR. WILLIAMS: New subject.

Senator Edwards, you have young children. As you know, the Internet can be a bit of a cultural Wild West. Assuming a lot of homes don't have parental support, would you be in favor of any government guidelines on Internet content?

MR. EDWARDS: For children and try to protect children and using technology to protect children? I would.

I want to add something that Chris Dodd just said a minute ago, because I don't want it to go unnoticed. Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago, and I think this is a real issue for the country.

I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them. Because what we've had for seven years is double-talk from Bush and from Cheney, and I think America deserves us to be straight.

MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, why are you nodding your head?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I was confused on Senator Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it or against it, and I do think that is important. You know, one of the things that we have to do in this country is to be honest about the challenges that we face.

Immigration is a difficult issue. But part of leadership is not just looking backwards and seeing what's popular, or trying to gauge popular sentiment. It's about setting a direction for the country, and that's what I intend to do as president.

MR. WILLIAMS: Are you for it or against it?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that it is a -- the right idea. And I disagree with Chris, because there is a public safety concern. We can make sure that drivers who are illegal come out of the shadows, that they can be tracked, that they are properly trained, and that will make our roads safer. That doesn't negate the need for us to reform illegal immigration.


MR. RUSSERT: I want to see -- (laughter) -- I'm going to ask Senator Obama a question in the same line.

The three astronauts of Apollo 11 who went to the moon back in 1969 all said that they believe there is life beyond Earth. Do you agree?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I don't know, and I don't presume to know. What I know is there is life here on Earth -- (laughter) -- and -- and that we're not attending to life here on Earth. We're not taking care of kids who are alive and, unfortunately, are not getting health care. We're not taking care of senior citizens who are alive and are seeing their heating prices go up. So as president, those are the people I will be attending to first. (Laughter.) There may be some other folks on their way. (Applause, laughs.)

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