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CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript


Location: Unknown


BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: All right, let's talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, issue number one. You are going to release a major new jobs program, you say, in September. Here's the question. What's taken so long?

OBAMA: Well, the truth is, everything we have done has been related to jobs, starting back with the Recovery Act. And that's the reason why we have seen over two million jobs created over the last 17 months in the private sector. But what's happened is that, number one, you have seen a lot of layoffs at state and local government. And that has been an impediment to the kind of robust job growth that we'd like to -- we'd like to see; and there have been some headwinds over the last six months, you know, Japan's tsunami, the European debt crisis, what happened in terms of the Arab Spring that raised gas prices for consumers, so...

BLITZER: So give us a preview what you're going to do in September.


OBAMA: Well, look, there are some things that we've been talking about on this trip that we could do right away that are already pending before Congress.

We know that what we did in December by cutting the payroll tax so that the average family gets an extra thousand dollars in their pocket makes a huge difference, not only for their purchasing power, but also businesses having more customers and being able to hire.

We've continued to renew tax breaks for businesses that are willing to move up investments that they're planning into 2011, and we'd like to renew some of those for 2012.

Trade deals with Korea and Panama and Colombia, we know can create tens of thousands of jobs here in the United States.

So there are a number of things that we've already got pending before Congress, and what I have been saying to crowds all across the country -- it's been getting a good reception -- is what they want to see is Democrats and Republicans putting country before party, and going ahead and taking action in terms of move the economy forward as quickly as possible.

BLITZER: But you've got something much more ambitious in mind for this September. There's been reports you want to create a new department of jobs, something along those lines. Is that true?

OBAMA: You know, that is not true.

But what is true is that I think we missed an opportunity a month ago when we could have dealt with our debt and deficit in a serious, balanced way that would have avoided these huge gyrations in the financial markets, given businesses a lot of confidence that Washington had its fiscal house in order, and included in that, because of the savings that we'd be getting over the next 10, 20 years, more efforts on the front end to spur job creation.

And given that Congress failed to act, the grand bargain that I was trying to cut with John Boehner didn't happen, we're going to take one more run at Congress, and we're going to say to them, look, here is a comprehensive approach that gets our debt and deficits under control and also accelerates job growth right now.

BLITZER: Is this an initiative you're going to give to the so- called super committee, or is this something separate from that?

OBAMA: Well, I hope the super committee takes its job seriously. And, obviously, there's an added sense of urgency, given how anxious I think businesses and consumers are after the debacle surrounding the debt ceiling.

But my attitude is that I'm going to make my best case for where we need to go. We've made progress since the start of this recession back in 2008. It hasn't been fast enough. We've got to accelerate it, and there are two things that need to happen.

Number one, we've got to make sure that people have confidence we've got our fiscal house in order and that we're living within our means, eliminating programs that don't work.

Number two, there's some immediate things we can do around infrastructure, tax policy, that would make a difference in terms of people hiring right now.

BLITZER: When you took office, you said this -- and I'm sure you remember -- you said, "If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition," meaning you're going to be a one-term president.

You remember that?

OBAMA: Well, here's what I remember, is that, when I came into office, I knew I was going to have a big mess to clean up. And, frankly, the mess has been bigger than I think a lot of people anticipated at the time.

We have made steady progress on these fronts, but we're not making progress fast enough. And what I continue to believe is that ultimately the buck stops with me. I'm going to be accountable. I think people understand that a lot of these problems were decades in the making. People understand that this financial crisis was the worst since the Great Depression. But, ultimately, they say, look, he's the president, we think he has good intentions, but we're impatient and we want to see things move faster.

And I understand that, I'm sympathetic to it, and we're going to just keep on putting forward ideas that are going to be good for the country. We're going to need a partner from Congress, and we're going to need folks to move off some of these rigid positions they have been taking in order to solve these problems.

BLITZER: I'm going to go through some specifics on that, but let's talk about some things that you need to do.

You, yourself, have said you support modest modifications in Medicare. Give me specifics.

OBAMA: Yes. Yes.

Well, what I'm going do -- I'm not going to make news here, Wolf, in terms of what a comprehensive plan would look like -- but what I have consistently said is that Medicare, health -- and health care costs generally are out of control, that the health reforms that we initiated are starting to reduce those costs, but we're going to have to do more, particularly around Medicare and Medicaid.

BLITZER: Changing the cost of living index?

OBAMA: What we -- what we...

BLITZER: ... which would reduce the amount of money for Medicare, Social Security recipients?

OBAMA: As much as possible, what we'd like to do is actually reduce the cost of health care, as opposed to just shifting the cost from the government to seniors. That -- that...


BLITZER: But a change in the cost of living, is that something you're open to?

OBAMA: The problem with some of the proposals we've seen, including some of the proposals coming out of the House of Representatives and the Republicans there, is they don't really address what they -- what it takes to reduce costs.

What they say is, senior citizens, we're going to voucherize it, and whatever inflation there is you're going to have to cover out of pocket. So seniors might have to spend $6,000 more.

What we say is, are there modifications that can change the delivery system and how health care is delivered so that you don't have to take five tests, you take one, so that providers are not ordering unnecessary procedures, but focusing on what actually works?

The more we can do those kinds of changes -- and, in some cases, you know, that involves empowering consumers to make better choices -- then we can hopefully control these costs without seeing any radical change to the basic structure of Medicare.

BLITZER: Why don't you support a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution?

OBAMA: Well, I support balancing our budget. The question is, do we need to change our Constitution to do it? We didn't for a lot of years.

And what we've always said was that the federal government needs, as a actor of last resort, if we've got a war, if we've got a recession, to be able to step in, in ways that states or local governments can't do.

BLITZER: Couldn't you write language into that so that, in case of an emergency, a war, there would be exempt -- exceptions?

OBAMA: I guess here's the question, is, why can't Congress simply make good choices? Why can't the president and Congress, working together, get a handle on our debt and deficits?

Why do we need to go through a constitutional amendment process and have a whole bunch of contortions and try to write in every single contingency that might come up, instead of simply saying the same thing that families all across Iowa and all across the country do, which is, you know what, here's how much money we're bring in, here's how much we're spending, and if it's out of balance, let's fix it?

BLITZER: It's clear Congress can't do that. That's why they need -- the argument is. Seventy-four percent, according to our own CNN/ORC poll, want a balanced budget amendment.

OBAMA: You know, here's my suspicion. I think 100 percent of the American people want Congress to act responsibly. A hundred percent of the people want us to make sensible choices.

We don't need to amend our Constitution in order to do that. What we need is folks acting responsibly and saying here's a balanced package that would actually get our debt and our deficit to a manageable place.

And here's the thing, Wolf, is, it doesn't require that much. I mean, you know, our fiscal situation is so much stronger than so many countries around the world, including a lot of European countries. And the reason is, is because all we have to do is make some modest changes in terms of what we spend, and make some modest changes in terms of raising revenue, and we could get things into balance.

The problem we have is a political system in which you've got one side or the other that says, here's the line in the sand. We're not going to make any changes.

When I saw our Republican presidential primary candidates suggesting that they wouldn't be willing to close a single loophole or close a single special interest tax break, even if they were going to get $10 of savings for every $1 of revenue that raised, that is no longer thinking in a commonsense way. At that point, what you're saying is ideology rigidity that is preventing us from solving problems.

BLITZER: Because you keep saying that there are some in Congress -- and you don't say who -- some in Congress who are more interested in political gain than really helping the country.


BLITZER: Who do you mean by that?

OBAMA: Well, look, I think there is no doubt that the deal that I put forward to Speaker Boehner, which a lot of people in my party attacked me for, because they thought that we were going too far, we were being too generous in terms of trying to compromise, the fact that they couldn't accept a deal in which you had significantly more cuts than revenue, that would have done substantially more to close our deficit than the deal that ultimately we arrived at, the fact that Speaker Boehner and folks in his caucus couldn't say yes to that tells me that they're more interested in the politics of it than they are in solving the problem.

And I think -- to his credit, I think Speaker Boehner tried. I think he wanted to, but I think he had problems with members of his caucus that thought that somehow cooperation with this White House would help us politically, as opposed to thinking, what's going -- what's it going to take to help the country as a whole?


BLITZER: All right, there's much more, much more ahead with my interview with the president of the United States, including his response to his newest challenger, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who appeared to suggest -- maybe even more than appeared to suggest -- that U.S. troops really don't respect the commander in chief.


BLITZER: The race for the White House on the Republican side is certainly heating up here in Iowa, and so is the rhetoric. The newest contender, the Texas governor, Rick Perry, raised eyebrows with one rather controversial remark.

I asked President Obama about that as our interview continued.


BLITZER: Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, Republican presidential candidate now, says, the men and women of the United States military want someone who's worn the uniform. He says he served in the Air Force.

Do you see a comment like that that he makes, referring to you, as disrespectful to the commander in chief?

OBAMA: You know, Mr. Perry just got into the presidential race. And I think that everybody who runs for president, it probably takes them a little bit of time before they start realizing that this isn't like running for governor or running for senator or running for Congress, and you've got to be a little more careful about what you say.

But I will cut him some slack. He's only been at it for a few days now.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney says corporations are people. Does he have a point?

OBAMA: Well, if you tell me that corporations are vital to American life, that the free enterprise system has been the greatest wealth creator that we've ever seen, that their corporate CEOs and folks who are working in our large companies that are creating incredible products and services and that is all to the benefit of the United States of America, that I absolutely agree with.

If, on the other hand, you tell me that every corporate tax break that's out there is somehow good for ordinary Americans, that we have a tax code that's fair, that asking oil and gas companies, for example, not to get special exemptions that other folks don't get, and that if we're closing those tax loopholes, somehow, that that is going to hurt America, then that I disagree with.

And I think that, you know, corporations serve an important benefit, but ultimately we've got to look at what's good for ordinary people, you know, how do we create jobs, how do we create economic growth. And a lot of the special interest legislation we see in Washington isn't benefiting ordinary people.

BLITZER: What do you think of that Republican field lining up to challenge you?

OBAMA: You know, I haven't been giving it too much thought. I figure that I will let them winnow it down a little bit. When they -- when they decide who they want their standard bearer to be, then I will be ready for them.

BLITZER: I was in North Korea last December, and every time I raised the issue of hunger in North Korea, which is a huge problem, starvation, the North Korean handlers would say to me, well, what about hunger in America? One out of seven Americans, including a lot of children, are hungry, they would say.

And, in fact, last week, 46 million Americans now rely on food stamps, really, to survive. What does that say about the wealthiest country in the world, that 46 million Americans rely on food stamps in order to put food on the table?

OBAMA: Well, what is says is, first of all, we've had a terrible recession, and that means that's strained a lot of families' budgets, and so you've got a lot of folks who consider themselves middle-class working families who are going through a tough spot. That's why we have food stamp programs in place.

That's why it's important that we're not trying to reduce our budget deficit on the backs of those who are most in need. On the other hand, keep in mind that America is the world's breadbasket. Agricultural exports are incredibly important to the U.S. economy. We see the incredible bounty in places like Iowa here. And the problem we have is not that we don't have enough food, which is the problem in a place like North Korea. The problem is, is that the distribution of income and wealth in this country has been a problem for some time.

Wages and incomes for ordinary families have not gone up for the last decades, even before this last recession hit. And that's why it's so important, in addition to creating economic growth, in addition to seeing corporate profits go up, in addition to seeing the stock market go up, we've got to make sure that we're investing in people, investing in innovation, investing in infrastructure, doing those things that are going to put people back to work and give them more income, so that they can live the kind of American dream that all of us want for our kids and our grandkids.

BLITZER: I have covered the Middle East for a long time. I have covered terrorism for a long time. And I have to tell you, I'm worried, that on the 10th anniversary, approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11, al Qaeda, or what's left of al Qaeda or their supporters, will try to do something to seek revenge for your killing bin Laden.

How worried should we be about that? How worried are you about that?

OBAMA: Well, look, we are vigilant and constantly monitoring potential risks of terrorist attacks. And I think that the men and women in our intelligence agencies, as well as the FBI, have done a terrific job, and Department of Homeland Security.

But the risk is always there. And, obviously, on a seminal event like the 10th anniversary of 9/11, that makes us more concerned. It means we've got heightened awareness.

The biggest concern we have right now is not the launching of a major terrorist operation, although that risk is always there. The risk that we're especially concerned over right now is the lone wolf terrorist, somebody with a single weapon being able to carry out wide- scale massacres of the sort that we saw in Norway recently.

You know, when you've got one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage, and it's a lot harder to trace those lone wolf operators. So we're spending a lot of time monitoring and gathering information. I think that we generally have to stay vigilant. There may be a little extra vigilance during 9/11.

On the other hand, keep in mind the extraordinary progress we've made over the last couple years in degrading al Qaeda's capabilities. They are a much weaker organization with much less capability than they had just two or three years ago.

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying is we don't have to worry about a spectacular, 9/11 kind of event, more like a lone wolf can do some damage, kill a lot of people, but not a nuclear, radiological or anything like that?

OBAMA: Well, look, as president of the United States, I worry about all of it.

But I think the most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now ends up being more of a lone wolf operation than a large, well-coordinated terrorist attack. We still have to stay on top of it, though, and we're never letting our guard down. That's part of our job.

BLITZER: We're out of time, but a quick question.

If you're reelected -- the last time you were elected, you got Sasha and Malia a cute little puppy.



BLITZER: What are you going to get them the next time, if you're reelected?

OBAMA: When I'm reelected, what I will be getting them is a continuation of Secret Service so that when boys want to start dating them, they are going to be surrounded by men with guns. That's their gift.

BLITZER: I'm sure they're going to be thrilled about that.


BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks very much, sir. Good to see you in Iowa.

OBAMA: Appreciate you.

BLITZER: See you back in Washington.

OBAMA: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: I hope you'll be coming and joining me in my SITUATION ROOM.

OBAMA: I look forward to it.

BLITZER: And if you invite me to yours, I will be happy to come to yours as well. You can do that. You're the -- you're the president of the United States.

OBAMA: Thank you, Wolf. You can visit any time.

BLITZER: We're going to -- we're going to take you up on that.

OBAMA: Just you can't bring cameras. That's the only difference.

BLITZER: I will come by myself. Thank you.

OBAMA: OK. All right.


BLITZER: Before I sat down with my one-on-one interview with the president, we had a chance to speak informally. And the president spoke candidly about the best part of his job and the worst.


BLITZER: How do you feel, first of all?

OBAMA: Well, we've had two incredible days.

First of all, the weather has been perfect. It's nice getting out of Washington. But what's been most important has been the chance to just talk to ordinary folks, reminding you how wonderful, decent, hardworking, responsible people are out here.

They are clearly frustrated with what's going on in Washington. They understand that the economy is tough, and what they're hoping for is everybody pulling together to get things done.

And it's a -- it's a real affirmation of the American spirit, and it fills me up with a lot of good feeling that I hopefully can take back to Washington.

BLITZER: You know, you've have aged...

OBAMA: I have.

BLITZER: ... over these past three years or so. You know, you've got a little more gray hair.

OBAMA: Some people, some old friends who I have been seeing around here, have reminded me that when I was a young senator traveling through Iowa that I looked a little younger than I do now.

BLITZER: We're going to show our viewers a picture of what you looked like in Des Moines at the end of October 2008 and what you look like now. And you know what? I might go back to 2004 to the Democratic Convention in Boston.


BLITZER: You still like being president of the United States?

OBAMA: It's the greatest job on Earth. Obviously, we are going through a lot of challenges right now. And when you're president of the United States, you feel accountable and responsible for every single thing that happens.

If there is a flood somewhere, if there is a tornado, if somebody is losing their job, at some level, you feel responsible and you want to make sure that you are doing right by the American people. But the incredible privilege of being able to work with so many talented folks, to meet so many wonderful people all across the country, nothing compares to...


BLITZER: What's the best part?

OBAMA: The best part is the kinds of things that I have been doing today.

You go into a diner and you sit down and talk to people and you hear their life stories. And every once in a while, they'll say, you know what, my kid has hemophilia and was about to lose his insurance until you passed your health care bill and it's really helping us, or a small business owner says, you know, I got started because the SBA got in there and took a chance on them -- on me.

When you hear that some of the policies you put in place had actually made concrete differences in people's lives, nothing is more gratifying than that.

BLITZER: And the worst part?

OBAMA: The worst part is when you -- when you are talking to a family member of a fallen soldier and you are hugging them.

On the one hand, you hope that you're making them feel a little bit better. At the same time, you are reminded of the incredible sacrifices that people are making for our country. And then, when you see sometimes our politics not living up to that level of commitment and patriotism that we see from our troops, that gets a little bit of frustration.

BLITZER: And you -- do you get emotional in those meetings?

OBAMA: Oh, absolutely.

It -- you know, for a mother or father who've lost a loved one, that's always the toughest thing about the job.

BLITZER: And you have to say to yourself, you know what, I sent those young men and women off to war.

OBAMA: At some -- at some level, I'm responsible.

And it's a sobering reminder that every single decision we make in the White House counts and is making a difference in people's lives. And there are times where they will keep you up at night. No wonder I have got more gray hair now.


A quick question. You know, Washington, I have been there a long time...

OBAMA: Right.

BLITZER: ... a lot longer than you've been there.

OBAMA: Right.

BLITZER: When we spoke here end of 2008, hope and change.

OBAMA: Yes. Right.

BLITZER: You know what I see in Washington still to this day?

OBAMA: More of the same.

BLITZER: The same old, same old. A lot of bickering, back stabbing.

OBAMA: Maybe a little worse.

BLITZER: Name call -- why?

OBAMA: I think what has happened, you know, there are a lot of theories about this. Part of it is you have these congressional districts that are now so Democratic or so Republican that people don't feel like they need to move to the center and try to find some common ground. They dig in their heels. They are more worried about a primary fight coming from their own party. That contributes to it.

Some of it, frankly, Wolf, is I think the media has changed. It's much more splintered. You don't have the entire population watching Walter Cronkite and hearing one source of news. Now everybody is kind of going off into their respective corners.

And look, when the economy is tough and people are anxious, I think contributes maybe to a little more polarization. But what I know is that when I leave Washington, and I talk to folks out here. You know, I have had a number of conversations with people who come up and say you know what, I'm a Republican. I don't agree with everything you are doing, but I know you are trying to do your best for the country and I'm rooting for you. I'm praying for you. That kind of attitude that says, we are more concerned about the country winning that we are about winning the next election. If that kind of spirit is infused in Washington, I think we are going to be just fine


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