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Today, the graying president runs with all the advantages of incumbency, and all the encumbrances of a record -- dogged by a sluggish recovery and chronically high unemployment.
For nearly two years now, a Republican House has blocked almost every initiative he's offered.
His signature domestic achievements -- rescuing the auto industry and reforming healthcare -- remain controversial. Yet six weeks before the election, President Obama maintains a small lead in the polls.
We spoke on September 12th in the White House Blue Room.
Steve Kroft: Mr. President, you were elected four years ago, promising hope and change for the better. Your opponent argues that you have achieved neither. The country has rarely been so divided politically. And people are afraid for their jobs. I know you know that. People are fearful about the future for their families. How do you respond to that?
President Barack Obama: I think it's important to know where we've been and how far we've traveled. The month I was sworn into office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. We ultimately would lose nine million jobs during the height of that great recession. We came in, made some tough decisions. Everything from stabilizing the financial system to making sure that the auto industry survived, to making sure that we cut taxes for middle class families so they had more money in their pockets, to helping states avoid massive layoffs of teachers and firefighters and police officers. And because of that, we've now had 30 months of job growth, four and a half million new jobs, half a million jobs in manufacturing alone. And the question now for the American people is, "Do we keep moving forward and continue to make progress or do we go backwards to the very policies that got us into this mess in the first place?" We probably have not seen a clearer choice in an election in my lifetime.
Kroft: On the campaign trail, Gov. Romney has been portraying you as a nice guy who doesn't have a clue about the economy or how the country works. That private enterprise is the engine of growth in this country. And that's what creates jobs, not big government. And that you're crushing economic freedom with taxes, regulations, and high-cost health care.
Obama: Well, it's a lot of rhetoric, but there aren't a lot of facts supporting it. Taxes are lower on families than they've been probably in the last 50 years. So I haven't raised taxes. I've cut taxes for middle class families by an average of $3,600 per typical family. When it comes to regulations, I've issued fewer regulations than my predecessor, George Bush, did during that same period in office. So it's kind of hard to argue that we've overregulated. Now, I don't make any apologies for putting in place regulations to make sure banks don't make reckless bets and then expect taxpayers to bail them out. I don't make any apologies for regulating insurance companies, so that they can't drop a family's coverage, just when somebody in their family needs it most. And, you know, the problem that Gov. Romney has is that he seems to only have one note: tax cuts for the wealthy and rolling back regulations as a recipe for success. Well, we tried that vigorously between 2001 and 2008. And it didn't work out so well.
Kroft: Your opponent, Gov. Romney, has another note. That's unemployment. Forty-three months above eight percent. Huge profits on Wall Street. You've got the stock market that's doing incredibly well. And yet you've still got this unemployment.
Obama: Oh, absolutely. Well look, nobody's more concerned about the employment situation than I am. The problem we have was the hole was so deep when we got in it that we lost nine million jobs. We've created four point six. We've still got a long way to go. Now I've put forward very specific plans that we know would create jobs. And that's not my opinion. That's the opinion of independent economists. My JOBS Act that I presented to Congress over a year ago, we said, "Let's help put folks back to work. Let's make sure that we are getting construction workers on the job, rebuilding our infrastructure." It's estimated that would create an additional million jobs right now. But we haven't seen full implementation of that plan.
Kroft: You've tried things that haven't worked. I mean, the jobs plan, the jobs bill -- you haven't been able to get it through Congress.
Obama: Well Steve...
Kroft: I mean, isn't that some of your responsibility?
Obama: I take full responsibility for everything that we do, Steve. But you're asking two different questions. You're asking question, number one, have I been able to get every plan that would work through a Republican Congress that said it's number one priority was beating me as opposed to helping the American people? And there is no doubt that I've been disappointed in trying to get more cooperation from those folks. And that's something that we're going to have to continue to do. The second question you're asking, though, is has what we've done worked? And the fact of the matter is that what we've done has been effective in improving the situation in every area that we're talking about. You know, when I made the decision to save the auto industry, that saved a million jobs. One in eight jobs in Ohio is dependent on the auto industry. So we've actually seen success.
Kroft: How are you going to get the Republicans to agree to a tax increase for the top two percent? You've been trying for a year. You haven't been able to do it. And you've got a majority of Republicans in Congress, including Gov. Romney, who has signed a pledge never to increase taxes under any circumstances.
Obama: Yeah, well, we--
Kroft: How are you going to get them to change their minds and make this deal?
Obama: I won't get them to-- make them change their minds. The American people will. I mean, ultimately, the American people agree with me that the only way we bring down our deficit is to do it in a balanced way. So, keep in mind, I've agreed with the Republicans. And we've already cut a trillion dollars of spending. And I've told them I'm prepared to do additional spending cuts and do some entitlement reform. But what I've said is, "You can't ask me to make student loans higher for kids who need it or ask seniors to pay more for their Medicare or throw people off of health care and not ask somebody like me or Mr. Romney to do anything, not ask us to do a single dime's worth of sacrifice."
Kroft: How are you going to make a deal? Why can't you -- Why haven't you been able to make a deal?
Obama: Well, be--
Kroft: And why do you think you will be able to make a deal?
Obama: When I first came into office, the head of the Senate Republicans say, "My number one priority is making sure President Obama's a one term president." Now, after the election, either he will have succeeded in that goal or he will have failed at that goal. Either way, my expectation is, my hope is, that that's no longer their number one priority. And I'm hoping that after the smoke clears and the election season's over that that spirit of cooperation comes more to the fore.
Kroft: You came in running as an outsider, somebody who was going to change Washington. Do you still believe after three years in this gridlock that we've had that - that somebody who claims to be an outsider can get things accomplished in Washington?
Obama: Oh, yeah, look, I mean, we passed historic legislation that strengthened our financial regulations. We passed historic legislation that will not only provide 30 million more people coverage, but also insures that you know, kids can stay on their parents' health insurance plans until they are 26 and seniors have lower prescription drugs. And so change has happened and positive change for the American people. I'm the first one to confess that the spirit that I brought to Washington, that I wanted to see instituted, where we weren't constantly in a political slugfest, but were focused more on problem solving that, you know, I haven't fully accomplished that. Haven't even come close in some cases. And you know, if you ask me what's my biggest disappointment is that we haven't changed the tone in Washington as much as I would have liked.
Kroft: And you don't bear any responsibility for that?
Obama: Oh, I think that-- you know-- as president I bear responsibility for everything, to some degree and one of the things I've realized over the last two years is that that only happens if I'm enlisting the American people much more aggressively than I did the first two years.
Kroft: The great recession began with the housing crisis. We still have the housing crisis. The banks got bailed out. The homeowners didn't. That was one of the decisions that you made. Very few homeowners have gotten mortgage relief. And your efforts to get the banks and the mortgage companies to renegotiate loans and modify terms have been underwhelming, to say the least. What happened?
Obama: We have helped several million homeowners avoid foreclosure and make sure that the terms of their mortgage were ones that they could pay. Not everything you do right off the bat -- when you've got emergencies here, there, and everywhere, and we're all putting out fires -- not everything's going to work perfectly the first time. So, for example, the housing mortgage assistance program that we put into place, we modified when we saw that there wasn't as much take-up as we wanted. And since that time, we've actually seen that the rates of people utilizing it go up dramatically. We still have a long way to go. But this is in contrast to Gov. Romney's proposal. When asked about what we should do with the housing market, he said, "Just let it bottom out." That's a quote. So he was opposed to even the modest proposals that we put into place.
While most of our White House interview involved domestic policies, the president's day was dominated by foreign affairs. The attack on the Libyan consulate that left the U.S. ambassador and three others dead had occurred the night before and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had inserted himself into the presidential campaign, criticizing the president and pushing him to lay out conditions for a military attack against Iran.
Kroft: How much pressure have you been getting from Prime Minister Netanyahu to make up your mind to use military force in Iran?
Obama: Well, look, I have conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu all the time. And I understand and share Prime Minister Netanyahu's insistence that Iran should not obtain a nuclear weapon because it would threaten us, it would threaten Israel and it would threaten the world and kick off a nuclear arms race.
Kroft: You don't feel any pressure from Prime Minister Netanyahu in the middle of a campaign to try and get you to change your policy and draw a line in the sand? You don't feel any pressure?
Obama: When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what's right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that's out there. Now I feel an obligation, not pressure but obligation, to make sure that we're in close consultation with the Israelis on these issues because it affects them deeply. They're one of our closest allies in the region. And we've got an Iranian regime that has said horrible things that directly threaten Israel's existence.
Kroft: Have the events that took place in the Middle East, the recent events in the Middle East given you any pause about your support for the governments that have come to power following the Arab Spring?
Obama: Well, I'd said even at the time that this is going to be a rocky path. The question presumes that somehow we could have stopped this wave of change. I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy, universal rights, a notion that people have to be able to participate in their own governance. But I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road because, you know, in a lot of these places, the one organizing principle has been Islam. The one part of society that hasn't been controlled completely by the government. There are strains of extremism, and anti-Americanism, and anti-Western sentiment. And, you know, can be tapped into by demagogues. There will probably be some times where we bump up against some of these countries and have strong disagreements, but I do think that over the long term we are more likely to get a Middle East and North Africa that is more peaceful, more prosperous and more aligned with our interests.
Obama [Golden, Colo., Sept. 13, 2012]: This is a tumultuous time that we're in. But we can and we will meet those challenges if we stay true to who we are.
The day after our White House interview, we followed the president to the suburbs of Denver, Colo., a crucial swing state in the upcoming election, to ask a few more questions central to the campaign.
Kroft: Most Americans think we're spending too much money. The national debt has gone up 60 percent in the four years that you've been in office.
Obama: First of all, Steve, I think it's important to understand the context here. When I came into office, I inherited the biggest deficit in our history. And over the last four years, the deficit has gone up, but 90 percent of that is as a consequence of two wars that weren't paid for, as a consequence of tax cuts that weren't paid for, a prescription drug plan that was not paid for, and then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Now we took some emergency actions, but that accounts for about 10 percent of this increase in the deficit, and we have actually seen the federal government grow at a slower pace than at any time since Dwight Eisenhower. In fact, substantially lower than the federal government grew under either Ronald Reagan or George Bush.
Kroft: Since the Benghazi tragedy, your opponent has attacked you as being weak on national defense and weak on foreign policy. He says you need to be more aggressive in Iran, haven't done enough to support the revolt in Syria, and that our friends don't know where we stand, and our enemies think we're weak.
Obama: Well, let's see what I've done since I came into office. I said I'd end the war in Iraq. I did. I said that we'd go after al Qaeda. They've been decimated in the Fatah. That we'd go after bin Laden. He's gone. So I've executed on my foreign policy. And it's one that the American people largely agree with. So if Gov. Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so.
We'll be back with President Obama and Gov. Romney in a moment.
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Kroft: What are the essential qualities of a leader, in your mind?
Obama: Well, you know, I think that leadership more than anything is about setting a course and describing a vision for people. And you know, in the history of leadership in this country that vision isn't always realized immediately. You know, Abraham Lincoln understood that we were a single union. And it took a bloody Civil War and terrible hardship and sacrifice to achieve that vision. And that vision wasn't even fully realized until after he was gone. What I try to do is to constantly present a vision of America in which everybody's got a shot, everybody's treated with respect and dignity in which the divides of race and faith, gender, sexual orientation, that those are not the determining factors, in terms of whether people succeed but instead it's how hard you work and are you trustworthy and are you responsible and you-- do you look after your family and do you love people and love this country?
Kroft: David McCullough the noted presidential historian said all the great presidents have had a number of common traits. And one of them is an understanding of history and an understanding of the history of the presidency. Is there anything that you've read or learned from your study of this area that has helped you? Any examples you can give me?
Obama: Well whenever I look at the history of presidents. I deeply admire-- the one thing that I'm always struck by is persistence. It's a quality that's underrated. Being able to plough through, being able to stay buoyant in the face of challenges. And, you know, I think that's a characteristic of the American people. And, I think our best presidents are able to tap into that resilience and that strength and that grit. And be inspired by it.
Kroft: Where do you go to kind of sort things out on your own? And when do you find time to just be alone with your own thoughts?
Obama: Well, I'm a night guy as it is. And so, Michelle usually goes to bed about 9:30. She's an early bird, maybe 10:00. The girls go to bed around 10:00. And so I've got those hours between 10:00 and 1:00 in the morning, let's say, where not only do I do some work, but I do some reading, I do some writing.
There are times where I sit out on the Truman Balcony and it's as good of a view as you get with the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Monument-- Memorial set back behind that. And so those are moments of reflection that, you know, help gird you for the next challenge and the next day.
Kroft: Many times in our history there have been big ideas like going to the moon or the Marshall Plan. This campaign some people think has been devoid of big ideas, not necessarily that the budget deficit and some of these things aren't big ideas. But what would you like to see happen in your four years?
Obama: Yeah, I gotta tell you, Steve, I think there's no bigger purpose right now than making sure that if people work hard in this country, they can get ahead. That's the central American idea. That's how we sent a man to the moon. Because there was an economy that worked for everybody and that allowed us to do that. I think what Americans properly are focused on right now are just the bread-and-butter basics of making sure our economy works for working people. And if we can accomplish that, there's no bigger idea than that. That's the idea that has attracted people to our shores for generations.
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