updated 1/19/2009 1:44:30 PM ET 2009-01-19T18:44:30

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett says the U.S. is engaged in an "economic Pearl Harbor."

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In an interview that aired Sunday on "Dateline NBC," the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. said the nation's economic situation is not as bad at World War II or the Great Depression, but it's still pretty severe.

Buffett said Americans are in a cycle of fear, "which leads to people not wanting to spend and not wanting to make investments, and that leads to more fear. We'll break out of it. It takes time."

Buffett's interview centered on President-elect Barack Obama and the tough task he faces in fixing the U.S. economy.

"You couldn't have anybody better in charge," the Omaha resident said of Obama, who'll be sworn into office on Tuesday.

As one of Obama's economic advisers, Buffett said the president-elect listens to what his advisers say, but ultimately comes up with better ideas.

He predicted that Obama will be able to convey the severity of the economic situation to the American people and explain their part in alleviating it.

As to how long the crisis would continue, Buffett said he didn't know.

"It's never paid to bet against America," he said. "We come through things, but it's not always a smooth ride."

Omaha-based Berkshire owns a diverse mix of more than 60 companies, including insurance, furniture, carpet, jewelry, restaurants and utility businesses. And it has major investments in such companies as Wells Fargo & Co. and Coca-Cola Co.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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