Video: Interview with President Obama

  1. Transcript of: Interview with President Obama

    DAVID GREGORY: Mr. President, welcome back to Meet the Press .

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Great to see you.

    DAVID GREGORY: This is a critical moment in the health care debate. And you've been able to assess the landscape. You've got a bill now that's working its way through the Senate . You've spoken to congress. As you assess the situation I wonder whether -- you approach this with a minimum threshold of what you'll accept for reform? Or at this point have you said, "I've laid out my plan. Take it all or nothing"?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know -- I -- I think that -- my focus is on some core principles. I have to have a plan that is good for middle class families who we know last year ended up seeing a 5 percent increase in their premiums, even though inflation was actually negative on everything else. That have seen a doubling of their premiums over the last decade. That are less secure than ever in terms of the insurance they can actually count on. And more and more of 'em can't get insurance because of preexisting conditions, or they changed jobs, or they lost jobs.

    So it's gotta be good for them. Now, the principles that we've talked about, making sure that there's an insurance exchange that allow people to buy in and get health insurance and negotiate as a big pool to drive down costs. Making sure that -- we have insurance reforms that make sure you can still get health insurance even if you've got a preexisting condition and cap out of pocket expenses and so forth. Those core things that make insurance a better deal for American consumers.

    Making sure that it's deficit neutral both now and in the future. Making sure that its driving down -- health care inflation so that we can actually deal with our long-term budget deficits . Those are the core principles that are critical to me.

    And I actually think that we've agreed to about 80 percent of that if you look at all the bills that are coming through all these committees. The key is now just to narrow those differences. And if I don't feel like it is a good deal for the American people , then I won't sign a bill.

    DAVID GREGORY: Those narrow differences can also, in some cases, be very big differences. And as you were president elect , last year, you said to the nation, "In light of the huge challenges that the country faces," you said -- "we're going to have to make hard choices. And not all of these choices are going to be popular." What are the hard choices that you are now asking the American people to make? And who are you gonna say no to -- in order to get health care done?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well -- I -- I've already made some -- pretty substantial changes in terms of how I was approaching health care . When I was --

    DAVID GREGORY: Like the public option. You effectively said to the left, "It's not gonna happen."

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well what I -- no, no, that's not true. What I -- what I've said is the public option, I think, should be a part of this but we shouldn't think that, somehow, that's the silver bullet that solves health care . What I've said, for example, on -- what's called an individual mandate. During the campaign I said, "Look, if -- health care is affordable, then I think people will buy it." So we don't have to say to -- to folks, "You know what? You have to buy health care ."

    And -- what -- when I talked to health care experts on both the left and the right what they tell me is that, even after you make health care affordable, there's still gonna be some folks out there who -- whether out of inertia, or they just don't want to but -- spend the money -- would rather take their chances.

    Unfortunately, what that means, is then you and I and every American out there who has health insurance , and are paying their premiums responsibly every month, they've gotta pick up the cost for -- emergency room care when one of those people gets sick. So what we've said as long as we're making this genuinely affordable to families then you've got an obligation to get health care just like you have an obligation to get auto insurance in every state.

    DAVID GREGORY: Are these the hard choices though? Who are you saying no to?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that -- that -- that -- I mean, that's an example of -- of a hard choice because -- that's not necessarily wildly popular. But it's the right thing to do. You know, I -- I have said -- that it is very important that we take into account the concerns of doctors and nurses who, by the way, support our efforts. And I -- and that's something that doesn't get noticed much.

    The people who are most involved in the health care system know that it's gotta be reformed. But I've said that we've gotta take into account their concerns about -- medical malpractice . Now, that's not popular in my party. Never has been. But I've talked to enough doctors to know that -- even though it's not -- the end all be all of driving down health care costs, it's very important -- to providers to make sure that -- their -- costs are going down.

    So -- I think there are gonna be a whole series of Republican ideas, ideas from my opponents during the campaign that we have incorporated and adopted. And this is hard. And -- and -- the -- you know, one of the things I've always said is if this had -- this had been easy, it would have been taken care of by Teddy Roosevelt .

    DAVID GREGORY: But you're not really taking on, I mean, you're not saying to the left they've got to accept malpractice reform, or -- or caps on -- on -- jury -- awards. You don't even think that that contributes to the escalating cost of health care . What are you -- what -- what are you really doing to say to the left, "Look, you may not like this, but you gotta get on board and we gotta do this"?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, listen, I -- I think I was awfully clear -- and -- and I'm surprised -- David , maybe you haven't been paying attention to what both the left and the right have been saying about my speech to Congress . I laid down some pretty clear parameters. And what I said was we're gonna take ideas from both sides.

    The bottom line is that the American people can't afford to stay on the current path. We know that. And that both sides are gonna have to give some. Everybody's gonna have to give some in order to get something done. We wouldn't have gotten this far if, you know, we hadn't been pretty insistent, including to folks in my own party, that we've gotta get past some of these ideological arguments to actually make something happen.

    DAVID GREGORY: This health care debate, as you well know, can sometimes be about bigger things. And -- and among your harshest critics is the view, somehow, that government is out of control. And, in some cases, it's gotten very personal. Your election, to a lot of people, was supposed to mark America somehow moving beyond race. And yet, this week you had former President Jimmy Carter saying most, not just a little, but most of this Republican opposition against you is motivated by racism. Do you agree with that?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: No. Look , I said, during the campaign, are there some people who still think through the prism of race when it comes to evaluating me and my candidacy? Absolutely. Sometimes they vote for me for that reason, sometimes they vote against me for that reason. I'm sure that was true during the campaign, I'm sure that's true now.

    But I think you actually put your finger on what this argument's really about. And it's an argument that's gone on for the history of this republic. And that is what's the right role of government? How do we balance freedom with our need to look after one another?

    I talked about this in the joint sessions speech. This is not a new argument. And it always invokes passions. And I -- it -- it was a passionate argument between Jefferson and Hamilton about this. You know, Andrew Jackson built a whole political party around this notion that somehow -- you know -- there -- there is populous outrage against -- a federal government that was over inclu -- intrusive.

    And -- and so what -- what I think is going on is that we've got a healthy debate taking place. The vast majority of people are conducting it in a very sensible way. I -- I think that every president who's tried to make significant changes along these lines, whether it was FDR or Ronald Reagan , elicit very strong passionate responses.

    But I do think that we all have an obligation to try to -- conduct this conversation in a civil way. And to -- recognize that each of us are patriots. That each of us are Americans . And that, by the way, the -- my proposals -- as much as you may not like them -- if you're -- a Republican, or on the right, recognize that this is well within the mainstream of what Americans have been talking about for years, in terms of making sure that everybody in this country gets decent health care . And that -- people who have health care are protected.

    DAVID GREGORY: Just to be clear though. It wasn't just President Carter. There are others in the Congressional Black Caucus . Other thinkers who have said that they agree. That there is racism out there in that opposition to you. I just want to be clear, are you -- are you saying to the former president and others, to speak this way is counterproductive?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look -- David , here's what I'm saying. I -- I -- I think that -- the media loves to have a conversation about race. I mean, the -- this is -- is catnip to -- to -- the media because it is a running thread in American history that's very powerful. And it invokes some very strong emotions.

    I'm not saying that race -- never matters in -- in any of these -- public debates that we have. What I'm saying is this debate that's taking place is not about race, it's about people being worried about -- how our government should operate.

    Now, I think a lot of those folks on the other side are wrong. I think that they have entirely mischaracterized the nature of our efforts. And I think it's important that we stay focused on solving problems as opposed to plucking out a sentence here or a comment there. And then the entire debate, which should be about how do we make sure middle class families have secure health care , doesn't get consumed by -- other things.

    DAVID GREGORY: In that vein, House Speaker Pelosi worried about the opposition, the tone of it, perhaps, leading to violence as it did in the 70s. There's more recent examples of antigovernment violence -- occurring even in the mid 90s. Do you worry about that?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look -- I think that we have an obligation in Washington , as leaders, to make sure that we are sending a strong message. That we can disagree without being disagreeable. Without -- you know, questioning each other's motives. When we start caricaturing the other side -- I think that's a problem.

    And -- unfortunately, we've got, as I've said before, a 24-hour news cycle where what gets you on the news is controversy. What gets you on the news is the extreme statement. The easiest way to get 15 minutes on the news, or your 15 minutes of fame, is to be rude.

    And that's -- that's -- something that I think has to change. And it starts with me. And I've tried to make sure that I've sent a clear signal. And I've tried to maintain an approach that says, look, we can have some serious disagreements but, at the end of the day, I'm assuming that you want the best for America just like I do.

    DAVID GREGORY: You get a lot of airtime too though, and your views are not rude, I don't think you'd say --

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, the -- I -- I -- I do occupy -- a pretty special seat at the moment. But -- but I do think that -- look I mean, let's face it, the -- if you look at the news cycle over the last -- over the last week -- you know, it -- it -- it hasn't been the -- the sensible people who, you know, very deliberately talk about the important issues that we face as a country. That's not the folks who've gotten a lot of coverage.

    DAVID GREGORY: Let me ask you about another important issue facing you and your administration, and that is Afghanistan . We've now been in Afghanistan for eight years. The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan after ten years. Are we committed to this war for an indefinite period of time? Or do you think, in your mind, is there a deadline for withdrawal?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: I don't have a deadline for withdrawal. But I'm certainly not somebody who believes in indefinite occupations of other countries. Keep in mind what happened when I came in. We had been adrift, I think, when it came to our Afghanistan strategy. And what I said was that we are going to do a top to bottom review of what's taking place there.

    Not just a one time review, but we're gonna do a review before the election in Afghanistan , and then we're gonna do another review after the election. And we are gonna see how this is fitting what, I think, is our core goal. Which is to go after the folks who killed the 3,000 Americans during 9/11, and who are still plotting to kill us, al Qaeda . How do we dismantle them, disrupt them, destroy them?

    Now, getting our strategy right in Afghanistan and in Pakistan are both important elements of that. But that's our goal. And I want to stay focused on that. And -- and so, right now, what's happened is that we've had an election in Afghanistan . It did not go as smoothly as I think we would have hoped. And there are some serious issues in terms of how that -- how the election was conducted in some parts of the country. But we've had that election. We now finally have the 21,000 troops in place that I had already ordered to go.

    DAVID GREGORY: Are you skeptical about more troops? About sending more troops?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, can I just say this? I am -- I have to exercise skepticism anytime I send a single young man or woman in uniform into harm's way. Because I'm the one who's answerable to their parents if they don't come home. So I have to ask some very hard questions anytime I send our troops in.

    The question that I'm asking right now is to our military, to General McChrystal , to General Petraeus , to all our national security apparatus, is -- whether it's troops who are already there, or any troop request in the future, how does this advance America 's national security interests? How does it make sure that al Qaeda and its extremist allies cannot attack the United States homeland, our allies, our troops who are based in Europe ?

    That's the question that I'm constantly asking because that's the primary threat that we went there to deal with. And if -- if supporting the Afghan national government , and building capacity for their army, and securing certain provinces advances that strategy, then we'll move forward.

    But, if it doesn't, then I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way -- you know, sending a message that America -- is here for -- for the duration. I think it's important that we match strategy to resources.

    What I'm not also gonna do, though, is put the resource question before the strategy question. Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy I'm not gonna be sending some young man or woman over there- beyond what we already have.

    DAVID GREGORY: On a lighter note, before I let you go, Mr. President, you were brazen this summer at the All Star game wearing your Chicago White Sox jacket out there to throw out the first pitch. Hate to break it to you, but doesn't look so good for your White Sox here. So I want to know who is your pick to win the World Series ?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know -- I am -- I think mathematically, the White Sox can still get in the playoffs.

    DAVID GREGORY: They can, mathematically. You're an optimist.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: So -- until they are eliminated, I will make no predictions.

    DAVID GREGORY: Oh, come on.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: I've got say, though, that the -- the Cardinals have been -- been coming on strong. And Pujols is unbelievable.


    PRESIDENT OBAMA: But -- this is tough to say. The Yankees are also doing pretty well. And a shout out to Derek Jeter for breaking Lou Gehrig 's record. He's -- he's a classic.

updated 9/20/2009 1:30:45 PM ET 2009-09-20T17:30:45

President Barack Obama sharply dismisses criticism that Russian opposition influenced his decision to scrap a European missile defense system, calling it merely a bonus if the leaders of Russia end up "a little less paranoid" about the U.S.

"My task here was not to negotiate with the Russians," Obama told CBS' "Face the Nation" in an interview for broadcast Sunday. "The Russians don't make determinations about what our defense posture is."

The president's comments were his first on the matter since he abruptly announced on Thursday that he was scuttling plans to deploy 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a related radar in the Czech Republic. That shield had been proposed under President George W. Bush.

Russia condemned it is a threat to its security despite years of U.S. assurances to the contrary.

In its place will be a different missile-defense plan relying on a network of sensors and interceptor missiles based at sea, on land and in the air. Obama says that adapts to the most pressing threat from Iran to U.S. troops and allies in Europe, potential attacks by short- and medium-range missiles.

Done to appease Russia?
Yet at home and abroad, Obama's decision immediately raised a political question of whether it was done in part to appease Russia and win its help in other areas, mainly in confronting the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran. That point was underscored when Russia lauded the change.

To Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, "This is going to be seen as a capitulation to the Russians, who had no real basis to object to what we were doing. And at the end of the day you empowered the Russians, you made Iran happy and you made the people in Eastern Europe wonder who we are as Americans."

In the CBS interview taped Friday, Obama was pressed on why he did not seek anything in exchange from Russia.

"Russia had always been paranoid about this, but George Bush was right. This wasn't a threat to them," Obama said. "And this program will not be a threat to them."

He added: "If the byproduct of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or nuclear development in Iran, you know, then that's a bonus."

Russia said Saturday that it will scrap a plan to deploy missiles near Poland since Obama dumped the planned missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin said Obama's move made the deployment of short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region unnecessary, and he called the U.S. president's decision a "victory of reason over ambitions."

Gates: U.S. not walking away from allies
Washington is counting on Moscow to help raise pressure on Tehran over its disputed nuclear program, although there are no clear signs that will happen.

Also Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asserted that the United States is not walking away from European allies to appease Russia.

"Russia's attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the president on this issue," Gates wrote in an essay in The New York Times. He said he would be surprised if Russia likes the replacement European missile defense plan much better.

Challenging Gates, Graham said, "If you are trying to tell me this has nothing to do with administration trying to get a better relationship with Russia, I don't believe you. What they did, in my view, undercut two good allies, the Poles and the Czech Republic."

Gates acknowledged that one criticism of the replacement plan is that it relies heavily on fresh intelligence about the Iranian missile threat. The U.S. now judges shorter-range missiles as a greater problem in the near term than the long-range missiles the old system was conceived to counter. But he suggested it would have been foolhardy to stick with a plan that had become obsolete before it was built.

"Having spent most of my career at the CIA, I am all too familiar with the pitfalls of over-reliance on intelligence assessments that can become outdated," wrote Gates, a former CIA director.

That system never moved past the blueprint stage, and would not have been fully fielded until at least 2017.

Part of the replacement system could be in place as soon as 2011, Gates said.

Graham appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."

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


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