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Meet the Press Transcript - September 7, 2014

MEET THE PRESS -- SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2014

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday on Meet the Press, my exclusive interview with President Obama on the ISIS threat.

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

The next phase is now to start going on some offense.

CHUCK TODD:

On why he's delaying action on immigration.

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

When I take executive action, I want to make sure that it's sustainable.

CHUCK TODD:

On the political fight.

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

Give me a loyal opposition that has some common sense.

CHUCK TODD:

And struggling with the theatrics of the presidency.

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

It's not something that always comes naturally to me.

CHUCK TODD:

Plus, who needs Washington? Cities around the country are making significant change. I'll ask three mayors what they're doing right and what Washington needs to learn. And the battle for the Senate. New, exclusive poll numbers that remind us just when we think we know what's going on, everything can change. It's a packed Sunday, I'm Chuck Todd.

And joining me to provide insight and analysis are NBC's Joe Scarborough, Nia-Malika Henderson of The Washington Post, NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, NBC national security analyst Michael Leiter, I've got Buzzfeed's John Stanton, and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. Welcome to Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, this is Meet the Press.

CHUCK TODD:

And good morning. Obviously it's a pretty big honor for me to be sitting in this chair as the 12th moderator of the program, following in the footsteps of the likes of Martha Rountree, Lawrence Spivak, Tim Russert, and of course, David Gregory. And as you can see, we're making a few changes around here.

As I like to say, we're living in a house as we remodel it. So the program and this studio will continue to evolve over the coming months. But what better way to start off on my first show than with an exclusive sit-down with the president of the United States.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD (Voiceover):

To say it's been a long, hot summer for President Obama is quite an understatement. The brutal rise of ISIS and Iraq and Syria and their execution of two Americans journalists triggered U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. And the president inviting criticism when he made this frank admission:

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

We don't have a strategy yet.

CHUCK TODD (Voiceover):

More criticism came when he went golfing shortly after condemning James Foley's murder. All this contributing to a sense the world is spinning out of the president's control. At home, the president's approval ratings have hit all-time lows. And many Democrats are desperate to distance themselves from the White House. All this hanging over his head, yesterday I sat down with the president in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. President, welcome back to your 12th appearance on Meet the Press.

PRES. OBAMA:

Great to see you.

CHUCK TODD:

Thanks for doing this. We start with a very basic question. Are you preparing the country to go back to war?

PRES. OBAMA:

I'm preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL. Keep in mind that this is something that we know how to do. We've been dealing with terrorist threats for quite some time. This administration has systematically dismantled Al Qaeda in the FATA.

ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria. But the good news is coming back from the most recent NATO meeting is the entire international community understands that this is something that has to be dealt with.

So what I have done over the last several months is, first and foremost, make sure that we got eyes on the problem, that we shifted resources, intelligence, reconnaissance. We did an assessment on the ground. The second step was to make sure that we protected American personnel, our embassies, our consulates. That included taking air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.

The next phase is now to start going on some offense. We have to get an Iraqi government in place. And I'm optimistic that next week, we should be able to get that done. And I will then meet with congressional leaders on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I'll make a speech and describe what our game plan's going to be going forward.

But this is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops. This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war. What this is is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we've been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years. And the good news is is that because of American leadership, we have I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem.

CHUCK TODD:

What are you asking of the American people on Wednesday? You say you're giving a speech. That's the type of thing, I assume, you're preparing the country for something. What are you asking of them?

PRES. OBAMA:

I just want the American people to understand the nature of the threat and how we're going to deal with it and to have confidence that we'll be able to deal with it.

CHUCK TODD:

you're giving that speech the day before the 13th anniversary of 9/11.

PRES. OBAMA:

But right. And I--I want everybody to understand that we have not seen any immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL. That's not what this is about. What it's about is an organization that, if allowed to control significant amounts of territory, to amass more resources, more arms to attract more foreign fighters, including from areas like Europe, who have Europeans who have visas and then can travel to the United States unimpeded, that over time, that can be a serious threat to the homeland.

So what I'm going to be ask-- asking the American people to understand is, number one, this is a serious threat. Number two, we have the capacity to deal with it. Here's how we're going to deal with it. I am going to be asking Congress to make sure that they understand and support what our plan is. And it's going to require some resources, I suspect, above what we are currently doing in the region--

CHUCK TODD:

This is asking Congress for a vote, an authorization of your strategy. This is not a what-- what does that mean?

PRES. OBAMA:

Well, I-- I-- I'm confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people. And I'm always going to do what's necessary to protect the American people. But I do think it's important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy in, to debate it.

And that's why we've been consulting with Congress throughout. And this speech will allow Congress, I think, to understand very clearly and very specifically what it is that we are doing but also what we're not doing. We're not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops.

We are going to be as part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops. We are going to be helping to put together a plan for them, so that they can start retaking territory that ISIL had taken over.

What I want people to understand, though, is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em.

CHUCK TODD:

Long way, long way from when you described them as a JV team.

PRES. OBAMA:

Well, I--

CHUCK TODD:

Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?

PRES. OBAMA:

Keep-- keep-- keep in mind I wasn't specifically referring to ISIL. I've said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally. Weren't focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11. And the point that I was--

CHUCK TODD:

You don't believe these people--

PRES. OBAMA:

Not yet. But they-- they can evolve. And I was very specific at that time. What I said was, not every regional terrorist organization is automatically a threat to us that would call for a major offensive. Our goal should not be to think that we can occupy every country where there's a terrorist organization.

CHUCK TODD:

You've not said the word, "Syria," so far in our conversation. Obviously, if you're going to defeat ISIS, you have used very much stronger language. It's gone through the week during your trip to Wales. You have got to go to Syria in some form or another.

You've ruled out boots on the ground. And I'm curious, have you only ruled them out simply for domestic political reasons? Or is there another reason you've ruled out American boots on the ground? Because your own-- your own guys have said, "You can't defeat ISIS with air strikes alone."

PRES. OBAMA:

Well, they're absolutely right about that. But you also cannot, over the long term or even the medium term, deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East. We don't have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again. So we--

CHUCK TODD:

Like what happened in Iraq.

PRES. OBAMA:

--so-- so we've gotta have a more sustainable strategy, which means the boots on the ground have to be Iraqi.

CHUCK TODD:

What about boots--

PRES. OBAMA:

And-- and in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian. And that's why--

CHUCK TODD:

Who?

PRES. OBAMA:

Well-- we have a Free Syrian Army and a moderate opposition that we have steadily been working with that we have vetted. They have been on the defensive, not just from ISIL, but also from the Assad regime. The strategy both for Iraq and for Syria is that we will hunt down ISIL members and assets wherever they are. I will-- reserve the right to always protect the American people and go after folks who are trying to hurt us wherever they are.

But in terms of controlling territory, we're going to have to develop-- a moderate Sunni opposition that can control territory and that we can work with. The notion that the United States should be putting boots on the ground, I think-- would be a profound mistake. And-- I want to be very clear and very explicit about that.

CHUCK TODD:

I-- I got a somewhat snarky email from-- from-- a casual viewer who said, "The United States gives a lotta military aid to Saudi Arabia. It's about time they use it." What do you say to that?

PRES. OBAMA:

Well, I think that it is absolutely true that we're going to need Sunni states to step up-- not just Saudi Arabia, our partners like Jordan, United-- Arab Emirates-- Turkey. They need to be involved. This is their neighborhood. The dangers that are posed-- are-- are more directed at them right now than they are us.

And the good news is, I think, for the f-- perhaps the first time, we have absolute clarity that the problem for Sunni states in the region, many of whom are our allies, is not simply Iran. It's not simply a Sunni-Shia issue. Sunni extremism, as represented by ISIL, is the biggest danger that they face right now.

CHUCK TODD:

Assad essentially putting-- putting aside that priority that Assad must go, because ISIS is a more direct threat?

PRES. OBAMA:

You know-- the reason we're in this s-- situation is because-- Assad-- brutalized his people and specifically brutalized the Sunni pop-- population that is the majority in Syria. It's going to be hard for us to attract Sunnis to fight against ISIL in this area if they think that we're doing it on behalf of Assad.

So-- our attitude towards Assad continues to be that-- you know, through his actions, through using chemical weapons on his own people, dropping barrel bombs-- that killed-- innocent children-- that he-- he has foregone legitimacy. But when it comes to our policy and the coalition that we're putting together, our focus specifically is on ISIL.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Part one of my interview there. Some of you may have noted that I said the president hadn't mentioned the word "Syria" at all in one of my questions. He had mentioned it, but he hadn't said whether he was taking military action there. Let me get a little bit of reaction here. Joe, Nia, Andrea, and Mike Leiter are here. Mike, let me start with you, former head of the counterterrorism center. Is that a president that now is getting briefing from your successor now, and that believes those briefings?

MICHAEL LEITER:

He believes that they are a threat regionally. I don't think they see this as a homeland threat to the same degree that they should. The fact is--

CHUCK TODD:

You think he's downplaying the 9/11 threat too much?

MICHAEL LEITER:

I think they can transition much more quickly than we might detect from a regional threat to a threat to the homeland. And what we do know, as you talked about, we defeated organizations before, Al Qaeda in Pakistan, it has to include the offense. And that has to be in Syria. You can't get around that. And that's the long pole in the tent.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay, we talked about Saudi Arabia, he brought up he wants this moderate Sunni. John Kerry, your beat, is traveling all there this week. Is that going to happen?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

It's going to take a while because you can't totally roll back. You can't in fact roll back what happened for three years. The Saudis and others in the region are very upset, they're angry, they don't trust this president to go after Assad, because he didn't. And he is basically saying he outlining a war against ISIL in Iraq, based on an Iraqi army that has yet to be proved effective at all.

So if you're only going to fight them in Iraq, degrade them in Iraq, and then worry about Syria with the Syrian state army that we let down for three years, we have not armed them to their needs, how does that work? So it's a strategy, it's the clearest strategy. This is an incredible interview, in that he's laying it out point by point.

CHUCK TODD:

It does. It feels like this is a long way from, "I don't yet have a strategy yet."

ANDREA MITCHELL:

No, he's got the strategy. The question now will be will it work.

CHUCK TODD:

Obviously we refer to it at NBC News as ISIS. The Obama administration, president says the word ISIL. The last S stands for Syria, the last L they don’t want to have stand for Syria. Joe, he's going to give a speech, American public. What does he need to say, do you think, that will rally the public to his strategy?

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

I think he laid it out pretty well. I mean, we have other remember, you look at the polls, and six months ago, three months ago, the American people said they didn't want to get involved. They didn't want the hyperactive foreign policy. We are an exhausted nation. And I think this president's taking a fairly reasonable, measured response. Now we obsess--

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think he's been poll-driven about it? Do you think that's why the delayed any action?

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

I don't think he's been poll-driven enough for a lot of Democratic senators who this past week started breaking and suddenly they're sounding a lot more like John McCain than you would expect Democratic senators to sound.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes, they are.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

But we obsess over things like the "JV team," which I obsess over. Everybody, we all do. The brown suit. The "I don't have a strategy yet." The American people aren't there. It's about safety, it's about security. And again, this president's taking a fairly measured approach. And that's not only where Democrats are, that's where a lot of conservatives are.

CHUCK TODD:

It seemed like a pretty serious (UNINTEL). So there's a vote in Congress. He's asking for a vote. It's interesting. Not authorization, he says, but he wants them to basically thumbs up or thumbs down on his plan. That's what he's asking for. How's that vote going to go?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

Yeah, I mean, he talked about a buy-in, right? He didn't specifically say authorization, he said he had that authorization.

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, "buy-in" really is funding.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

Yes, exactly, exactly.

CHUCK TODD:

Let's remember what that really is.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

He talks a little bit about, oh, resources, right, and that's exactly what. I was on the Hill last week, and it looks like this Congress is looking at this next two weeks where they're all on the Hill as sort of a lame-duck period, right? And trying to do the bare minimum. So that might be what he faces going forward, and he is also facing Congress that might not want to go forward on an authorization.

CHUCK TODD:

Let's see, what's going on in November?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

That's right.

CHUCK TODD:

There's something that's happening in two weeks for these guys.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Yeah, the first week in October.

CHUCK TODD:

They are. It'll be interesting, do they really want to use September to debate that?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

But they do have scheduled hearings for the 16th of September.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

And Bill Nelson is going to put forward a bill as well on this authorization. So we'll see.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Well we now know what our September's going to be about. It's about ISIS both abroad and here. Thank you Andrea and Michael for being here. My national security gurus, Joe and Nia, are sticking around. We've got a lot more of the president's interview. Taking some heat for delaying the executive action on immigration. But you'll hear how he tries to explain why politics wasn't behind it. And then there's Ebola. He says the U.S. has no choice but to take charge.

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

There's the prospect then that the virus mutates, it becomes more easily transmittable, and then it could be a serious danger to the United States.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

And welcome back. This morning's New York Times says this: "Given the world's weakness on Ebola, that the United States needs to take the lead." Well, in the second part of my exclusive interview with President Obama, I asked him about that as well as his decision to delay executive action on immigration till after the election.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

I'm going to go to immigration. You made a decision to delay any executive action until after the election. What do you tell the person that's going to get deported before the election that this decision was essentially made in your hopes of saving a Democratic Senate?

PRES. OBAMA:

Well, that's not the reason. A couple of things that I want to say about immigration. Number one, I have been consistent about why this is important. The country's going to be better off if we have an immigration system that works. That has strong border security, that has streamlined our legal immigration system. So the best and the brightest who want to stay here and invest her and create jobs here can do so.

That families can be unified, and that a system where the millions of people who are here in many cases for a decade or more, who have American kids, who are neighbors, who oftentimes are our friends, that they have a path to get legal by paying taxes, and getting above board, paying a fine, learning English if they have to.

So the good news is, we have bipartisan support for that. We have a Senate bill that would accomplish that. The House Republicans refuse to do it. And what I said to them was, "If you do not act on something that's so common sense that you've got labor, business, evangelicals, law enforcement, you've got folks across the board supporting it, then I'm going to look for all the legal authorities I have to act." I want to make sure we get it right. I want to make sure, number one, that all the T's are crossed.

CHUCK TODD:

Looks like politics. I mean, it looks like election-year politics.

PRES. OBAMA:

Not only do I want to make sure that the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted, but here's the other thing, Chuck, and I'm being honest now, about the politics of it. This problem with unaccompanied children that we saw a couple weeks ago, where you had from Central America a surge of kids who are showing up at the border, got a lot of attention. And a lot of Americans started thinking, "We've got this immigration crisis on our hands." And what I want to do is when I take executive action, I want to make sure that it's sustainable. I want to make sure that--

CHUCK TODD:

But the public's not behind you.

PRES. OBAMA:

No, no, no, no.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you concerned the public wouldn't support what you did?

PRES. OBAMA:

What I'm saying is that I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country. But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we've done on unaccompanied children, and why it's necessary.

CHUCK TODD:

Ebola. There's some anxiety in the country about it. Obviously, it's something that Africa's trying to get its hands around. But there's obviously anxiety in the United States. How concerned are you and how concerned should Americans be?

PRES. OBAMA:

Well, Americans shouldn't be concerned about the prospects of contagion here in the United States short term. Because this is not an airborne disease.

CHUCK TODD:

I noticed you said "short term" though.

PRES. OBAMA:

Well, I'm going to get to that. It's not an airborne disease like the flu. You can only catch it through the transmission of bodily fluids. The problem that we've got is in right now a limited portion of Western Africa. So what I said, and I said this two months ago to our national security team is, we have to make this a natural security priority.

CHUCK TODD:

It's going to be a U.S.-led effort.

PRES. OBAMA:

As usual. And we're going to have to get U.S. military assets just to set up, for example, isolation units and equipment there to provide security for public health workers surging from around the world. If we do that, then it's still going to be months before this problem is controllable in Africa. But it shouldn't reach our shores.

Now here's the last point I'm going to make. If we don't make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa, but other parts of the world, there's the prospect then that the virus mutates, it becomes more easily transmittable, and then it could be a serious danger to the United States.

CHUCK TODD (PRETAPE):

What's the rationale for this election? I'm going to be a little cynical here. $3 billion, I would argue, is being decided to see if it's Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell that's in charge of gridlock in the Senate. I mean, we're talking, what's the difference between a two-seat-Democratic majority and a two-seat-Republican majority as far as your agenda is concerned?

PRES. OBAMA:

First of all, there's a sharp difference between the Democratic agenda and the Republican agenda. And the American people need to know that. If you've got a Democratic senate, that means bills are being introduced to raise the minimum wage. That's something Democrats support. We think America needs a raise.

CHUCK TODD:

Was that on your desk?

PRES. OBAMA:

I'll get to that. Equal pay for equal work. We care about that. The Republicans, that's not their priority. We think it's important to make sure that issues like family leave and family-friendly policies and more effective childcare are in place so that folks are getting help, that young people are getting more assistance when it comes to paying for college educations. Rebuilding our infrastructure. Putting folks back other work on our roads, our bridges.

All of which would boost our economy now and boost it into the future. On all those issues, there's a sharp contrast. Now it is true that if the house stays Republican, that it's unlikely that I get a lot of these bills to my desk. But it makes a big difference if we've got at least one branch in Congress that is presenting these ideas, making arguments.

I know that given the gridlock that we've seen over the last couple years, it's easy to say that these midterms don't matter. But the fact of the matter is that on every issue that's important to middle class Americans, overwhelmingly, we're seeing a majority prefer the Democratic option.

And us having a Democratic Senate that can present those issues and put them forward, just like they did on immigration, even if the House Republicans fail to act means that we're debating the right stuff for the country, we're debating the things that are going to help us grow.

CHUCK TODD:

This wouldn't be Meet the Press if I didn't have a chart with me. Your year of action on the State of the Union. And it's a little small here, it'll be bigger for the television viewers.

PRES. OBAMA:

Yeah, you've got to make it bigger.

CHUCK TODD:

I will. Yeah, there you go. A lot not accomplished here. The one thing about in your State of the Union, support Syrian rebels is there. But immigration, overhauling the tax system, raising the minimum wage. You brought up the issues yourself.

PRES. OBAMA :

Exactly.

CHUCK TODD:

That was with a Democratic Senate. So that's why you look at this and you sit there and say, "How do things change?" And do you think your presidency's in bigger trouble then if you have a Republican Senate?

PRES. OBAMA:

I think elections matter, I think votes matter. And given the fact that the punditry overwhelmingly felt that this was going to be--

CHUCK TODD:

You're overtly pointing at me.

PRES. OBAMA:

That this was going to be a good year for Senate Republicans because the seats that were up were in states that were tilting or with significant Republican majorities. If Democrats hold the Senate, I think that should get Republicans to once again--

CHUCK TODD:

I think that sends a national message.

PRES. OBAMA:

I think what it does is to send a message to Republicans that people want to get stuff done. That their strategy of just obstructing and saying no to every piece of legislation that might help middle class families, that might create ladders of opportunity for people, that that is an agenda that the American people reject.

And that then gives us room, hopefully, to find some compromises. Look, I've said this before, Chuck. If you ask me back in August what I want for my birthday, I'd say, "Give me a loyal opposition that has some common sense and is willing to work on some basic issues that didn't used to be partisan issues."

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Well, for more reaction on the domestic portion of my interview there, Joe and Nia are back. John Stanton of Buzzfeed is here, because we didn't have enough goatees on the desk for the first time as well. And Amy Walter, of course, of the Cook Political Report. Joe, let me quickly start with you. You just made a comment off-camera, make it on-camera what you just said. You thought you've déjà vu all over again.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

I'm just surprised. I think the president's more engaged than he's been engaged. I've been watching and saying, "You know what? This guy looks like he's finally getting reenergized and he's ready to play." But then I hear him say, "Well, you know, if we win this time, then this time, Republicans are going to get the message they have to work with us."

He had said that to me in 2012 before the election. He said, "Well, if it wasn't this time, then they'll understand that I'm legitimate and dah, dah, dah." And I said, "Well, Bill Clinton got re-elected, and we impeached him the second time."

CHUCK TODD:

Is that where you're headed?

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

No, it's not where I'm headed. But the idea that if Republicans don't win this time that suddenly they're going to play ball isn't the answer. The answer is figuring out the way you figure it out. And how do you come to a deal with these guys on issues that matter?

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Stanton, he was trying to make the rational for why the midterms matter. And when you have to say, "I know some people don't think, but they really do matter."

JOHN STANTON:

You've already lost.

CHUCK TODD:

That's a tough sell. Clearly it's about energizing the Democratic base. He was the xylophone, as Chris Matthews likes to call it. He was trying to tap all the right notes for the right constituency group.

JOHN STANTON:

Yeah, I mean, if you look at it, he went down the laundry list of things to get women out, to try to get Latinos out. But, you know, the reality is, is that this election sort of doesn't matter. Unless there is something that happens over the next two or three weeks that creates a massive wave.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm trying to have a bunch of shows here before that fully--

(OVERTALK)

JOHN STANTON:

But no, I mean, in terms of legislation passing. If Democrats keep the Senate, and they have, what, a two-seat or a one-seat majority, or if Republicans take it and have a two-seat or one-seat majority, you still are left with essentially the same dynamic in Washington. Until, as Joe says, until he figures out a way to get around that, it's going to stay the same.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, let's go to the immigration issue here, Amy and Nia. First of all, nobody's happy with this decision. We've got the president getting hit left and right. Here is America's Voice Education Fund, a pro-immigration rights group. "In June, President Obama promised he would take every action he could to fix our broken immigration system before the end of the summer. Today, President Obama said that he won't until after the election, but delay comes with a human cost."

Meanwhile, John Boehner says that there's never a right time for the president to declare amnesty by executive action, but the decision to simply delay the deeply controversial, and possibly unconstitutional unilateral action till after the election instead of abandoning the idea all together, smacks of raw politics.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

Isn't it always raw politics, Chuck?

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

This is more so than most though from the president.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

It is, although I will say this. He is correct when he said after the crisis on the border, there was a jump in concern. And you can see that in the polls, when this issue really on border security went up. Where it becomes raw politics is when you recognize that Democrats are playing complete defense this year in the race for the Senate.

They're playing in red states where this issue is always going to be red hot. So whether there was a border security issue or not, taking executive action on anything that Republicans can call amnesty was going to boost up the Republican base.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

And you look also, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Kentucky, Montana, Georgia. This is not helping single Democrat in any--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

But in fact, Nia, let me put up this map. You had this great stat. Look, eight of the night states with competitive Senate races, Hispanics make up less than 10% of the election.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

That's right, that's right, I mean, very small. I mean, if you look at those southern states are right now, I mean, it's anywhere between 3% and 8% of this electorate. It'll be different going forward. But you do see this population boom among Hispanics. You look at a state like Colorado, this is going to matter. You already have Mark Udall saying he wishes the president would've moved forward on this. 12% of the electorate in Colorado will likely be Latino.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, that's why I wondered. He's trying to get the Democratic base out. And this is going to upset.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

In that one state. But let's just say this: 2016, this is a bigger problem for Republicans going forward.

CHUCK TODD:

No doubt, no doubt.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

If they are seen as a party that still is not bringing Latinos, that is a big, big, problem.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think that they're thinking about 2016. They're not thinking about--

(OVERTALK)

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

They're more worried about that than they worry about that.

CHUCK TODD:

Exactly, exactly. All right, coming up, I've got more from President Obama. But first, a little bit of a break here. What Washington can learn from America's cities, where more and more mayors are getting things done despite the red/blue divide.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

And welcome back. We're introducing a new feature here on Meet the Press, who needs Washington? Dysfunction here has left Congress with all-time low approval ratings. The president, not far behind. But away from Washington, many of America's cities are growing and revitalizing rapidly under the leadership of some dynamic mayors. My colleague Kevin Tibbles now on how many cities have put partisanship aside to put people over politics.

(BEGIN TAPE)

KEVIN TIBBLES:

There are cities across this nation pulling themselves from the depths of desperate economic times by rolling up their sleeves and going it on their own with little of Washington's help or dysfunction. From Houston and its Rebuild Houston plan, 200 projects to improve quality of life with a quarter billion of mostly local, taxpayer dollars, to Seattle, which voted to raise the minimum raise.

And Detroit, where private money is revitalizing a more abunt motor city. In Oklahoma City, what used to look like this now looks like this. All designed to jumpstart city economies. And Census Bureau figures now show many urban populations are on the rebound.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

How desperate was Oklahoma City?

MICK CORNETT:

We may have had the worst economy in the country. We finally decided we're going to have to invest in ourselves. No one's going to come bail us out.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

Mayor Mick Cornett says Oklahoma City had been decimated. A tanked economy, the horror of the bombing of the federal building, and a tornado had left it desperate for rebranding.

MICK CORNETT:

It's almost as if we grabbed hands, pulled each other up, and dared the world to separate us again.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

A penny on the dollar sales tax was agreed to. Yes, a tax increase that will pump some $1.8 billion into rebuilding everything from a new minor league baseball stadium, to the Bricktown Entertainment District. Attracting young people seeking vibrant city life and seniors seeking services, every school in the city received dollars for improvements. And to ensure the city God noticed and stayed noticed, it lobbied for and won an NBA franchise. The funder and star player Kevin Durant now call Oklahoma City home.

MICK CORNETT:

This place is humming. This place is on fire right now.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

The secret, this town's Republican mayor says, is in attracting people. If they come, businesses will follow. And it's all been done without a penny of debt and with little help from Washington.

MICK CORNETT:

We stand here and look with our jaws open at the inefficiencies of Washington, where it seems more important to win some partisan argument than it does to deliver a service to the citizens of your community.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

Here, he says there are no Republican potholes, or Democratic potholes. And getting them fixed has been taken care of right here locally. For Meet the Press, Kevin Tibbles.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

I'm now joined by three mayors who are getting things done, Republican Mick Cornett, of Oklahoma City, who we just saw there in that spot, Democrat Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, and Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma, Washington, who is an independent. Look at that, DRI, perfectly. Mayor Strickland, I'll start with you, and I know there's a little Seattle/Oklahoma City rivalry there with the basketball team, so don't get too upset still about the old Sonics. But what's familiar in his story, in Mayor Cornett's story, in Oklahoma City to you?

MARILYN STRICKLAND:

What was familiar to me was the story of resilience. And I think that's something that Oklahoma City shares with Tacoma and Pittsburgh. It's about economies that struggled in the past, but are really trying to rebound by doing innovative things right in our own community.

CHUCK TODD:

I think what's interesting is you're also-- you went to the private sector. You got the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, they're obviously local, they helped you transform an education project you were trying to do.

MARILYN STRICKLAND:

Absolutely. It's the Tacoma Housing Authority project, the McCarver project. And we're basically trying to address the fact that for a lot of students who aren't doing well in elementary school, it's mobility. The families move around too much. So through this project, we were able to stabilize housing for five years through housing vouchers and give these families a chance for stability.

You know, Mayor Peduto, the story of Pittsburgh, it's been America's most livable city, people have been talking about it, transforming from the manufacturing economy to the sort of new-tech economy. What is it about Washington that you wish could help you out more? Or have you just said, "Forget it. We'll just have to find different ways."

BILL PEDUTO:

Well, I think living in a new normal. I mean, Pittsburgh's overnight success story was 30 years in the making. And it really came through an idea that it would be transformed into something that it wasn't. So today we're looking and we're saying how do we become a city of learning, in partnerships with the White House, or early on conversations with the president and with his administration on if early childhood education isn't going to take off in Washington. Or, if it's going to take two years in battles to get something that may be watered down. Find a dozen innovative mayors around the country. Let us run with the ball.

CHUCK TODD:

Right, be a little pilot project.

BILL PEDUTO:

And we had Secretary Duncan come into Pittsburgh to announce a competitive grant, which I'm sure I'm going to be competing with these mayors on. But you know what? We're going to do it. And we'll create universal education for four year olds, and I want Pittsburgh to be that type of city, as I'm sure every mayors want to see in their cities. Washington has to understand it's about getting the job done and it really isn't about the political victory that holds us back.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, it's interesting, Mayor Cornett. You've advocated for tax increases when you've needed it. Explain how you do, here are, a Republican, deep red Oklahoma. Let's not pretend. This is not light red, this is deep red Oklahoma. You've got people to back tax increases. What do you pull off that maybe Republicans in Capitol Hill can't?

MICK CORNETT:

I think the citizens of Oklahoma City have begun to differentiate between the type of government they don't mind paying for and the type they don't like to pay for. I think they like capital projects that they can go up and touch and feel and they know they're going to be long-lasting. I think they're less enthused about social programs that they really wonder how efficiently-run they are.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, what would you say a lesson to Washington should be of your story? And it's really the same question to all of you guys. What's one lesson they want to take away from Oklahoma City?

MICK CORNETT:

In your interview, the president talked about this great divide between the Republicans and the Democrats. In my view, it's up to the executive branch to be the bridge in that divide. It's what I do with my city council, I think it's one of the ways that our city's been able to move forward so rapidly.

CHUCK TODD:

What about you, Mayor Strickland?

MARILYN STRICKLAND:

I would say that as mayor, you are about being an ambassador and bringing people together. So you have an opportunity to keep focused on the goal and not get bogged down in the partisanship of what can happen.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, it's easy to say though, Mayor Peduto, but we all know raw politics is there. It seems like Washington is there. But what's something you would tell these guys enough?

BILL PEDUTO:

Well, I mean, the ultimate goal is what is the vision. And it has to be a shared vision, just as we have to work with our councils, the president needs to work with the Congress. But at the end of the day, you have to move forward. The idea that trying to get to perfection for anybody, and especially with a Congress that really does not have a track record right now of getting things done, there has to be that compromise and willing to see that success does happen.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, we want to show that some people do practice the art of politics. Remember, it's not politics that people hate, it's that they hate the politicians that don't know how to practice the art of it. Anyway, Mayor Strickland, Mayor Strickland, Mayor Peduto, thanks for being on my inaugural show. I really appreciate. Coming up, some very surprising polling numbers and the president's reaction to the criticism that he played golf shortly after talking about James Foley's murder.

PRES. OBAMA (ON TAPE):

I should've anticipated the optics.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

A few more exclusives to unveil on our show, one is of course our new election look, you're going to see this a lot, "Decision 2014." But more importantly, we have a few new polls to show you. Plus I'll show you a few new toys. But of course, the Senate battleground this year, this is the big kahuna, who's going to control the Senate.

As you see here, these are 11 seats in play right now. Red-state Democrats, are they going to hold on in Arkansas? Swing-state Democrats, are they going to hold on in Colorado? We took a look in Kentucky, one of the few Republican seats in play, and here's what we found out. In red-state Arkansas, Mark Pryor is struggling. He's behind Tom Cotton by five points.

In red-state Kentucky, Alison Grimes, a Democrat, tons of money, she's behind eight. Not looking very good for her. But look in Colorado here, Democrat's got to feel a little bit better that Mark Udall in purple-to-blue Colorado is hanging on. But this idea that somehow Democrats cut into the Republican momentum of the summer doesn't look very true. And our polls will have a lot more about this right after the break.

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CHUCK TODD:

And one final chunk of my interview with the president, where we talked about the pressure of job. And how he sometimes struggles being under the relentless scrutiny.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

I've had former aides of yours, plenty of supporters of yours say to me, "He looks exhausted." Are you exhausted?

PRES. OBAMA:

I actually feel energized about the opportunities that we've got. There are days when I'm not getting enough sleep because we've got a lot on our plate. When you're president of the United States, you're not just dealing with the United States, as we saw during the NATO Summit. If there's a problem in the Ukraine, we're the ones who are expected to mobilize the world community to isolate Russia, put pressure, support, Ukrainians, and to vindicate the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and freedom that we stand For.

If there's a problem in the Middle East, the expectation is, is that we create the coalitions to deal with a problem like ISIL. If there's an issue in Africa around Ebola, we need to help mobilize that public health infrastructure. And so it's not just me, it's my staff also that our inbox gets pretty high.

CHUCK TODD:

I've got to ask, so during that vacation, you made the statement on Foley, you went and golfed. Do you want that back?

PRES. OBAMA:

It is always a challenge when you're supposed to be on vacation because you're followed everywhere. And part of what I'd love is a vacation from the press.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, you want us to stop following you. I promise you, in two and a half years I think that'll happen.

PRES. OBAMA:

Because the possibility of a jarring contrast given the world's news, there's always going to be some tough news somewhere, it's going to be there. But there's no doubt that after having talked to the families, where it was hard for me to hold back tears listening to the pain that they were going through after the statement that I made, that I should've anticipated the optics.

That's part of the job. And I think everybody who knows me, including, I suspect, the press, understands that you take this stuff in and it's serious business. And you care about it deeply. But part of this job is also the theater of it. Part of it is how are you--

CHUCK TODD:

You hate that you--

PRES. OBAMA:

Well, it's not something that always comes naturally to me. But it matters. And I'm mindful of that. So the important thing is in addition to that, is am I getting the policies right? Am I protecting the American people? Am I doing what's necessary?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I think I need to pre-book you for next week, because I've got about another 35 questions.

PRES. OBAMA:

I appreciate it.

CHUCK TODD:

But I'll let you go with that, Mr. President.Thank you very much for coming on Meet the Press.

PRES. OBAMA:

I enjoyed it. Great to see you.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

The full unedited interview is already on the website right now at MeetThePressNBC.com. I want to bring back Joe, Amy, Nia, and Stanton here. Nia, let me start with you. The president talking optics. He hates that aspect of the job. He admitted it. It was sort of a very honest moment.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

Yeah. I remember a newcomer President Obama in 2008, candidate Obama when he was running. He did get the optics then, right?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, he likes good optics.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

Brandenburg Gate, yeah, that's cool.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

But he got the theater of politics. And this idea that somehow he doesn't get it now, I think he gets it. I think he probably just doesn't care at this point. And is fine with blaming the press.

CHUCK TODD:

Presidents do have to compartmentalize. I mean, that is a fact of the matter.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

They do.

CHUCK TODD:

If you don't, you could never go to sleep.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

They do have to compartmentalize. I remember reading a column once by Maureen Dowd talking about first ladies, said, "Pat Nixon made a great peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It relaxed Richard Nixon." And if that is what she needed to do, then she needed to do it. I've always said presidents should be able to golf, they should be able to do whatever they want to do.

Obviously, he made some very clumsy mistakes. And the White House has always said they don't do theater. Well, they do theater they want to do. They don't do theater they don't want to do. So in this case, so I was glad. It was good to hear the president say, "I'm not really good at it. I probably should be a little bit better at optics." That's hard for him.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Stanton, it's important to note, he's basically saying, "I messed up the optics." He's not saying, "I shouldn't have done the golf." He's basically saying, "Look, I deal with this all the time. You guys just had a different picture."

JOHN STANTON:

Yeah, and I think they've had this problem I think throughout particularly the last couple of years since the last election. But, I mean, it's been a systemic problem for the administration where they don't quite understand that these things matter to people. It does matter to see the president being serious, leaving something like that and not being out laughing and joking with his friends. Even though I think most Americans get that he can compartmentalize and that this does not necessarily impact his ability to do the job. It matters still for them psychologically.

(OVERTALK)

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

Or his impact to win elections. This guy has been attacked for not getting optics since 2008 in many ways. He's won by a larger margin now in '08 and '12 than any other president since Bush in '88. So you can forgive the White House for shrugging and saying, "What's the big deal?"

CHUCK TODD:

But Amy, this is clear, this is the president himself. We know the people behind him are saying, "Hey, don't do it this way, don't do it that way." They think about the optics all the time. At the end of the day, it's the president saying, "You know what? I'm going to do what I want to do."

AMY WALTER:

Exactly. He's going to do what he wants to do. And also, he knows more than you do and than anybody else in the public knows about all the security issues going around this. "So don't tell me that I wasn't taking this seriously. I took 15 calls while I was out there."

CHUCK TODD:

No, absolutely. All right, stick around. Coming up, we have a fun new feature, what everyone in Washington knows but is afraid to say or won't say for some reason this week, what Hillary Clinton's really up to. We'll be right back.

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HILLARY CLINTON (ON TAPE):

I am going to be making a decision around probably after the first of the year about whether I'm going to run again or not. And I will have to be convinced that I have a very clear vision with an agenda of what I think needs to be done.

CHUCK TODD:

You just heard it there, Hillary Clinton. And it dovetails with another new feature we're bringing to the show, simple premise, what everyone in Washington knows, but is afraid to say. So with that in mind, I'm going to make a decision, Amy Walter. But I'm going to have a vision of what it's-- right? Come on. It's done. But I'm glad she did it in Mexico City, because that's where--

AMY WALTER:

What have these past few weeks been? But this book tour has been a rollout for the 2016 campaign. And every time you see her in another venue talking about another issue, it becomes clearer and clearer that this thing is ready to go.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, it's obvious, Nia, that she's running. Now January, is it too soon?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

Well, when she announced before, she announced in January, I think it was January 20th. Obama announced in February.

CHUCK TODD:

She had seven opponents then.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON:

Exactly, exactly. To take some of the flak and attention away from her. But she's also going to face the situation where it looks like some of these Republicans, won't name any names, Rand Paul, already seems to be eyeing.

CHUCK TODD:

I guess, Joe, obviously, if she's making the decision in January, I guess it's a way to freeze anybody else. Right? That's the decision, go in, go early, or go home?

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

I hate to be the thick one on the panel, but that's my job, right? I'm going to be different. I'm not so sure she's going to run. It's just like Jeb. I'm still trying to figure out if Jeb's going to run. We get the news this past week that Jeb's freezing everybody. We know she's freezing everybody. But it was such a disastrous book tour, when it should've been so easy. I'm just, why does she want to do it? She's been struggling for a very long time.

CHUCK TODD:

Stanton, where are you on this?

JOHN STANTON:

Well, I think the longer she teases people, the worse it is for her. If she's going to run, she's going to have to come out and say it sooner rather than later, because at some point, it becomes, I mean, it's already sort of ridiculous theater to watch. And the public is going to start to see this.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, guys. I've got to leave it there. That's all we have--

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

--to you next week.

CHUCK TODD:

Then you better. All right, we'll be back next week, because you know why? If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

***END OF TRANSCRIPT***