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Barack Obama interview

An interview with 2008 presidential contender Barack Obama by NBC's Brian Williams

BRIAN WILLIAMS: What was your message at Wall Street today?

BARACK OBAMA: I think the core of the message is that we're all in this together.  And that for a lot of years now, the way we thought about our economy that Wall Street is somehow separate from Main Street.

People here have been doing extraordinarily well.  We've seen hedge funds, private equity funds and investment bankers make extraordinary profits.  And out in the hinterlands, people are struggling to fill up the gas tank or save for their child's college education or pay for their own retirement.

Now, with the sub prime lending crisis, I think Wall Street's jittery.  But you also have 2.5 million people who may lose their homes.  And there are some structural issues that I think we have to deal with, to make sure that everybody is seeing a growing economy but also, everybody is prospering at the same time.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Is Gordon Gecko dead or alive, Michael Douglas' famous character in Wall Street who said "Greed is good"?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, my sense is that you don't have the same sorts of over the top statements that you saw during that period.  But the underlying economic factors that produced a very small number of extraordinary winners and there's been enormous waste, stagnation for ordinary workers, which is why we've got the greatest income inequality since any time since the gilded age.

Now, I think that most Americans don't resent people for getting rich.  They want to get rich themselves.  And they believe in the free market system.  But they worry that the system may be rigged.  And that given the combination of technology and globalization, that more and more people are not able to compete and potentially over the long term, that their children may be a little bit worse off than they were.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: I asked this at the last democratic debate.  Are-- are hedge funds good or bad for America?  Is it right for these hedge funds making billions and billions of dollars along with the hedge fund managers?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I don't think that hedge funds are bad per se.  I think they're just one more financial tool.  And in that sense, they're useful.  But I think that what we've seen are a number of rules that skew in the favor of folks on Wall Street.  Private equity funds and hedge fund managers who are paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries.

There are some failures in the regulatory regimes that have been set up.  For example, I talked today-- that there may be an incestuous relationship between ratings agencies that are determining the quality of investments and the people that they're rating.

So, what we need is stronger market transparency and accountability.  That's good for everybody and the marketplace.  We have to think about how are we investing to make sure that everybody can compete in this global economy?  And that means investing in education and it means investing in things like energy independence.  And we've got to rebuild our social safety net, particularly on health care and retirement security, where a lot of ordinary Americans are seeing that security slip away.  When that security slips away, they are more likely to turn to things like protectionism that, over time, may constrict economic growth overall.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Who or what do you think is to blame for this current mortgage and credit crisis?  Who do we see about that?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think there are a lot of folks who ought to take some responsibility.  The original idea was a good one, which was that let's see if we can distribute this more broadly and make it easier to provide loans to people who otherwise might be-- not be able to get a mortgage loan.

Over time, what ended up happening was that the appraisers started loosening their standards.  The mortgage brokers started playing around with their standards.  Then, the people who were buying these securities weren't really checking  very carefully to see whether the underlying mortgage could support the loans that were made.

And so, over time, you had everybody I think conspiring to just do what felt good and what was making a lot of money.  The problem was that a lot of homeowners were induced to take out loans that they could afford only if home prices continued to go up.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Let's talk about the campaign which I understand you've been spending some of your free time doing.  To-- what's the surprise?  What is it, seven months into it?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, I am number one surprised by the extraordinary interest of the American people.  I think even early on, I mean, we were getting crowds of twenty thousand people in Austin, Texas, twenty thousand people in Atlanta even back in March and April.

There is a hunger for change in the country.  And there's a recognition that we've got a series of decisions that we've got to make.  Not just on the war, but I think about health care, energy, education, that we can't put off any longer.

So, that I think is a pleasant surprise.  Obviously, the intensity of the campaign for so long makes you worry that at a certain point, people will just say, enough already.  And you still have uncertainty at the calendar which surprises me, because you'd think that four or five months out, we'd know which states are going when.


BARACK OBAMA: (OVERTALK) still don't know that.  So that has made it difficult to plan I think creates some additional layers of concern.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Well, about this front load in calendar, how-- how great a concern do you have that just at the time when a lot of Americans will be dialing in, a lot of states will have already made the decisions leading up to who the nominees of the party are.

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think-- I-- I think it's a problem.  I think that in some ways for people like myself and Hillary Clinton who are a little bit better known, it gives us probably an unfair advantage.  On the other hand, it also means that we're gonna see a very long general election which could end up making it even uglier than usual general elections.

Because when there's that much time to be filled in general elections typically, it ends up being filled with negative ads.  That seems to be the process.  Now, that's a process that I hope to change as the nominee.  But you know, I think we would have benefited from spreading out the-- this primary season longer, so that people weren't voting right after they'd done their Christmas shopping.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: How do you think it is that so many polls show Senator Clinton as the agent of change?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, you know, the truth is that Senator Clinton I think is the default candidate for a lot of Democrats.  People who have fond memories of Bill Clinton and his administration.  And they still are less familiar with me.  They remember me from a speech in 2004.  They have favorable views of me, but I don't think they have a clear sense of what my agenda is.

That takes more time.  In Iowa and in New Hampshire and in the early states, people are starting to get a better sense of me.  But until then, you're not gonna see a lot of change.  And so, I don't anticipate a big shift in the national polls until after the early primary states, where we're able to concentrate our resources and deliver our message more effectively.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: What does it say about your effort to-- to shine a bright light on Sen-- Senator Clinton?  Things like her war vote?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, you know, we're not gonna spend too much time in this campaign focused on her.  Well, we want to focus on the future and we want to focus on my message of change and what we can do to provide universal health care for all Americans in a sensible, cost effective way.  What we can do to provide a world class education system that involves both more money and reform of the system.  What we can do to deal with global warming and-- and energy independence.

If-- if we're focusing on those issues, as well as a fundamental shift in foreign politics, then we think we're gonna give a very strong alternative to any of the other candidates in the field.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: The MoveOn ad, General Betray-Us?  Do you think it's counter productive?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, I probably, if they had asked me, would have suggested that we focus attention on George Bush, the commander in chief.  I mean, my assessment is that General Petraeus is playing a bad hand as well as he can.

It's the President that has civilian leadership that sets the mission for General Petraeus.  And consistently throughout this war, that the first and primary failure has been with our civilian leadership.  Our military has done everything that's been asked of them.  That's the reason that George Bush sends General Petraeus out there and it's suggested somehow that he's simply implementing the proposals with General Petraeus.

That I think is disingenuous.  The fact of the matter is, the President assigned this mission to General Petraeus and said the mission is, you try to make this work and pull this together as best you can.  And the General came out with a reasonable plan, given the constraints.

I would give them a different mission, which is, let's begin getting our troops out of Iraq.  Let's get them out from the midst of a civil war.  Let's trigger different behavior on the part of the Iraqi leadership, so that they can start accommodating and-- and arriving at a political solution where there is no military solution available

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Are you ready now to say the ad was a bad idea, counter productive?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I certainly think it was counter productive in the sense that it gave Republicans who had nothing else to stand on, something that kept attention away from the bad policy of the President.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Do you think the General is a good man?  Do you think he's a--

BARACK OBAMA: I do.  I-- I think-- I think the General, as I said, is doing the best that he can given the circumstances that have been given to him.  The failure has been with President Bush's unwillingness to fundamentally change this mission and recognize that there are limits to what the military can accomplish in the absence of any political progress.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Let's talk about your plan for Iraq.  You got coverage for the specificity of it.  When you say an international working group would come in and-- and-- and be there to keep the peace, others say, look, it is still tantamount to getting our guys out there, reversing the gains we've made.  What do you tell the parents of kids who didn't come home?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, what I'm gonna tell the parents of the kids who didn't come home is that their kids performed heroically and nobly.  And that I want to make sure I'm not talking to the next round of parents whose kids perform nobly and heroically but have been provided a flawed mission from the start by the President.

We have not made significant gains, Brian, if you look over the trajectory of this war.  We had reduced violence modestly from what it was six months ago to the intolerable level that existed a year ago.  I mean, we've literally gone in a circle.

And we know that six months from now, we will have the same troop levels that we had a year ago.  It is-- it would be wonderful if miraculously, we saw significant declines in the violence.

But the fact of the matter is, we're still seeing the violence at enormously damaging rates.  We still don't have an Iraqi government that's functional.  And some of the reductions in violence have been a consequence of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad and entire neighborhoods that have shifted from being multi-ethnic to simply Shia.

So, look, no one would like to see success more than me.  I intend to be the next President and I would love not to be inheriting a big mess.  And so, this notion that somehow Democrats had a political stake in not seeing success in Iraq I think is fundamentally mistaken.

What I question is the absence of any sort of long term strategy that does not lead us to be there for five or ten years.  Something that is unsustainable financially.  That means thousands of more American troops dead.  That continues the anti-American sentiment that we're seeing all around the world.  Hampers our ability to operate diplomatically and a host of others, yet continues to strengthen Iran.  It straps us from Al Qaeda and Afghanistan.

You know, I thought that, you know, Senator Warner's question about, is the mission that has been provided by the President gonna make us more safe?  And General Petraeus saying he didn't know, was indicative of-- that the lack of a broader national security strategy.  And that's what we really need from the next President.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: The fact that it was Senator Warner who in the parlance of Washington politics drew blood at that hearing is one of the points made by an op-ed piece--the piece in sum says that Democrats have no game on this.  That the Republicans continue to set the agenda.  That must be a source of enormous frustration to you and your party.

BARACK OBAMA: Well, look.  I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that that's part of the power of the Presidency, is you set the terms of the debate.  Now, the Democrats, we are all working in the same direction.  I think that you've seen actually a lot of consensus among Presidential candidates and among the Democratic leadership that this war has to end.

There are, you know, some constraints on what we can do.  But I think that it is important for us to all rally around the notion that we're gonna have a strong message strategy.  That we are not gonna give the President a blank check.  That we are going to continue to hold the Republican Congress' feet to the fire.

And if we do those things, then I believe that we will be able to ultimately bring a change in course.  But you know, the President's commander in chief.  And that gives him a certain amount of control that is very difficult to overcome.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: To politics, the contributions by this Mr. Hsu.  Is this a case of, as your campaign look at it, but for the grace of God go I?  Or do you think certain campaigns attract certain contributors?

BARACK OBAMA: I think money and politics is a problem generally.  And I think that all of us who are engaged in national Presidential politics are raising money.  And that creates potential hazards.

I've decided I'm not taking PAC money.  I'm not taking federal registered lobbyist money.  We vet all the contributions that come in and we get more contributions from small donors than all the other Democratic candidates combined.

Having said all that, you know, these are, you know, some of the perils of raising money in politics.  And you know, I-- I think that it is important for all of us to work towards a system in which we are not, you know, en-- engaging in practices that'll embarrass us later.

But now, one thing that we have done, and you know, I, as one of the leaders of ethics reform in Congress, was able to include a provision in the recent ethics reform legislation that requires the disclosure of lobbyists who bundle for campaign spending.

And that at least allows the public to see who the big raisers are.  I want to extend that beyond lobbyists to any bundlers and have that disclosed.  I do it voluntarily, but it's not currently the law.  If we could have more disclosure, that I think will prompt more campaigns to do a more careful job of vetting.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Could this have happened to you?  Do you look at it that way?

BARACK OBAMA: Oh, I think that there is no doubt that it could happen to any of us.  I'd like to think that we have put systems in place that will avoid it.  But I think over the long term, the problem is not of one specific instance.  The problem is a systemic one.  And we've got to solve that.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: How do you and Senator Clinton get along?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, obviously, when you're in competition in the midst of a campaign, you're not as buddy buddy as you might have been previously.  But you know, I have high regard for Senator Clinton.  I think she is a smart, capable person.

I think that our other candidates on the Democratic side have strengths and have been making their best cases to the voters.  And so, you know, the way I try to describe this is that we're all on the same team and everybody's trying out for quarterback.  And you know, once the-- once positions are decided, then everybody's gonna go out on the field and do our best to-- to win the game.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: High regard is one of those Washington phrases.

BARACK OBAMA: (LAUGHTER)  Well, look.  The-- you know, it-- I think that Senator Clinton is a terrific senator for New York.  And obviously, I wouldn't be running if I didn't think that I could make a better President at this time, at this moment in history.  But you know, there is enormous talent on the Democratic side (UNINTEL) and I think that whoever the Democratic nominee is will be the next President of the United States.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: You have a day job in the US Senate.  You're traveling all over the country.  It's one of the most grueling experiences any adult can undertake.  You wake up every morning and in a lot of polls, you're second.  You miss your wife.  You miss your two daughters.  What's the frustration level?  Compared to where you might have thought it would-- would be right now?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, the truth is, we are ahead of where, by any reasonable estimations, we should be.  I mean, here-- here I am standing.  Well, the-- the fact that I'm-- I'm running in a Democratic field that includes the most powerful Democratic operation over the last twenty years.  And I just came to national attention a few years ago in a speech at the convention.  The fact that we are competing, we are virtually tied in the early states and I've got a chance of winning the nomination, that's pretty remarkable.

Now, having said all that, the frustrations of being away from my wife and kids are enormous.  And you know, that is something that every day I think about.  You know, but-- but there are some sacrifices involved.

I was able to go to a soccer game on Saturday morning.  But I've missed an awful lot of soccer games this year.  I have-- was able to take my girls to their first day of school.  But I-- and I have made all the parents teachers conferences.  But there are a lot of things that I've missed.  And they know it and I know it.  And you know, we-- Michele and I would not be doing this if we didn't think that, at some level, it's worth it.  But it doesn't always make it easy.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Yeah.  The first time I met you, I couldn't help but hear what you were saying through the prism of a fellow married father of two.


BRIAN WILLIAMS: Everyone has their own defense mechanism.  But it-- it hurts to miss the little events of life.

BARACK OBAMA: It does.  And then, you know, one of the things, they-- they grow up very fast, as you know.  And they are growing up remarkably well and it's a testimony to my wife.  But there are some things you're not gonna recover.  There are some things you're not gonna get back, which is why when I made the decision to run, I had to say to myself that you're not doing this for vanity.  You're not doing this because you want to see your name in the papers.  You're doing this because you genuinely think that you can bring the country together and help us meet our future challenges.  And if I didn't think I was gonna be able to do that, then this wouldn't be worth it.  It-- it exacts a high toll.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: And no regrets today?  When you got in it, you thought that by now, on a beautiful day in New York in September, you might be a little further down the line.

BARACK OBAMA: Oh, no, not at all.  I-- I mean, we always understood this to be a high risk proposition.  And that I would be the underdog.  And I think, you know, in some ways, people forgot that just because we had-- were successful in raising some money.  And that my profile raised very quickly.  And People Magazine was publishing, you know, stories and pictures about us.

You know, the truth is, is that, you know, it takes a long time for the electorate to absorb the message of a new national politician.  And you know, when we go out and talk, we find that people had a favorable impression of me.  But it's still relatively thin.  You know, they are just getting to know me.

And you know, we always understood that the only way that we would be successful is if focusing on those early states where I could spend a lot of time and we can devote a lot of resources, that I'd build enough of a trust level and a profile that we're able to be successful there.  And as a consequence, the entire nation then gets a better sense of where I stand and-- and what I believe.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: And final question.  We-- we went through the business of embracing the enemies.  The dust off with Senator Clinton.  I don't imagine that will be the last.  Do you feel calluses on your hands that you didn't have when you got into this race?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, the interesting thing is that I have I think become much cooler about the rationale for my candidacy as a consequence of some of these dust ups.  Because in each case, what I've said I believe is absolutely true and absolutely what's needed.

And it was perceived by the pundits as somehow out of box.  And it reminded me that part of what I'm running against is a conventional wisdom, the same sort of conventional wisdom that I think led a lot of us to-- a lot of people to support this war that would not have been authorized.

And I believe that strong countries with strong Presidents should talk to their adversaries.  And I think the next President is gonna have to engage in the level of personal diplomacy to repair the damage that's been done.

That is not the typical conventional approach.  I believe that we should be going after Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.  And you know, about three months-- three weeks after or four weeks after that dust up, we had Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean write an op-ed piece saying the exact same thing.

And so, what I simply think is going on here is that people in Washington are accustomed to saying certain things and providing certain rote formulas for how we think about our foreign policy.  And one of the things that I believe I offer to this race is a-- a recognition that we are in a new century.  That a new generation is gonna have to lead.  And that we've got to break out of some of the conventions if we're gonna be successful in making ourselves secure and restoring our moral standing in the world.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: I lied.  That was the second to last question.  I want to get a finerl point on this.


BRIAN WILLIAMS: It-- it doesn't frustrate you in your effort to tack that war vote on your chief opponent--that she is now ahead in a lot of important polls?

BARACK OBAMA: No.  It's to be expected.  Look, the-- the-- Bill Clinton was an extraordinarily popular President among Democrats.  Hillary Clinton is an extraordinarily popular Democrat.  I'm running in a Democratic primary.  And we understood that we were gonna be an under-- underdog from the start.

What I am absolutely convinced of is that if we get our message across effectively, that we need to unify the country, that we need to overcome the special interest driven politics that have come to dominate Washington.  If we are able to restore a sense of truth telling to our politics, that that's how we're gonna meet our big challenges.

If I can get that message across in the next four or five months, then I believe I'm gonna be the Democratic nominee.  And I also understand though that it is a difficult message to get across.  But for the public to say we are going to hire a relatively young African American Senator named BARACK Obama as leader of the free world, when we've got a known commodity that's safer in the sense that we know both their strengths and their weaknesses, that requires, you know, some effort on my part to make that sale.  But it's what I believe.  And I think that if we do our job, more and more Americans will believe it as well.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Senator, thank you very much.

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you so much.