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Transcript: Barack Obama talks to Rachel Maddow 5 days before election

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow flew to Florida to meet with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail to get his views on the looming election and what he'd do as president.
/ Source: MSNBC

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow flew to Florida to meet with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail to get his views on the looming election and what Americans can expect should Obama win the office of the presidency.

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Senator, you criticize the Bush administration frequently. But, you almost never criticize the Republican Party itself. Other Democrats --


MADDOW: Well, yes, actually. I mean, other Democrats, you will hear them talk about the GOP as the party that's been wrong on all the big stuff. Creating Social Security, civil rights, the War in Iraq. But, you don't really do that. Do you think there is a stark difference between the parties?

OBAMA: Well, I do think there's a difference between the parties, but here's my belief. That I'm talking to voters. And I think they're a lot of Republican voters out there, self-identified, who actually think that what the Bush administration has done, has been damaging to the country.

And, what I'm interested in, is how do we build a working majority for change? And if I start off with the premise that it's only self-identified Democrats who I'm speaking to, then I'm not going to get to where we need to go. If I can describe it as not a blanket indictment of the Republican Party, but instead describe it as the Republican Party having been kidnapped by a incompetent, highly ideological subset of the Republican Party, then that means I can still reach out to a whole bunch of Republican moderates who I think are hungry for change, as well.

MADDOW: Now, they do that to you the same way. When they talk -- when John McCain calls you a socialist --

OBAMA: Right.

MADDOW: This redistribute the wealth idea. He goe -- he calls you soft on national security.


MADDOW: That's not just an anti-Barack Obama script.


MADDOW: That is -- he's reading from an anti-Democrat, and specifically an anti-liberal stance.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

MADDOW: And so, you have the opportunity to say John McCain, George Bush, you're wrong. You also have the opportunity to say, conservatism has been bad for America. But, you haven't gone there either.

OBAMA: I tell you what though, Rachel. You notice, I think we're winning right now so --


OBAMA: Maybe I'm doing something right. I know you've been cruising for a bruising for a while here, looking for a fight out there. But, I just think people are tired of that kind of back and forth, tit for tat, ideological approach to the problems.

Now, there is no doubt that there is a set of premises in the reigning Republican ideology that I just think are wrong. This whole notion, and then it's been captured by this back and forth about whether I'm a redistributor, I think is a great example. The notion that the progressive income tax, which was instituted by Teddy Roosevelt, supposedly John McCain's hero, is somehow un-American, I think is an example of how people have gone way off track.

The Republican Party has gone so right when it comes to how we think about our obligations to each other, how we pay for things. And as a consequence, because most people think it's pretty important to pay for roads and bridges, schools. What we've ended up doing is tax cuts, no spending cuts, huge national debt. There's a core hypocrisy to how they have governed over the last several years, that I think has to be reversed.

And so we're going to challenge those things. The important thing though is, I just want to make sure that I'm leaving the door open to people who say to themselves, well, you know, I'm a member of the Republican Party and I remember people like Chuck Percy in Illinois, or Abraham Lincoln, a pretty good Republican. That there's some core values that historically have been important to the Republican Party, but just have not been observed over the last several years.

MADDOW: There may be some policy fights ahead, particularly in responding to the economic crisis that will have both a practical and an ideological component. If we are looking at economic stimulus, is there a possibility that you could see in your first term, if you are elected, that we'd need an economic stimulus program that felt to Americans a little bit like a public works program, a little bit like an FDR-style infrastructure building program?

OBAMA: Well, I've actually talked about this. And I haven't been hiding the ball on this. I think we have to rebuild our infrastructure. Look at what China's doing right now. Their trains are faster than us, their ports are better than us. They are preparing for a very competitive 21st century economy and we're not.

One of the most frustrating things over the last eight years has been the ability of George Bush to pile up debt and huge deficits and not have anything to show for it, right? So, if you're going to run deficit spending, then it better be in rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our sewer lines, our water system, laying broadband lines.

One of, I think, the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid. Because if we're going to be serious about renewable energy, I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago. And we're going to have to have a smart grid if we want to use plug-in hybrids then we want to be able to have ordinary consumers sell back the electricity that's generated from those car batteries, back into the grid. That can create 5 million new jobs, just in new energy.

But, it's huge projects that generally speaking, you're not going to have private enterprise would want to take all those risks. And we're going to have to be involved in that process.

MADDOW: Also an issue on something like the electrical grid, that's an issue of American resilience, even against the threat of terrorism. A lot of times when you look at counter-terrorism, officials think that they came out, or an al-Qaeda attack on the electrical grid.

OBAMA: That's exactly right.

MADDOW: Well you know, at this point, a snow storm is an attack on our electrical grid.

OBAMA: That's exactly right.

MADDOW: Are there Homeland Security vulnerabilities that you think are fixable in ways that would also be good for the economy?

OBAMA: Well, you mentioned one. The electricity grid I think is important. I think that chemical plant security is another where the chemical industry has been resistant to mandates when it comes to hardening their sites. But, you know what? If you've got a chemical plant that threatens 100,000, or a million people in New Jersey, we better have some say in terms of how serious they are about guarding that facility.

MADDOW: Why hasn't that been fixed already?

OBAMA: Well, I think it's a classic example of special interests lobbying. There has been resistance from the chemical industry. And it is this -- again, an ideological predisposition that says regulation's always bad. So, stay out of the market place.

Well, look. I am a strong believer in the free market. I am a strong believer in capitalism. But, I am also a strong believer that there are certain common goods that you know -- our air, our water, making sure that people are safe -- that require us to have some regulation. Now, it has to be well designed.

But, the financial system is a classic example of a deregulation philosophy run amuck. And now, you see the consequences and ironically, had we had some sensible regulation, we would not have now, actually, a much closer approximation to socialism when it comes to the banking system, then anything that any Democrats have been proposing over the last several years. When you don't guard against excess, then a lot of times government ends up having to step in anyway, in a much more burdensome way.

MADDOW: Part of the ideological argument against regulation is that government always does things (INAUDIBLE).


MADDOW: I've been worried about this because I've been very focused on the GI bill.

OBAMA: Right.

MADDOW: VA is making worrying noises about their ability, their capacity to implement it. Can you give me an example of how you would make agencies better at doing what they're supposed to do? Just improving capacity?

OBAMA: Well, look. Look, look. I mean, there's a great example in FEMA. Now, they've gotten better since Katrina. But, the idea that our basic emergency functions had been under the leadership of a guy whose only expertise was you know, the Arabian Horses Association. That's a problem.

So, some of it's just getting the right people. Some of it is using technology in intelligent ways. One of the things that I'm excited about is to transfer what we've learned from this campaign in using technology, into government. I mean, there are huge areas where we can open things up, make things more transparent.

I passed a bill working with a Republican, Tom Coburn, called the Google for Government Bill, where now you can go to a single site and you can pull up a searchable database of every dollar of Federal spending that's out there. Which means now you've got a lot greater accountability.

While there are examples of that all throughout our government that can remove bureaucracy, eliminate red tape, make the whole process more customer friendly. Anybody's who's gone to the post office and wants to buy some stamps and you're trying to figure out the machine, it's not working properly, the lines are long. There's no reason why we can't make operations like that more efficient and work better. They do it in the private sector all the time.

MADDOW: I have a national security question for you about Afghanistan. You have argued, as had John McCain argued and now the Bush
administration agrees that we need more troops in Afghanistan. Why do more troops in Afghanistan equal a higher likelihood of success? What's the exit strategy for Afghanistan? How long are we going to be there?

OBAMA: Well, unfortunately, I think Afghanistan's going to be tough. I don't think there is a quick fix to what's happening there.

Because we have a combination of a government that is not seen as fully legitimate all throughout Afghanistan. It's not particularly capable in terms of delivering services right now. You've got a very powerful narco-terrorism, or intersection of narco-trafficking with terrorism.

Just the terrain is terrible for trying to move out the Taliban and al Qaeda. And then you've got Pakistan, and a border that is porous and very difficult. So, it's not going to be easy, but here's what I know.

That we can't allow bin Laden and al Qaeda to establish safe havens where they are plotting to kill Americans and train troops. There's no dispute that that's taking place right now. And so, we've got to make Afghanistan stable enough and focused enough on controlling its own borders, that we're not seeing the Taliban and al Qaeda return.

In the meantime, I think the most important thing that we're going to have to do in addition to adding more troops, providing alternatives to farmers for the poppy trade. Making sure that services are actually being delivered to the Afghan people.

The most important thing we're going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan, is actually deal with Pakistan. And we've got work with the newly elected government there in a coherent way that says, terrorism is now a threat to you. Extremism is a threat to you. We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.

And, we've got to say to the Pakistani people, we're not just going to fund a dictator in order for us to feel comfortable with who we're dealing with. We're going to respect democracy. But, we do have expectations in terms of being a partner in its terrorism.

MADDOW: But, you don't think of having a larger military footprint interferes their ability to do that stuff? To work with Pakistani government, to work with the Afghan government.

OBAMA: Oh, look. I mean, we're part of a coalition force that right now is under-manned. I mean, we have -- up until fairly recently, had one quarter of the troops in Afghanistan that we had in Iraq. And so, we're not looking to duplicate 150,000 troops in Afghanistan.

But, on the other hand, if we've only got 30,000, or 35,000, on a huge terrain and we're asking people to do a lot, I don't want a situation in which our troops continue to be under stop loss, or they are on the kinds of rotations that they've been under.

Or, they don't have the basic support services that will allow them to consolidate any gains that they make. Right now, it's just a little too scattershot an operation for them to secure and then build in these areas. And that's something that I think we can improve on. But, military power alone is not sufficient. It's necessary, but not sufficient.