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Obama: We must ‘help Elkhart reinvent itself’

President Barack Obama talks about economic recovery for this economically ravaged region of northern Indiana with NBC Chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd.
Image: Chuck Todd and President Obama
President Obama and Chuck Todd talk about issues facing Indiana at the Monaco RV vehicle factory in Wakarusa, Ind., on Wednesday.Jim Seida /
/ Source:

President Barack Obama brought his latest prescription for recovery to this economically ravaged region of northern Indiana, promising Wednesday to “unleash prosperity for everybody, not just some.”

While he was there, he took time to speak with NBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd. Here is a complete transcript of their discussion:

Chuck Todd: As an Illinois politician, you know the saying, "How is it playing in Peoria?", well, let me show you the front page of "The Elkhart Truth."

Obama: Right.

Todd: Clearly your presidency now, it might be, how is it playing in Elkhart? And they believe your fortunes here, of a community and a president entwined. Is that fair?

Obama: Absolutely. As I said in my speech, you know, if you look at what happened in Elkhart County in the span of a year, they went from a 5 percent unemployment rate up to almost a 19 percent unemployment rate, 14 percent, now that's almost unheard of. And that…

Todd: That's one in six.

Obama: One in six folks.

Todd: And nobody has a neighbor that's not…

Obama: That's not unemployed. And a lot of it had to do with manufacturing losses in this area. And so our whole goal is — first of all, is to rescue the economy from the brink and you're starting to see unemployment drop a little bit here.

But the most important thing we are going to have to do is to help Elkhart reinvent itself. And that's why when I talk about a new foundation built around a clean energy economy, innovation and science, revamping our education system, making sure that we've got a health care system that's not a drag on the economy, all of those things are designed to set up the pillars, the foundations for a community like Elkhart to rebuild itself.

And if I'm successful at the end of four years, I will be able to lack back and say, Elkhart has not just come back from the brink but is actually poised to move forward in the 21st Century.

Todd: It's fair to use Elkhart as the president?

• • Obama: ‘Unleash prosperity for everybody’

Obama: Absolutely. I think the Midwest generally has taken some of the biggest hits over the last decade and the question is, can we start reinventing ourselves so that we can make things that we are exporting and not just constantly importing stuff.

Todd: Now I promised questions from Elkhart residents, but before I get to them, you talked with President Clinton today…

Obama: I did.

Todd: … about the rescue in North Korea. What were his quick impressions of what he saw in North Korea to you?

Obama: Well, I didn't have a lengthy conversation. The main message I wanted to send him was thank you on behalf of, obviously the families, but also the American people for resolving what was a humanitarian ordeal.

Obviously, the families were extraordinarily relieved. I talked to them last night. You know, I think President Clinton showed that, you know, his service to this country continues. And…

Todd: No intel yet from him, though?

Obama: No.

Todd: He didn't get any — you expect some, though?

Obama: I expect that we will have a discussion at some future point.

Todd: The health of him, number one, I mean, Kim Jong-il, knowing what his health is, I mean, do you think those are the type of things you expect to learn?

Obama: You know, I suspect that President Clinton will have some interesting observations from his trip and I will let him provide those to me. I won't speculate.

Todd: And really quickly, is this fair to say, could this be the start of what could be a bilateral relationship or negotiations with the north or is this still…

Obama: You know, we were…

Todd: … keeping them separate?

Obama: We were very clear this was a humanitarian mission. President Clinton was going on behalf of the families to get these young journalists out. We have said to the North Koreans there is a path for improved relations and it involves them no longer developing nuclear weapons and not engaging in the provocative behavior that they have been engaging in.

So we wish the people of North Korea well, we just want to make sure that the government of North Korea is operating within the basic rules of the international community that they know is expected of them.

Todd: All right. Let me get to these questions. Jennifer Holder-Reed (ph), here is what she says right here from Elkhart. "Why are big businesses coming in ahead of the people of this country?" This has to do with this idea that they don't feel like they are getting the stimulus.

Obama: Right, right.

Todd: You have seen these quotes this morning in a couple of papers. The banks are getting the stimulus, or the car companies are getting the stimulus. They don't feel that. How do you respond to that?

• • Obama: ‘Unleash prosperity for everybody’

Obama: Well, look, I think people's frustrations are legitimate. If you think about the actions we had to take early, it actually didn't have to do with the stimulus package, it had to do with a bank bailout that had started before...

Todd: But that's not the way people are seeing it. Is that a problem?

Obama: Well, it is a problem because, you know, you had the TARP fund, $700 billion, that started not under my administration, but we had to make sure it continued to stabilize the banks.

Then you had the auto bailout that was — came out of TARP, it had nothing to do with the Recovery Act. But all of those things kind of merge in people's minds. And I think that it is important for us to emphasize, number one, that the stimulus or the recovery bill is all about tax cuts to ordinary Americans, 95 percent of working families.

That it's about unemployment insurance and helping them keep their health care in the event they've lost their job. It's about making sure states aren't laying off people to make the recession worse. And it is about investments of the sort that we talked about here today.

So — but I know that when people think about how government spent its money, what has gotten a lot of publicity is the banks, the auto companies, and that is something that, you know, people don't see concrete effects.

So, you know, it is our job to make sure they know that almost everything we are doing right now is designed to stabilize the economy but also to make sure that ordinary people have some relief.

Todd: You brought up unemployment benefits. Let me tell you about Beverly Paul (ph). She says: "All of us have been hit hard," she took a 3 percent pay cut to avoid being laid off. She has got adult children who are unemployed living now at her house. She is wondering how she is going to handle the high cost of heat just this winter.

Obama: Right.

Todd: This goes: "Do we know that a whole bunch of folks are going to run out of unemployment insurance?" First of all, are you going to get that extended?

Obama: Well, I — you know, I think we've — you know, we are going to have conversations with Congress about how we deal with both employment insurance and health care assistance for people, and...

Todd: Could you use current stimulus money and redirect the way you have done with "cash for clunkers"?

Obama: We're going to have to identify what's happening. Obviously, the unemployment rate is still elevated, although you have seen the economy stabilize. What we are starting to see right now is businesses making some modest investments, starting to get back on their feet but they are not hiring it yet, which means the unemployment rate...

Todd: Right. She's on a three-month plan. She's not worrying…

Obama: Exactly.

Todd: Worrying about three years from now.

Obama: And so we have got to make sure that there is still a safety net for folks in place. When the unemployment numbers come out, I think we will have to evaluate this very carefully.

Todd: Let me jump to another topic, Scott Ferguson, he's upset about taxes, he says: "Explain how raising taxes on anyone during a deep recession is going to help with the economy." And he actually wants to you look at historical markers where this has been — you say, you know, where this has been a helpful thing coming out of a recession.

Obama: Well, first of all, he is right. Normally, you don't raise taxes in a recession, which is why we haven't and why we have instead cut taxes. So I guess what I would say to Scott is his economics are right, you don't raise taxes in a recession. We haven't raised taxes in a recession. We don't have a…

Todd: But you might for health care. You might for the highest -- for some of the wealthiest.

• • Obama: ‘Unleash prosperity for everybody’

Obama: The — we have not proposed a tax hike for the wealthy that would take effect in the middle of a recession. Even the proposals that have come out of Congress, which, by the way, were different from the proposals I put forward, still wouldn't kick in until after the recession was over.

So he is absolutely right, the last thing you want to do is to raise taxes in the middle of a recession because that would just suck up — take more demand out of the economy and put businesses in a further hole.

Todd: Cash for Clunkers really quickly. You're using — you're redirecting stimulus money.

Obama: Right.

Todd: Is there another idea out there you're saying, you know what, maybe we ought to redirect some stimulus money. We have the money allocated, you're not asking for new money, could you envision redirecting stimulus money for other projects?

Obama: Well, look, all of this is legislative so, you know, it would have to obtain congressional approval. The Cash for Clunkers program has worked much better than even the sponsors imagined.

I mean, what you've seen is not only greatly improved sales in the showrooms, but what you have also seen is the trade-ins have improved fuel efficiency by about 10 percent per vehicle. Now so environmentally it has worked out a lot better than we expect.

You know, I think that when you look at generally though the structure of the stimulus, one-third tax cuts, one-third help for states and individual families, one-third investments, that's about right. If we see a program that's not working, then we are going to — we are going to stop it.

Todd: You'll move…


Todd: … clunkers.

Obama: But — and if we see something that's really working well with, then we will want to encourage that.

Todd: We brought up health care, this is from Kenneth Cowan (ph). He says: "Why don't you just push the health care bill through, stop letting those hard-headed Republicans and try and stop what most voters wanted?" Or at least most of your supporters wanted.

He doesn't want a bipartisan approach. there are some senators in — Chuck Schumer, have said, hey, let's just get this so we only need 50 votes, let's not get the 60 vote. Where are you at this time on bipartisanship?

Obama: You know, I am glad that in the Senate Finance Committee, there have been a couple of Republicans, Chuck Grassley, Mike Enzi, Olympia Snowe, who have been willing to negotiate with Democrats to try to produce a bill. But they haven't yet and I think at some point, some time in September, we are just going to have to make an assessment.

My bottom line is, if we have got a bill that is reforming insurance practices so that, for example, people with pre-existing conditions aren't losing their health care, if we are cut canning the long-term costs of health care and health care inflation so that it's affordable for families, businesses, and the federal government, if it's deficit neutral, if it's instituting the kinds of reforms that will improve quality and reduce costs, then I'm — that's what I want.

I would prefer Republicans working with us on that because I think it's in the interest of everybody. That shouldn't be a partisan issue.

Todd: You're not ruling it out?

Obama: No, no. What…

Todd: If you're going to get something passed, you're going to get it passed any way you can?

Obama: Look, the bottom line is, the American people, the American economy, and the federal budget have to have some sort of reforms in the health care system. And, you know failure is not an option this year.

• • Obama: ‘Unleash prosperity for everybody’

Todd: I want to close with something, because it's — here in Elkhart they're dealing with this, which is the "new normal.: We have heard people talk about it. This is what Howard Mishler (ph) — is just looking for more jobs, he is 58.

Obama: Right.

Todd: You know, so the idea of job retraining right now is probably not the first thing on his mind. He just wants a job. He even said here today, he was laid off from this factory last year, 150 to 200 jobs is what you brought here today. Not necessarily 1,500, 2,000.