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Full transcript: Obama interview with NBC News

Full transcript of President Barack Obama’s interview Sunday with “Nightly News” anchor and managing editor Brian Williams.
/ Source: NBC News

Following is the full transcript of President Barack Obama’s interview Sunday with “Nightly News” anchor and managing editor Brian Williams:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Just a block from here, you may not have known it, you drove by houses with holes still in the roof, where there'd been live rescues. There's still FEMA markings in spray paint. And yet, New Orleans is like this. This is a symbol of recovery. Katrina was about so many things. It was about class and race and government and — and the environment. What ever happened to that national conversation we were supposed to have about it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think that we're still having it. I — I don't think that conversation happens in — one instance. I think that there's a constant evolving debate about what are our obligations to each other. How do we make sure that in moments of devastation that we are looking out for one another? How does government organize itself, both at the federal level interacting with state and local officials?

How do we make sure that folks who were already vulnerable before a catastrophe hits aren't made worse off as a consequence of it? And, you know, what you've seen I think in New Orleans is steady progress. But, you know, we've still got a long way to go. And part of the reason that I wanted to come down here today to mark the fifth anniversary, was just to send a message to the people of New Orleans, but also the entire Gulf Coast, that they've, you know, gotten hit pretty good over the last several years. And all of America, not just people here, not just folks in the White House, but all of America, remains concerned and remains committed to their rebuilding.BRIAN WILLIAMS: Do you still get driven to anger over it when you see those pictures again after five years?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Oh, absolutely.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: The — the children, the old folks, the people suffering in this city?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Oh, well, you know, I still remember — I was in a London hotel room. I had just come back with Republican Senator Luger on a fact finding trip on nuclear issues. And we had gotten in — into London, we were at the hotel, and we suddenly we just saw this thing unfold. In ways that were searing to anybody with a conscience. And, you know, frankly, were a shock, I think, to many of us who didn't think that something like that could happen in America.

And you know, I meant — I meant — I referred today in my speech, immediately afterwards I flew back, went down to Houston with President Clinton and the first President Bush. And talked to folks who were — at that point  — and I don't think even at that time we realized the full scope of the — of the disaster. But what — what it did do, though, was reawaken, I hope, a sense that we're all in this thing together. That, you know, we may be divided along political lines. We may have arguments, ideologically, about the best way to approach this or that problem.

But when you've got something like a Katrina happen. When you've got major disasters. When you see people who are doing their best, but have just been overwhelmed that we've got to put all that stuff aside. And come in and make sure that we get the job done.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: The folks here still want a lot from you. I've been talking to them for a week. What would they ask you? They want you to come spend the night. They want you to treat their wetlands like an emergency, like the TVA or the Marshall Plan, because as they always say, they're losing a football field an hour.


BRIAN WILLIAMS: Perversely, could BP money pay for the — the reengineering and the preservation of the wetlands potentially?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think what everybody's understood is that we can build the best levees in the world. And we — we are going to be be on schedule for next year having gotten — all the levees strengthened, so that they can withstand a hundred year surge.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: You're confident?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I — we are on schedule right now. And I'm going to be keep on making sure that we stay on schedule. We've already fortified 220 miles of levees. But the — the real protection for New Orleans and for the Gulf are the wetlands. And that is an environmental disaster that had been occurring long before Katrina. And I think in light of what's happened with the oil spill, this is an opportunity for us to take a look comprehensively all along the coast and say, "How do we do things better? How do we do things smarter than we've done before?"

I assigned Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, who is a son of the Gulf. Former mayor, former governor of Mississippi. He's been traveling and listening and talking to folks all across this region. He will be working with our EPA director. All of our various agencies that are involved. To find out ways that we can leverage as much as possible the money that's going to be but needed for short term repair to make sure that we're doing things smarter over the long term.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: This was, of course, New Orleans' Katrina and Mississippi's Katrina. And you're familiar now that it's getting baked in a little bit in the media that BP was President Obama's Katrina. And it's also getting baked in that the Administration was slow off the mark. Is that unfair?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I — it's just not accurate. If you take a look at our response the only thing in common we had with — the Katrina response was Thad Allen, who came in and helped to organize rescue efforts — and he did so under Katrina, he did so for us. But if you look, we had immediately thousands of vessels, tens of thousands of people who are here. And what we're seeing now is that we've got a lot more work to do. But the fact is because of the sturdiness and swiftness of the response, there's a lot less oil hitting these shores and these beaches than anybody would have anticipated, given the volume that was coming out of — the — the BP — oil — oil well.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: You believe it's still out there, though?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Oh, absolutely. It — there's no doubt, but what we've seen is — is that the skimming, the burning, all the efforts that took place in coordination with local folks here, who often times new the landscape and new the waters better than any federal official did. As a consequence of that not only have we been able to stop the well. But we've actually seen less damage than might have occurred had we not had that kind of a response. Now, the key is to make sure that we're monitoring it carefully, based on sound science. And that it's a sustained effort over time. That's something that I'm committed to.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Let's talk about another topic that's part of the firmament here and everywhere. And that's the economy. The New York Times said this weekend, "President Obama has another new plan on the economy. Now would be a good time to find out about it." Do you have anything new on the economy? And while you've been away, we had a horrible GDP number last month.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, we — we anticipated that the recovery was slowing. The economy is still growing, but it's not growing as fast as it needs to. I've got things right now in — before Congress that we should move immediately. And I've said so before I went on vacation, and I'll keep on saying when I — now that I'm back. We should be passing legislation that helps small businesses get credit, that eliminates capital gains taxes so that they have more incentive to invest right now.

There are a whole host of measures we could take, no single element of which is a magic bullet but cumulatively can start continuing to build momentum for the recovery. But look, the — this was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and the worst recession since the Great Depression. And so, what we know is that we are going to have to slowly, steadily build confidence. Push more investment out there. Target areas like clean energy that we know are going to be be growth areas in the future.

Look at how we're doing our infrastructure, so that we can maximize the amount of jobs that are created. So, there — there are a range of steps that I hope we can get bipartisan support for. But right now, we're still — we're in the season, political season, which means that for the next two months there's going to be be constantly a contest in the minds of Members of Congress. And my Republican friends in Congress, between doing what the country needs and what they think may be advantageous in the — in terms of short term politics.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Since you weighed into the Islamic Center near Ground Zero controversy, it — it's gotten larger. It's been nationalized, the debate. Will you revisit that topic?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, I think my statement at the IFTAR dinner in the White House was very clear. And that is — is that if you can build a church on that site. If you can build a synagogue on that site or a Hindu Temple on that site, then we can't treat people of the Islamic faith differently, who are Americans, who are American citizens. That is central to who we are. That is a core value of our Constitution. And my job as President is to make sure in part that we're upholding our Constitution.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Respectfully, the next day in Florida, you seemed to walk that back. So —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, I — actually, let — let me be clear, Brian. I didn't walk it back at all. The — what I said was I was not endorsing any particular project. I was endorsing our Constitution. And what is right. Now, the media, I think — anticipating that this was going to be be a firestorm politically — seemed to think that somehow there was inconsistency and there wasn't. And I was very specific to my team and will be very specific to you now. That the core value and principle that every American is treated the same. That doesn't change.

I mean, think about it — I — at this IFTAR dinner I had — Muslim Americans who had been in uniform fighting in Iraq. Some of whom have served over 20 years. How — how can you say to them that somehow their religious faith is less worthy of respect under our Constitution and our system of government? You know, that's — that's something that I feel very strongly about. I respect the feelings on the other side. And I would defend their right to express them just as fiercely.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Mr. President, you're an American born Christian.


BRIAN WILLIAMS: And yet, increasing and now significant numbers of Americans in polls, upwards of a fifth of respondents are claiming you are neither. A fifth of the people, just about, believe you're a Muslim.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Keep in mind, those two things — American born and Muslim — are not the same. So — but I understand your point.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Either or the latter, and the most recent number is the latter. This has to be troubling to you. This is, of course, all new territory for an American President.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, the — the facts are the facts, right? So, we went through some of this during the campaign. You know, there is a mechanism, a network of misinformation, that in a new media era can get churned out there constantly. We dealt with this when I was first running for the U.S. Senate. We dealt with it when we were first running for the Presidency. There were those who said I couldn't win as U.S. Senator because I had a funny name. And people would be too unfamiliar with it. And yet, we ended up winning that Senate seat in Illinois because I trusted in the American people's capacity to get beyond all this nonsense and focus on is this somebody who cares about me and cares about my family and has a vision for the future? And so, I will always put my money on the American people. And I'm not going to be worrying too much about whatever rumors are floating on — out there. If I spend all my time chasing after that then I wouldn't get much done.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Even a number as sizeable as this — what does it say to you? Does it say anything about your communications or the effectiveness of your opponents to —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, Brian, I — I would say that I can't spend all my time with my birth certificate plastered on my forehead. (LAUGHS) It — it is what — the facts are the facts. And so, it's not something that I can I think spend all my time worrying about. And I don't think the American people want me to spend all my time worrying about it.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: What does it say to you that Glenn Beck was able to draw a crowd of perhaps north of 300,000 people on the anniversary of Dr. King's speech, on the site of Dr. King's speech? Message appeared to be, at times, anti-government, anti-spread of government. Anti-Obama administration. And in favor of — I guess — re-injecting God into both politics and the American discourse.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I have to say, I — I did not watch the rally. I think that one of the wonderful things about this country is that at any given moment any group of people can decide, you know, "We want to — our voices heard." And — and so, I think that Mr. Beck and the rest of those folks were exercising their rights under our Constitution exactly as they should.

I — I do think that it's important for us to recognize that right now, the country's going through a very difficult time, as a consequence of years of neglect in a whole range of areas. Our schools not working the way they need to, so we've slipped in terms of the number of college graduates, you know?

A financial system that was not, you know, operating in a way that maintained integrity and assured that the people who were investing or who were buying a home or were using a credit card weren't getting in some way cheated. We had a health care system that was broken and that was bankrupting families and businesses. All those issues are big, tough, difficult issues. And those are just our domestic issues. That's before we get to policy issues in two wars. And a continuing battle against terrorists who want to do us harm.

So, given all those anxieties — and given the fact that, you know, in none of these situations are you going to be fix things overnight. It's not surprising that somebody like a Mr. Beck is able to stir up a certain portion of the country. That's been true throughout our history. What I'm focused on is making sure that the decisions we're making now are going to be be not good for the nightly news. Not good even necessarily  for the next election. But are good for the next generation. And I'm very confident that those decisions are the ones that we've made.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: As you note it ties into an economy in down times. Do you have a message for the disenchanted? The angry? The angry who are unemployed and feeling victimized by this economy?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, I think they have every right to be frustrated. And they have every right to be angry. And I think the message that I will continue to deliver in the months ahead and the years ahead is it took us a long time to get into this hole that we're in. This was the worst economic crisis that we've seen in generations. And we are making progress. We are steadily moving forward.

A year ago today, we were still losing jobs, we're now gaining them. The economy was still contracting, it's not expanding. It's not happening as fast as people would like. But it's moving in the right direction. And the thing we can't do is to try to go back to the same policies that created this mess in the first place.

Now, part of the — I think the balance that we're going to be have to strike is the fact that, you know, we've got huge debt, huge deficits that amounted as a consequence of this financial crisis. A consequence of this incredibly deep recession. And that means that we're going to be have to do two things at once. We've got to keep on pushing to grow the economy. But we've also on the medium term and the long term have to get control of our deficit.

And it would be ideal where we didn't have to worry about one and could just focus on the other. But, you know, this generation, it's fallen on our shoulders to make some very tough decisions. The one thing I guess I would say to the American people is that we've been through tougher times before. And we always come out ahead. As long as we stay united. As long as we stay optimistic about the future. As long as we stay innovative. As long as we work hard and we apply ourselves. We've still got the best universities, the best workers, the best business climate of any economy in the world. And so, I have no doubt that we are going to be rebound and rebound strong. But when you're in the middle of it. And if you don't have a job right now. It's — it's a tough, tough situation.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Finally, sir, because I see fidgeting — on Iraq. You're speaking on that subject this coming week. We watched the last of the combat troops leave live on on television. Our own Richard Engel wrote along with them. The end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. What would it take to send combat troops back in? A real and present threat to the 50,000 or so that remain in the so-called noncombat role would General Ordierno have to call you and say, "We need more firepower back here." There were what? Fourteen coordinated bombings on one day.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, Brian, I'm not going to be speculate on what scenarios might occur. Here's what I know. The trend lines have been steadily declining violence. Even after we left the cities. What you've seen is lower and lower levels of violence. The Iraqi Security Forces are functioning at least as well if not better than any of us had anticipated.

And there is great confidence on the part of the commanders on the ground. That even though you're going to be see some efforts at any given time for remnants of A.Q.I. and terrorist organizations to try to stir things up. That in fact you are not going to be see the kind of sectarian war break out in Iraq that had occurred.

That doesn't mean that it's going to be be smooth sailing from here on out. That's why we've still got a training operation there. That's why we're going to be continue to conduct joint counterterrorism operations. That's why we've got to make sure that we have the troops there to protect our civilians who are really taking over the lead there. But the bottom line is — is that we have been able to successfully transition and turn over sovereignty and security operations to the Iraqis.

Their job right now is to make sure that they get a government completed. And they're going through a political process that  is natural in a fledgling democracy. But we're confident that that will get done. And that we're going to be be a long term partner within Iraq. But we're not going to be be operating in the same combat role that we have in the past.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: And finally, I'm hoping to find you in a reflective mood on a cloudy day. We're the first to speak to you coming off your summer vacation. How does it recharge you? What do you think about? What do you see? What do you read about? How are you thinking about your job these days?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, we went through the last two years of as intense a set of problems as I think any President's faced in a very long time. And I can look back and say we got some really tough stuff done that needed to get done. And as I look forward, my central focus is going to be be to make sure that I'm constantly communicating with all segments of this country about why I feel optimistic about our future.

You know, one of the — one of the actual great things about America as I was doing some — some — historical reading, during the break is we kind of go through these periods during difficult times where we think we're falling behind. You know, nothing's going right. We do a lot of soul searching. And then usually we come out of that funk and it's precisely because we do some self reflection. And we ask tough questions. And we have these contentious debates.

And there's — you know — a lot of folks who have very strong opinions about various issues. That process helps guide us in a better direction. That's part of the reason why this is a more dynamic society than others. This is one that is adaptable. That can change. That can recover. That is resilient. And, you know, the one thing that I have never felt more confident about is that America will continue to lead the world, will continue to be resilient.

And we are going to be just have to make sure that we stay steady and don't lose heart as we transition into a better future. And that means we're going to be have to make some tough choices now. But you know, we should — you know, we should constantly have our eye on — on that longer term price.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: What are you thinking about your jobs these days?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that the first couple of years were, as I've said, about getting some very hard things done and contentious things done, but that needed to be done. I think the next couple of years, we've got to focus on debt and deficits. We've got to focus on making sure that we make the recovery stronger. And a lot of that is attracting private investment. Making sure that these companies who are making good profits are actually seeing the opportunities out there in a whole range of new areas and new ventures. So, there was a lot more implementation, management — probably less of the constant legislative functions that we had. But I — I'm confident that both things are necessary. Both things are important.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Enough work remaining to seek a second term out of.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, the — I — I'm not spending a lot of time thinking about a second term. Right now, I'm spending a lot of time thinking about what I got to do next week.