President Obama: The economy, the Congress, the future
Steve Kroft interviews the president on a wide range of critical topics, including Obama's performance in office; the U.S. economy and the state of unemployment; congressional gridlock; and the mounting deficit. President Obama also sizes up his competition in the 2012 presidential race as he begins his own quest for re-election.
The following is a script of "President Obama" which aired on Dec. 11, 2011. Steve Kroft is the correspondent, Frank Devine and Michael Radutzky, producers.
After months of listening to attacks from Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders, President Obama took off the gloves this past week and emerged in full campaign mode.
It began with a major speech in the nation's heartland, with a vigorous defense of his economic policies, directed at the middle class. And it spilled over into the White House Press Room with a contentious response to Republican criticisms of his foreign policy.
On Friday morning, in the White House Cabinet Room, we sat down with the president and questioned him about his record, his leadership, the economy and his prospects for re-election.
Steve Kroft: We have a new CBS poll, which is out this weekend. And I'll give you the news that's good for you first. People like you. They respect you. They think that you're working hard. And they realize that you faced an enormous amount of trouble and problems, many of them inherited. And your approval rating is four times higher than the Congress.
President Barack Obama: That's a low bar, I gather.
Kroft: But they're not happy with the way you're doing your job. You've got 75 percent of the people in the country think it's headed in the wrong direction. Seventy-five percent. And 54 percent don't think that you deserve to be re-elected. I mean, those are not good numbers with 11 months to go before the election.
Obama: Well, look. We've gone through an incredibly difficult time in this country. And I would be surprised if the American people felt satisfied right now. They shouldn't feel satisfied. We've got a lot more work to do in order to get this country and the economy moving in a way that benefits everybody, as opposed to just a few.
On Tuesday, we accompanied the president as he took that message to the middle of the country for what's been called the unofficial launch of his re-election campaign. In Osawatomie, Kansas, where Theodore Roosevelt unveiled the basic tenets of the Progressive Movement just over 100 years ago, President Obama spoke out against the growing economic inequality he says is destroying the middle class.
[Obama in Kansas: This is a make or break moment for the middle class and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what's at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.]
The president, in laying out the broad themes for his re-election bid, said the system has been rigged against the middle class. And he blamed the Republicans for fighting tougher regulations on the financial industry and opposing higher taxes for the wealthy.
[Obama in Kansas: Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say they are wrong.]
Kroft: Mr. President.
Obama: Good to see you, sir.
Kroft: Good to see you.
We spoke to the president immediately following the 55 minute speech, which he wrote mostly himself, clearly drawing the battle lines for the next election.
Kroft: I mean, you were really talking about income inequality, which suggests redistribution of wealth.
Obama: I'm gonna interrupt you there, Steve.
Kroft: There are gonna be people who say, 'This is the socialist Obama and he's come out of the closet.'
Obama: Look, the-- everybody's at-- concerned about inequality. Those folks in there, who were listenin' to the speech, those are teachers and small business people, and probably some small town bankers, who are in there thinking to themselves, 'How is it that I, we're workin' so hard,' and meanwhile, they know that corporate profits are at a record level, that a lot of folks are doin' very well. What's happened to the bargain? What's happened to the American deal that says, you know, we are focused on building a strong middle class?
Kroft: This is the class warfare you have been accused of by the Republicans?
Obama: Look, the problem is, is that our politics has gotten to the point, where we can't have an honest conversation about the greatest income inequality since the 1920s. And we can't have an honest conversation about the irresponsibility that resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, without somebody sayin' that somehow we're bein' divisive. No, we're bein' honest about what happened and we've gotta be honest about how we move forward.
Kroft: Look, we're getting close to the start of the presidential campaign. Does this mean no more governing for the next year until next November? I don't mean just for you, I mean, for Congress. Do you have any hope that anything is gonna get accomplished between now and the next election?
Obama: If I have anything to do about it, absolutely. We're gonna keep on pushing to get things done. I want to work with Congress. I want to work with both parties in Congress. I think that we can still make progress on a balanced approach to deficit reduction. What I'm not gonna do is wait for Congress. So wherever we have an opportunity and I have the executive authority to go ahead and get some things done, we're just gonna go ahead and do 'em.
After returning to Washington, he was even more combative when he was asked about Republican charges that his foreign policy in the Middle East is one of appeasement.
[Obama at press conference, 12/8/11: Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who were taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or, whoever's left out there. Ask them about that.]
We talked to him about this new approach Friday morning at the White House.
Kroft: Since the midterm elections, you made an effort at bipartisanship. It hasn't worked out that way. And it seems to me, it appears, watching you the last month or so, that you're-- stopped reaching out to Republicans. That you're being-- that you're going on the offensive.
Obama: Well, I-- look--
Kroft: And taking your message to the voters.
Obama: I think that when I came into office in 2008, it was my firm belief that at such an important moment in our history, there was no reason why Democrats and Republicans couldn't put some of the old ideological baggage aside and focus on common sense, what works, practical solutions to the tough problems we were facing. And I think the Republicans made a different calculation, which was, 'You know what? We really screwed up the economy. Obama seems popular. Our best bet is to stand on the sidelines, 'cause we think the economy's gonna get worse, and at some point, just blame him.' And so we haven't gotten the kind of engagement from them that I would have liked.
Kroft: Isn't it your job as president to find solutions to these problems, to get results, to figure out a way to get it done?
Obama: It is my job to put forward a vision of the country that benefits the vast majority of Americans. It is my job to make sure that my party is behind those initiatives, even if sometimes it's breakin' some china and goin' against some of the dogmas of our party in the past. We've done that on things like education reform. And it's my job to rally the American people around that vision.
Kroft: You say that you've rallied the country, but how-- these poll numbers show otherwise.
Obama: Steve, here's the thing. As long as unemployment rate is too high and people are feeling under the gun, day in, day out, 'cause their bills are goin' up, and their wages and incomes aren't. Or they're out of a job. They're gonna feel unsatisfied. I mean, there's no secret to this.
If I can't get Republicans to move, partly because they've made a political, strategic decision that says, "Anything Obama's for, we're against, 'cause that's our best chance of winning an election." But, keep in mind, I'm talking about Republican members of Congress. I'm not talking about Republicans around the country.
Kroft: They don't like you much better. It's only seven percent approval rating.
Obama: Yeah, no, I understand. But I think that they like the ideas that we put forward. I mean, the interesting thing is the majority of Republicans actually think we should have a balanced approach to deficit reduction, including tax increases for the wealthy. The majority of Republicans do think that we should make investments in roads and bridges and improving our airports and investing in basic research and medical research.
So if you take my name out of it, and just look at the ideas that we've been presenting, these are common sense, mainstream ideas that Republican presidents in the past have supported.
Kroft: With the unemployment [rate at] 8.6 [percent], you've still got soft consumer demand. You've got no business investment. There's still a fairly steady downturn in housing prices. Do you see some hope? Do you think that things are gonna get better? Well, do you think that you might have the unemployment rate down to eight percent by the time the election rolls around?
Obama: I think it's possible. But, you know, I'm not in the job of prognosticating on the economy. I'm in the job of putting in place the tools that allow the economy to thrive and Americans to succeed. And, you know, keep in mind that when I came into office eight million jobs were gone. And things were cratering. Six months later, the economy was growing again. And we've now had nine consecutive quarters, two and a half years, in which the economy's grown. About nine months later, we were creating jobs again. So, does that make people feel better? No. You know, we did all the right things to prevent a Great Depression and to get the economy growing again and to get job creation going again. But it hasn't made up for the hole that was created in those six, nine, 12 months before my economic policies took effect.
You know, sometimes when I'm talkin' to my team, I describe us as, you know, I'm the captain and they're the crew on a ship, goin' through really bad storms. And no matter how well we're steerin' the ship, if the boat's rockin' back and forth and people are gettin' sick and, you know, they're bein' buffeted by the winds and the rain and you know, at a certain point if you're askin', 'Are you enjoying the ride right now?' Folks are gonna say, 'No.' And are they gonna say, 'Do you think the captain's doing a good job?' People are gonna say, 'You know what? A good captain would have had us in some smooth waters and sunny skies, at this point.' And I don't control the weather. What I can control are the policies we're putting in place to make a difference in people's lives.
Kroft: There's a general perception that the stimulus was not enough. That it really didn't work.
Obama: Let me stop you there, Steve. First of all, there's not a general perception that the stimulus didn't work. You've got John McCain's former economist and a whole series of prominent economists, who say that it created or saved three million jobs and prevented us from goin' into a Great Depression. That works. So that's not true.
It is true that some people have argued, given the magnitude of the crisis we were in, we should have done an even larger Recovery Act. And then, I'm bumpin' up against the realities of Congress, which is this Recovery Act was twice as large as most people thought was even possible.
The recurring challenge is always gonna be, even if we've done the right things, if people's reality right now is still difficult, they're gonna be frustrated. And they should, because I'm frustrated. The question in the election--
Kroft: And they hold you equally accountable with the Congress.
Obama: And the question next year is gonna be -- and this is how a democracy's supposed to work -- do they see a more compelling vision coming out from the other side? Do they think that cutting taxes further, including on the wealthy, cutting taxes on corporations, gutting regulations...Do we think that that is gonna be somehow more successful?
And if the American people think that that's a recipe for success and a majority are persuaded by that then I'm gonna lose. But I don't think that's-- I don't think that's where the American people are gonna go, because I don't think the American people believe that based on what they've seen before, that's gonna work.
Kroft: Why do you think you deserve to be re-elected? What have you accomplished?
Obama: Not only saving this country from a Great Depression. Not only saving the auto industry. But putting in place a system in which we're gonna start lowering health care costs and you're never gonna go bankrupt because you get sick or somebody in your family gets sick. Makin' sure that we have reformed the financial system, so we never again have taxpayer-funded bailouts and the system is more stable and secure.
Ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Decimating al Qaeda, including Bin Laden being taken off the field. But when it comes to the economy, we've got a lot more work to do. And we're-- we're gonna keep on at it.
We also asked President Obama why there have been no prosecutions of Wall Street executives, about the failure to reach an agreement on deficit reduction and the Republican candidates who are after his job. All of that when we come back.
In a wide-ranging conversation Friday morning, President Obama discussed everything from the sins of Wall Street to his handling of the deficit negotiations with Congress.
At the heart of our conversation were questions about the effectiveness of his leadership that have been raised not just by Republicans, but by Democrats as well. We also talked about his chances in the upcoming election in the face of some grim public opinion polls, and his thoughts about the Republican challengers.
We start with Wall Street, where President Obama has laid the blame for the country's economic meltdown.
Steve Kroft: One of the things that surprised me the most about this poll is that when asked who your policies favor the most, 42 percent said Wall Street. Only 35 percent said average Americans. My suspicion is, some of that may have to do with the fact that there's not been any prosecutions, criminal prosecutions, of people on Wall Street. And that the civil charges that have been brought have often resulted in what many people think have been a slap on the wrist, fines. Are you disappointed by that?
President Barack Obama: You know, I can't, as President of the United States, comment on the decisions about particular prosecutions. That's the job of the Justice Department. And we keep those things separate, so that there's no political influence on decisions made by professional prosecutors. I can tell you, just from 40,000 feet, that some of the most damaging behavior on Wall Street, in some cases, some of the least ethical behavior on Wall Street, wasn't illegal. That's exactly why we had to change the laws. And that's why we put in place the toughest financial reform package since F.D.R. and the Great Depression.
The implementation of those reforms is still being fought over, with the banking industry and the Republican leadership trying to limit their scope. Just another symptom of the political standoff that has paralyzed Congress since the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit began last summer.
Kroft: There are people that think that you took a very hard line, that the Republicans weren't the only ones that were being intransient. That--
Obama: That's based off--
Kroft: Let's take the issue of tax reform. It seems to be an issue everybody's interested in right now. The Republicans, your own Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended cutting the basic rates, getting rid of deductions, and making the tax form simpler. The Republicans made a couple of overtures during those negotiations to raise revenues--
Kroft: --by tax reform.
Obama: Steve, it--
Kroft: And you didn't--
Obama: No, Steve, that's just not the case. What happened was that they made overtures, where they were willing to raise about $200 billion in exchange for $2 trillion or so worth of cuts of core programs like Medicare that seniors depend on for their security in their golden years. And what I said to them was a balanced approach means exactly what it says. It means it's balanced. What we haven't seen is any serious movement on the other side.
Kroft: Well, they say they're ready to do it. They say it's your insistence on raising the taxes to the upper-- you know, to the wealthiest Americans, that you're fixated on that and that there are other ways to raise revenue.
Obama: Steve, the math is the math. You can't lower rates and raise revenue, unless you're getting revenue from someplace else. Now, either it's comin' from middle class families or poor families or it's comin' from folks like you and me that can afford to pay a little more.
Kroft: The argument has been that if you reform the deduction process--
Obama: And the deductions mean home mortgages for middle class families. The deductions mean, you know, things that a lot of people of modest means rely on. But, you can't get away from the basic concept that either we have a system in which the people who have benefited the most from this new economy, by a magnitude of 200, 300 percent increases in their income, either they're doing a little bit more or they're not.
I think they should. Because, and this is not because I'm interested in punishing the rich, I want everybody to be rich, that's great. It has to do with the fact that the less I'm asking you or me to do, the more I'm asking somebody who's in a much tougher position to sacrifice. And that is basic math. But I want to be very clear here, Steve. Democrats have moved significantly on a whole range of issues in part because of my leadership.
But not all of those Democrats are happy with it, or the ultimate outcome. Many believe the president was too willing to compromise during the deficit negotiations.
Kroft: You gave up a lot. You said you wanted a balanced approach. You didn't get it. You cut a trillion dollars and set up the framework to cut another trillion plus, and the Republicans gave up nothing. I mean, there are people in your own party who think that you were outmaneuvered. That--
Obama: All right, so--
Kroft: --you were stared down by John Boehner and Grover Norquist and capitulated.
Obama: Right. Steve, you've gotta get your story straight, though. The first argument was that I don't compromise at all. Now you're saying I gave up too much.
Kroft: Well, not-- (overtalk) It seems to be all the compromising is being done by you.
Obama: Both stories can't be true. Right? So I think what you'll see is that we were willin' to make some tough cuts on programs that, some of which I like, and would like to see in place. But we can't afford 'em right now.
What is going to really solve the deficit over the long term and not just the short term, it requires we Democrats to agree to make some modifications on entitlements so that they're sustainable and stronger over the long term. And it requires Republicans to get off the dime when it comes to revenues. And to make sure that everybody's doin' their fair share. And if we do that, we can solve this problem.
Kroft: Even among some of your supporters, strongest supporters, there is a sense, a little sense of disappointment. That they thought that you were gonna be bolder. That you were gonna take more steps. That you were gonna work outside the box, so to speak. Be a little unconventional. And they think you've been too cautious. That you've just-- (overtalk) kind of played it by the numbers.
Obama: That's opposed to my critics, who think I've been this radical socialist. (laugh) If my goal was to maintain the extraordinary popularity that I had right after I made my convention speech in 2004, then I would have never left the Senate. I would have been sittin' on 70 percent approval ratings. I wouldn't have been leading this country, but people'd be really attracted, 'cause I wouldn't have had to make any choices and make any decisions and exercise any responsibility. I took a different path. And as Michelle reminds me, 'You volunteered for this thing.'
Kroft: Have you and Michelle ever had a conversation about whether you should really seek a second term? Have you ever, have there been any doubts in your mind about not running again?
Obama: No. Not because our quality of life might not be better if I were not president. Not because Michelle is so enamored with me being president. But because we both think that what we're doin' is really important for a lot of people out there.
With the election still nearly a year off, and no Republican nominee to contrast him with, it's impossible to handicap the president's chances of re-election.
Kroft: You're being judged now on your performance.
Obama: No, no, no. I'm being judged against the ideal. And, you know, Joe Biden has a good expression. He says-- "Don't judge me against the Almighty, judge me against the alternative."
Kroft: Do you-- you've spent a lot of time-- your staff and the Democratic National Committee -- going after Mitt Romney, but the person that now seems to be definitely on the move is Newt Gingrich.
Obama: Well, first of all, I'll tell you, Steve, it doesn't really matter who the nominee is gonna be. The core philosophy that they're expressing is the same. And the contrast in visions between where I want to take the country and what-- where they say they want to take the country is gonna be stark. And the American people are gonna have a good choice and it's gonna be a good debate.
Kroft: What do you make of this surge by former Speaker Gingrich?
Obama: He's somebody who's been around a long time, and is good on TV, is good in debates. And, you know, but Mitt Romney has shown himself to be somebody who's good at politics, as well. He's had a lot of practice at it. You know, I think that they will be goin' at it for a while. When the Republican Party has decided who its nominee is gonna be, then we'll have plenty of time to worry about it.
Kroft: Four years ago. Springfield. Cold.
Obama: It was freezing.
Kroft: You declared your candidacy. And you said, "The reason we've not met our challenges is a failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics, the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our presence for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to take on big problems." I mean those were eloquent words and true words. Unfortunately, they're still largely true today. Did you overpromise? Did you underestimate how difficult this was gonna be?
Obama: I didn't overpromise. And I didn't underestimate how tough this was gonna be. I always believed that this was a long term project. That reversing a culture here in Washington, dominated by special interests, it was gonna take more than a year. It was gonna take more than two years. It was gonna take more than one term. Probably takes more than one president.
The one thing I've prided myself on before I was president, and it turns out that continues to be true as president: I'm a persistent son of a gun. I just stay at it. And I'm just gonna keep on stayin' at it, as long as I'm in this office. And we're gonna get it right. And America will succeed. I am absolutely confident about that.
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