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President Obama

Steve Kroft questions President Obama on topics including Russia's incursion in Syria, ISIS and the 2016 presidential race

The following is a script from "President Obama" which aired on October 11, 2015. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. L. Franklin Devine, Michael Karzis and Maria Gavrilovic, producers.

It's been a week of rising tensions in Syria with Russia stepping up airstrikes and naval bombardments in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and in some cases against rebel groups supported by the United States.

It's complicated an already precarious situation and aggravated an already contentious relationship between President Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Add to that the presidential primary campaigns underway at home, and it seemed like a good time to talk about all of it with the president which we did on Tuesday in the Roosevelt Room at the White House; a lively, spirited discussion that began with ISIS.

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President Barack Obama
CBS News

Steve Kroft: The last time we talked was this time last year, and the situation in Syria and Iraq had begun to worsen vis-à-vis ISIS. You had just unveiled a plan to provide air support for troops in Iraq, and also some air strikes in Syria, and the training and equipping of a moderate Syrian force. You said that this would degrade and eventually destroy ISIS.

President Barack Obama: Over time.

Steve Kroft: Over time. It's been a year, and--

President Barack Obama: I didn't say it was going to be done in a year.

Steve Kroft: No. But you said...

President Barack Obama: There's a question in here somewhere.

Steve Kroft: There's a question in here. I mean, if you look at the situation and you're looking for progress, it's not easy to find. You could make the argument that the only thing that's changed really is the death toll, which has continued to escalate, and the number of refugees fleeing Syria into Europe.

President Barack Obama: Syria has been a difficult problem for the entire world community and, obviously, most importantly, for the people of Syria themselves that have been devastated by this civil war, caught between a brutal dictator who drops barrel bombs on his own population, and thinks that him clinging to power is more important than the fate of his country. And a barbaric, ruthless organization in ISIL and some of the al Qaeda affiliates that are operating inside of Syria. And what we've been able to do is to stall ISIL's momentum to take away some of the key land that they were holding, to push back, particularly in Iraq against some population centers that they threatened. And, in Syria, we've been able to disrupt a number of their operations. But what we have not been able to do so far, and I'm the first to acknowledge this, is to change the dynamic inside of Syria and the goal here has been to find a way in which we can help moderate opposition on the ground, but we've never been under any illusion that militarily we ourselves can solve the problem inside of Syria.

Steve Kroft: I want us to take some of these things one by one. You mentioned an awful lot of things. One, the situation with ISIS, you've managed to achieve a stalemate. So what's going to happen to ISIS?

President Barack Obama: Well, over time--

Steve Kroft: I mean, they have to be-- somebody has to take them on. I mean, what's going on right now is not working. I mean, they are still occupying big chunks of Iraq. They're still occupying a good chunk of Syria. Who's going to get rid of them?

President Barack Obama: Over time, the community of nations will all get rid of them, and we will be leading getting rid of them. But we are not going to be able to get rid of them unless there is an environment inside of Syria and in portions of Iraq in which local populations, local Sunni populations, are working in a concerted way with us to get rid of them.

Steve Kroft: You have been talking about the moderate opposition in Syria. It seems very hard to identify. And you talked about the frustrations of trying to find some and train them. You got a half a billion dollars from Congress to train and equip 5,000, and at the end, according to the commander CENTCOM, you got 50 people, most of whom are dead or deserted. He said four or five left?

President Barack Obama: Steve, this is why I've been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that's willing to fight ISIL? And what we've learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL.

Steve Kroft: If you were skeptical of the program to find and identify, train and equip moderate Syrians, why did you go through the program?

President Barack Obama: Well, because part of what we have to do here, Steve, is to try different things. Because we also have partners on the ground that are invested and interested in seeing some sort of resolution to this problem. And--

Steve Kroft: And they wanted you to do it.

President Barack Obama: Well, no. That's not what I said. I think it is important for us to make sure that we explore all the various options that are available.

Steve Kroft: I know you don't want to talk about this.

President Barack Obama: No, I'm happy to talk about it.

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President Obama and Steve Kroft
CBS News

Steve Kroft: I want to talk about the-- this program, because it would seem to show, I mean, if you expect 5,000 and you get five, it shows that somebody someplace along the line did not-- made-- you know, some sort of a serious miscalculation.

President Barack Obama: You know, the-- the-- Steve, let me just say this.

Steve Kroft: It's an embarrassment.

President Barack Obama: Look, there's no doubt that it did not work. And, one of the challenges that I've had throughout this heartbreaking situation inside of Syria is, is that-- you'll have people insist that, you know, all you have to do is send in a few-- you know, truckloads full of arms and people are ready to fight. And then, when you start a train-and-equip program and it doesn't work, then people say, "Well, why didn't it work?" Or, "If it had just started three months earlier it would've worked."

Steve Kroft: But you said yourself you never believed in this.

President Barack Obama: Well-- but Steve, what I have also said is, is that surprisingly enough it turns out that in a situation that is as volatile and with as many players as there are inside of Syria, there aren't any silver bullets. And this is precisely why I've been very clear that America's priorities has to be number one, keeping the American people safe. Number two, we are prepared to work both diplomatically and where we can to support moderate opposition that can help convince the Russians and Iranians to put pressure on Assad for a transition. But that what we are not going to do is to try to reinsert ourselves in a military campaign inside of Syria. Let's take the situation in Afghanistan, which I suspect you'll ask about. But I wanted to use this as an example.

Steve Kroft: All right. I feel like I'm being filibustered, Mr. President.

President Barack Obama: No, no, no, no, no. Steve, I think if you want to roll back the tape, you've been giving me long questions and statements, and now I'm responding to 'em. So let's-- so-- if you ask me big, open-ended questions, expect big, open-ended answers. Let's take the example of Afghanistan. We've been there 13 years now close to 13 years. And it's still hard in Afghanistan. Today, after all the investments we have there, and we still have thousands of troops there. So the notion that after a year in Syria, a country where the existing government hasn't invited us in, but is actively keeping us out, that somehow we would be able to solve this quickly-- is--

Steve Kroft: We didn't say quickly.

President Barack Obama: --is-- is-- is an illusion. And-- and--

Steve Kroft: Nobody's expecting that, Mr. President.

President Barack Obama: Well, the-- no, I understand, but what I'm-- the simple point I'm making, Steve, is that the solution that we're going to have inside of Syria is ultimately going to depend not on the United States putting in a bunch of troops there, resolving the underlying crisis is going to be something that requires ultimately the key players there to recognize that there has to be a transition to new government. And, in the absence of that, it's not going to work.

Steve Kroft: One of the key players now is Russia.

President Barack Obama: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: A year ago when we did this interview, there was some saber-rattling between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian border. Now it's also going on in Syria. You said a year ago that the United States-- America leads. We're the indispensible nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership.

President Barack Obama: In what way? Let-- let's think about this-- let-- let--

Steve Kroft: Well, he's moved troops into Syria, for one. He's got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II--

President Barack Obama: So that's--

Steve Kroft: --bombing the people-- that we are supporting.

President Barack Obama: So that's leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia's only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they've had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine--

Steve Kroft: He's challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He's challenging your leadership--

President Barack Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we'll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we've got a 60-country coalition that isn't suddenly lining up around Russia's strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work.

Steve Kroft: My point is-- was not that he was leading, my point is that he was challenging your leadership. And he has very much involved himself in the situation. Can you imagine anything happening in Syria of any significance at all without the Russians now being involved in it and having a part of it?

President Barack Obama: But that was true before. Keep in mind that for the last five years, the Russians have provided arms, provided financing, as have the Iranians, as has Hezbollah.

Steve Kroft: But they haven't been bombing and they haven't had troops on the ground--

President Barack Obama: And the fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength, it's an indication that their strategy did not work.

Steve Kroft: You don't think--

President Barack Obama: You don't think that Mr. Putin would've preferred having Mr. Assad be able to solve this problem without him having to send a bunch of pilots and money that they don't have?

Steve Kroft: Did you know he was going to do all this when you met with him in New York?

President Barack Obama: Well, we had seen-- we had pretty good intelligence. We watch--

Steve Kroft: So you knew he was planning to do it.

President Barack Obama: We knew that he was planning to provide the military assistance that Assad was needing because they were nervous about a potential imminent collapse of the regime.

Steve Kroft: You say he's doing this out of weakness. There is a perception in the Middle East among our adversaries, certainly and even among some of our allies that the United States is in retreat, that we pulled our troops out of Iraq and ISIS has moved in and taken over much of that territory. The situation in Afghanistan is very precarious and the Taliban is on the march again. And ISIS controls a large part of Syria.

President Barack Obama: I think it's fair to say, Steve, that if--

Steve Kroft: It's-- they-- let me just finish the thought. They say your--

President Barack Obama: You're--

Steve Kroft: --they say you're projecting a weakness, not a strength--

President Barack Obama: --you're saying "they," but you're not citing too many folks. But here--

Steve Kroft: No, I'll cite-- I'll cite if you want me, too.

President Barack Obama: --here-- yes. Here--

Steve Kroft: I'd say the Saudis. I'd say the Israelis. I'd say a lot of our friends in the Middle East. I'd say everybody in the Republican party. Well, you want me to keep going?

President Barack Obama: Yeah. The-- the-- if you are-- if you're citing the Republican party, I think it's fair to say that there is nothing I've done right over the last seven and a half years. And I think that's right. It-- and-- I also think what is true is that these are the same folks who were making an argument for us to go into Iraq and who, in some cases, still have difficulty acknowledging that it was a mistake. And Steve, I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican party who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is us sending back several hundred thousand troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and-- that the fact that we might have more deaths of U.S. troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spend another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that. And unless we do that, they'll suggest we're in retreat.

Steve Kroft: They'll say you're throwing in the towel--

President Barack Obama: No. Steve, we have an enormous presence in the Middle East. We have bases and we have aircraft carriers. And our pilots are flying through those skies. And we are currently supporting Iraq as it tries to continue to build up its forces. But the problem that I think a lot of these critics never answered is what's in the interest of the United States of America and at what point do we say that, "Here are the things we can do well to protect America. But here are the things that we also have to do in order to make sure that America leads and America is strong and stays number one." And if in fact the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be, not just the police, but the governors of this region. That would be a bad strategy Steve. And I think that if we make that mistake again, then shame on us.

Steve Kroft: Do you think the world's a safer place?

President Barack Obama: America is a safer place. I think that there are places, obviously, like Syria that are not safer than when I came into office. But, in terms of us protecting ourselves against terrorism, in terms of us making sure that we are strengthening our alliances, in terms of our reputation around the world, absolutely we're stronger.

On Friday, the Pentagon ended the program to train-and-equip Syrian rebels that the president told us did not work. In a moment, he talks about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton's emails and Joe Biden's possible run for president.

PART TWO

After a short break for a few sips of water, our interview with President Obama resumed turning to politics, Hillary Clinton's emails and the president's thoughts about his last 15 months in office.

President Barack Obama: What else you got?

Steve Kroft: OK. Mr. President, there are a lot of serious problems with the world right now, but I want to ask you a few questions about politics.

President Barack Obama: Yeah, go ahead.

Steve Kroft: What do you think of Donald Trump?

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Steve Kroft and President Obama in the Roosevelt Room at the White House
CBS News

President Barack Obama: Well, I think that he is a great publicity-seeker and at a time when the Republican party hasn't really figured out what it's for, as opposed to what it's against. I think that he is tapped into something that exists in the Republican party that's real. I think there is genuine anti-immigrant sentiment in the large portion of at least Republican primary voters. I don't think it's uniform. He knows how to get attention. He is, you know, the classic reality TV character and, at this early stage, it's not surprising that he's gotten a lot of attention.

Steve Kroft: You think he's running out of steam? I mean, you think he's going to disappear?

President Barack Obama: You know, I'll leave it up to the pundits to make that determination. I don't think he'll end up being president of the United States.

Steve Kroft: Did you know about Hillary Clinton's use of private email server--

President Barack Obama: No.

Steve Kroft: --while she was Secretary of State?

President Barack Obama: No.

Steve Kroft: Do you think it posed a national security problem?

President Barack Obama: I don't think it posed a national security problem. I think that it was a mistake that she has acknowledged and-- you know, as a general proposition, when we're in these offices, we have to be more sensitive and stay as far away from the line as possible when it comes to how we handle information, how we handle our own personal data. And, you know, she made a mistake. She has acknowledged it. I do think that the way it's been ginned-up is in part because of-- in part-- because of politics. And I think she'd be the first to acknowledge that maybe she could have handled the original decision better and the disclosures more quickly. But--

Steve Kroft: What was your reaction when you found out about it?

President Barack Obama: This is one of those issues that I think is legitimate, but the fact that for the last three months this is all that's been spoken about is an indication that we're in presidential political season.

Steve Kroft: Do you agree with what President Clinton has said and Secretary Clinton has said, that this is not-- not that big a deal. Do you agree with that?

President Barack Obama: Well, I'm not going to comment on--

Steve Kroft: You think it's not that big a deal--

President Barack Obama: What I think is that it is important for her to answer these questions to the satisfaction of the American public. And they can make their own judgment. I can tell you that this is not a situation in which America's national security was endangered.

Steve Kroft: This administration has prosecuted people for having classified material on their private computers.

President Barack Obama: Well, I-- there's no doubt that there had been breaches, and these are all a matter of degree. We don't get an impression that here there was purposely efforts-- on-- in-- to hide something or to squirrel away information. But again, I'm gonna leave it to--

Steve Kroft: If she had come to you.

President Barack Obama: I'm going to leave it to Hillary when she has an interview with you to address all these questions.

Steve Kroft: Right now, there's nobody on either side of the aisle that is exactly running on your record. Do you want Joe Biden to get in the race and do it?

President Barack Obama: You know, I am going to let Joe make that decision. And I mean what I say. I think Joe will go down as one of the finest vice presidents in history, and one of the more consequential. I think he has done great work. I don't think there's any politician at a national level that has not thought about being the president. And if you're sitting right next to the president in every meeting and, you know wrestling with these issues, I'm sure that for him he's saying to himself, "I could do a really good job."

Steve Kroft: I do want to talk a little bit about Congress. Are you going to miss John Boehner?

President Barack Obama: John Boehner and I disagreed on just about everything. But the one thing I'll say about John Boehner is he did care about the institution. He recognized that nobody gets 100 percent in our democracy. I won't say that he and I were ideal partners, but he and I could talk and we could get some things done. And so I am a little concerned that the reason he left was because there are a group of members of Congress who think having somebody who is willing to shut down the government or default on the U.S. debt is going to allow them to get their way 100 percent of the time.

Steve Kroft: Do you think you're going to be able to get anything through Congress?

President Barack Obama: Well, given that-- this Congress hasn't been able to get much done at all over the last year and a half, two years, for that matter for the last four, it would be surprising if we were able to make huge strides on the things that are important. But I have a more modest goal, which is to make sure that Congress doesn't do damage to the economy.

The president says that means avoiding another budget crisis and another round of threats to shut down the government, which could happen as early as December. Even with congressional Republicans in disarray, he's hoping to reach a deal with Congress as he did two years ago, to lift some spending caps in defense and other areas while continuing to reduce the deficit.

President Barack Obama: Right now, our economy is much stronger relative to the rest of the world. China, Europe, emerging markets, they're all having problems. And so, if we provide another shock to the system by shutting down the government, that could mean that the progress we have made starts going backwards instead of forwards. We have to make sure that we pass a transportation bill. It may not be everything that I want. We should be being much more aggressive in rebuilding America right now. Interest rates are low, construction workers need the work, and our economy would benefit from it. But if we can't do a big multiyear plan, we have to at least do something that is robust enough-- so that we are meeting the demands of a growing economy.

Steve Kroft: A few months back, at a fundraiser, you made a point of saying that the first lady was very pleased that you can't run again.

President Barack Obama: Yeah, she is.

Steve Kroft: Do you feel the same way?

President Barack Obama: You know, it's interesting. I-- you go into your last year and I think it's bittersweet. On the one hand, I am very proud of what we've accomplished and it makes me think, I'd love to do some more. But by the time I'm finished, I think it will be time for me to go. Because there's a reason why we considered George Washington one of our greatest presidents. He set a precedent, saying that when you occupy this seat, it is an extraordinary privilege, but the way our democracy is designed, no one person is indispensable. And ultimately you are a citizen. And once you finish with your service, you go back to being a citizen. And I-- and I think that-- I think having a fresh set of legs in this seat, I think having a fresh perspective, new personnel and new ideas and a new conversation with the American people about issues that may be different a year from now than they were when I started eight years ago, I think that's all good for our democracy. I think it's healthy.

Steve Kroft: Do you think if you ran again, could run again, and did run again, you would be elected?

President Barack Obama: Yes.

Steve Kroft: You do.

President Barack Obama: I do.