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President Obama: What makes us America

In a wide-ranging interview, the president discusses the battle against Islamic extremists, U.S.-Russia relations and the upcoming midterm elections

The following is a script of "President Obama" which aired on Sept. 28, 2014. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. L. Franklin Devine, Maria Gavrilovic and Michael Radutzky, producers.

Last week was a long and momentous one in the presidency of Barack Obama. On Monday, he began a bombing campaign with members of an international coalition against ISIS and other terrorist targets in Syria, while continuing airstrikes in northern Iraq. On Wednesday, he addressed the United Nations and laid out his case in the strongest terms for international action against Muslim extremists. By Thursday, his anti-ISIS coalition had grown to more than 60 members, ranging from the Saudis, Jordanians, Emiratis and Europeans who flew missions, to the Irish and Swedes who wrote checks, to the Bulgarians and Egyptians who wished us well.

On Friday, he was back in the White House where he met us in the Diplomatic Reception Room for a conversation that ranged from terror networks to the American economy.

Steve Kroft: A lot of things going on in the world right now. A lot of them bad. You run into people on the street and they say the world is falling apart. You got Syria. You've got Iraq. You've got Ukraine. You've got Ebola. Is this the most difficult period of your presidency, the biggest challenge of your presidency, this period we're in right now?

President Obama: It's a significant period. But if you think about what I walked into when I came into office, we had not only two wars still active, but we also had a world financial system, that was becoming unraveling. And we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. So you know, we've had challenges before, and we've overcome them. That's not to downplay the serious challenges that we do face right now, mostly internationally.

"This is not America against ISIL. This is America leading the international community to assist a country..."

Steve Kroft: You spent most of your time in office trying to get the United States out of military entanglements. And last year at the United Nations, you noted that we were out of Iraq and unwinding our position in Afghanistan. And this year in your State of the Union message, you said, I quote, "America must move off of permanent war footing." But it feels once again like we are on one.

President Obama: Well, I distinguished, Steve, between counter-terrorism and the sort of occupying armies that characterized the Iraq and Afghan war. That's very different from us having 150,000 troops in Iraq on the ground or 60,000 in Afghanistan.

Steve Kroft: Are you saying that this is not really a war?

President Obama: Well, what I'm saying is that we are assisting Iraq in a very real battle that's taking place on their soil, with their troops. But we are providing air support. And it is in our interest to do that because ISIL represents sort of a hybrid of not just the terrorist network, but one with territorial ambitions, and some of the strategy and tactics of an army. This is not America against ISIL. This is America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership with. To make sure that they are able to take care of their business.

Steve Kroft: Two years ago, in the White House, in this building, you talked about al Qaeda being decimated. Two years later, you've got al Qaeda affiliates and al Qaeda offshoots controlling huge chunks of both Iraq and Syria. And you have militias, Islamic radical militias in control of Libya.

President Obama: If you'll recall, Steve, you had an international network in al Qaeda between Afghanistan and Pakistan, headed by Bin Laden. And that structure we have rendered ineffective. But what I also said, and this was two years ago and a year ago, is that you have regional groups with regional ambitions and territorial ambitions. And what also has not changed is the kind of violent, ideologically driven extremism that has taken root in too much of the Muslim world. And this week, in my speech to the United Nations General Assembly, I made very clear we are not at war against Islam. Islam is a religion that preaches peace and the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful. But in the Muslim world right now, there is a cancer that has grown for too long that suggests that it is acceptable to kill innocent people who worship a different God. And that kind of extremism, unfortunately, means that we're going to see for some time the possibility that in a whole bunch of different countries, radical groups may spring up, particularly in countries that are still relatively fragile, where you had sectarian tensions, where you don't have a strong state security apparatus. And that's why what we have to do is rather than play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops wherever this occurs, we have to build strong partnerships. We have to get the international community to recognize this is a problem. We've got to get Arab and Muslim leaders to say very clearly, "These folks do not represent us. They do not represent Islam," and to speak out forcefully against them.

Steve Kroft: I understand all the caveats about these regional groups. But this is an army of 40,000 people, according to some of the military estimates I heard the other day, very well-trained, very motivated.

President Obama: Well, part of it was that...

Steve Kroft: What? How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?

President Obama: Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

"And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don't call Beijing. They don't call Moscow. They call us."

Steve Kroft: I mean, he didn't say that, just say that, we underestimated ISIL. He said, we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.

President Obama: That's true. That's absolutely true. And I...

Steve Kroft: And these are the people that we're now expecting to carry on the fight?

President Obama: Well, here's what happened in Iraq. When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course. And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country. So what you did not see was a government that had built a sense of national unity. And if you don't have...

Steve Kroft: Or an army.

President Obama: Or an army that feels committed to the nation as opposed to a particular sect. Now the good news is that the new prime minister, Abadi, who I met with this week, so far at least has sent all the right signals. And that's why it goes back to what I said before, Steve, we can't do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it's not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means.

Steve Kroft: And you think we can teach them that?

President Obama: Well, I think there's going to be a generational challenge. I don't think that this is something that's going to happen overnight. They have now created an environment in which young men are more concerned whether they're Shiite or Sunni, rather than whether they are getting a good education or whether they are able to, you know, have a good job. Many of them are poor. Many of them are illiterate and are therefore more subject to these kinds of ideological appeals. And, you know, the beginning of a solution for the entire Middle East is going to be a transformation in how these countries teach their youth. What our military operations can do is to just check and roll back these networks as they appear and make sure that the time and space is provided for a new way of doing things to begin to take root. But it's going to take some time. And in the meantime, what I can...

Steve Kroft: You're saying buy them time, so they can get their act together?

President Obama: Yeah, but in the meantime, it's not just buy them time, it's also making sure that Americans are protected, that our allies are protected.

Steve Kroft: You've acknowledged or you said that the Iraqi government, the new Iraqi government is making great progress or making some.

President Obama: Some progress. I wouldn't say great, yet.

Steve Kroft: They have a new prime minister. They have a new administration. What it's not produced is any sort of enthusiasm, or much enthusiasm, on the part of the disaffected Sunni majority.

President Obama: It's going to take time.

Steve Kroft: They're not lining up to go and join the Iraqi army.

"For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation."

President Obama: Well look, mistrust has been built up over time. His instincts are right. Whether he can pull it off is something that is going to be a great challenge. And we got to give him all the support that we can in this process. The good news is that you have an unprecedented international coalition that is serious about this. Not only do we have Arab states participating in airstrikes for the first time in a very long time and being very serious about their commitment, but you've got the United Kingdom, you've got France, Belgium.

Steve Kroft: I think everybody applauds the efforts that you've made and the size of the coalition that has been assembled. But most of them are contributing money or training or policing the borders, not getting particularly close to the contact. It looks like once again we are leading the operation. We are carrying...

President Obama: Steve, that's always the case. That's always the case. America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don't call Beijing. They don't call Moscow. They call us. That's the deal.

Steve Kroft: I mean, it looks like we are doing 90 percent.

President Obama: Steve, there is not an as issue ... when there's a typhoon in the Philippines, take a look at who's helping the Philippines deal with that situation. When there's an earthquake in Haiti, take a look at who's leading the charge making sure Haiti can rebuild. That's how we roll. And that's what makes this America.

Steve Kroft: But you've said that we are not going to be the Shiite air force. We're not going to be the Kurdistan air force. We're not going to be the Iraqi air force. But in effect, with the allies, that's what we have become. We have become the Iraqi air force.

President Obama: With the allies, with their ground troops, and if we do our job right and the Iraqis fight, then over time our role can slow down and taper off. And their role, reasserts itself. But all that depends, Steve. And nobody's clearer than I am about this. That the Iraqis have to be willing to fight. And they have to be willing to fight in a nonsectarian way. Shiite, Sunni and Kurd alongside each other against this cancer in their midst.

Steve Kroft: What happens if the Iraqis don't fight or can't fight?

President Obama: Well...

Steve Kroft: What's the end game?

President Obama: I'm not going to speculate on failure at the moment. We're just getting started. Let's see how they do. I think that right now, we've got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq. I think Syria is a more challenging situation.

Syria is more challenging, because the U.S. has few viable allies on the ground there. The regime of Bashir Assad is fighting ISIS but the U.S. wants Assad deposed for committing horrific crimes against his own people and other opposition groups like the al-Nusra Front and a terrorist cell called Khorasan, which was plotting attacks against Europe and the U.S., and are both affiliated with al Qaeda. The coalition is hoping to train 5,000 moderate Syrian fighters in Saudi Arabia.

Steve Kroft: Is there a moderate Syrian opposition?

President Obama: There is. But right now, it doesn't control much territory. It has been squeezed between ISIL on the one hand and the Assad regime on the other.

Steve Kroft: These are the people that you said, the farmers, the doctors, the pharmacists, who stood no chance of overthrowing' the government.

President Obama: Well keep in mind two years ago, that was absolutely true. This is in response to the mythology that's evolved that somehow if we had given those folks some guns two and a half years ago, that Syria would be fine. And the point that I made then, which is absolutely true, is that for us to just start arming inexperienced fighters who we hadn't vetted, so we didn't know and couldn't sort out very well who's potentially ISIL or al-Nusra member and who is somebody that we're going to work with. For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation. But it also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria.

Steve Kroft: You've said, that we need to get rid of Assad.

President Obama: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: And while we're saying we have to get rid of Assad, we are also bombing and trying to take out some of his most threatening opponents and the...

President Obama: I recognize...

Steve Kroft: And the beneficiary of this is Assad.

President Obama: I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance. We are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad, because the Sunni areas inside of Syria view Assad as having carried out terrible atrocities. The world has seen them. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Millions have been displaced. So for a long-term political settlement, for Syria to remain unified, it is not possible that Assad presides over that entire process. On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan group, those folks could kill Americans. And so...

Steve Kroft: They're more important than Assad at this point. That's what you're saying.

President Obama: What I'm saying is that they're all connected, but there's a more immediate concern that has to be dealt with.

Steve Kroft: You know, you've said no American boots on the ground. No combat troops on the ground. We've got 1,600 troops there.

President Obama: We do.

Steve Kroft: Some of them are going to be out, embedded with Iraqi units.

President Obama: Well, they're in harm's way in the sense that any time they're in war theater, it's dangerous. So I don't want to downplay the fact that they're in a war environment and there are hostile forces on the other side. But...

Steve Kroft: And they participated in combat operations.

President Obama: Well, there's a difference between them advising and assisting Iraqis, who are fighting, versus a situation in which we got our Marines and our soldiers out there taking shots and shooting back.

When we come back, President Obama looks at America's troubled relationship with Russia, his own economic record and his party's prospects in the midterm elections.

Relationship with Russia

The air war against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq isn't the only international crisis facing President Obama. There is the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, to which he has committed up to 3,000 U.S. troops and mobilized an air transport system to help contain the epidemic, which threatens to infect 1.4 million people by early next year.

And then, there's the continuing confrontation with Russia over its incursions into Ukraine. It's created a face-off with Russian President Vladimir Putin that sent relations between the United States and Russia into a state of tension not seen in decades.

Steve Kroft: We have a very complicated situation going on right now between NATO and Russia. What's your relationship with President Putin? Do you have a personal relationship?

President Obama: Well, I've always had a business-like relationship with him and it's blunt and it's firm. And what I've said from the outset is that Russian aggression, violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a smaller, weaker country, violates international norms and is contrary to all the progress that's been made in creating a peaceful and prosperous Europe after World War II and then after the Cold War period.

Steve Kroft: And you know, the good news is, because of American leadership, we have been able to impose a cost on Mr. Putin. We've put together sanctions that have hurt their economy, that have given them pause. We now are in a situation in which a ceasefire has been brokered. It is still tentative between the Ukrainian separatists, Russia and Ukraine.

"The country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office."

President Obama: There was an agreement announced today that, in fact, Russian gas would still be sold to Ukraine. So that they're not going to freeze this winter. There is the possibility of a political solution. None of that would have happened, though, unless we took a firm line that what Russia did was wrong. And then still leave them the possibility of taking a different path. And that's always been my relationship with Putin and the Russian people. What I have said to them is you are a great country with incredible talent and incredible traditions. And if you focus on your engineering talent and your mathematical talents and growing your economy, then by definition, Russia's going to be a great power in this world.

Steve Kroft: Do you think there's any chance of a military confrontation between NATO and Russia and Ukraine?

President Obama: No, I don't think there's going to be a military confrontation between NATO and Russia, although we have worked very hard to reassure our NATO allies on the front lines, including some smaller Baltic states like Estonia, where I visited before the NATO Summit in Wales, that article five of the the NATO treaty means what it says. We come to the aid and assistance, so if you mess with the NATO country, then there will be a military confrontation. And Putin understands that. But I do think there's still the possibility of Russia moving in a better direction. Unfortunately, what's happened is that Putin, who I think was caught off-guard initially with the protests inside of Ukraine, and improvised to try to figure out how he was going to keep Ukraine in his orbit, has used state propaganda inside of Russia to whip up national sentiment, it's been good for his poll numbers. It's been very bad for his economy and it's bad for Russia's future. And part of what I've said to him privately and what I've said publicly is, you know, that's a blind alley for you. Go back to trying to abide by international norms and it'll be better for the Russian people and it'll certainly be better for Europe. We're not looking for confrontation, but we're going to be very firm about the principles at stake.

All of this going is going on less than six weeks before midterm congressional elections that promise to be in part a referendum on his leadership. Right now public opinion polls show a majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of foreign policy and the economy.

Steve Kroft: You've got midterm elections coming up. Are you going to get shellacked?

President Obama: Well...

Steve Kroft: Or do you think that, I mean, are you optimistic? What are the issues and what are you going to tell the American people?

President Obama: Here's what I'm going to tell the American people. When I came into office, our economy was in crisis. We had unemployment up at 10 percent. It's now down to 6.1. We've had the longest run of uninterrupted private sector job growth in our history. We have seen deficits cut by more than half. Corporate balance sheets are probably the best they've been in the last several decades. We are producing more energy than we have before. We are producing more clean energy than we ever have before. I can put my record against any leader around the world in terms of digging ourselves out of a terrible, almost unprecedented financial crisis. Ronald Reagan used to ask the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" In this case, are you better off than you were in six? And the answer is, the country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office, but now we have to make sure...

Steve Kroft: Do you think people will feel that?

President Obama: They don't feel it. And the reason they don't feel it is because incomes and wages are not going up. There are solutions to that. If we raise the minimum wage, if we make sure women are getting paid the same as men for doing the same work, if we are rebuilding our infrastructure, if we're doing more to invest in job training so people are able to get the jobs that are out there right now, because manufacturing is coming back to this country. Not just the auto industry that we've saved, but you're starting to see reinvestment here in the United States. Businesses around the world are saying for the first time in a long time, "The place to invest isn't in China. It's the United States."

Steve Kroft: Do you think you can hold the Senate?

President Obama: Yes. I do.

Steve Kroft: You think you can sell this.

President Obama: You know what?

Steve Kroft: You think you can convince people that they're doing fine, economically?

President Obama: Hopefully, they get a chance to hear the argument, because all I'm doing is presenting the facts.

  • Steve Kroft

    Few journalists have achieved the impact and recognition that Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes work has generated for over two decades. Kroft delivered his first report for 60 Minutes in 1989.