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Obama and Clinton: The 60 Minutes interview

Obama and Clinton, part one
Obama and Clinton, part one 15:01

The following script is from "The President and the Secretary of State" which aired on Jan. 27, 2013. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. Michael Radutzky, Maria Gavrilovic and L. Franklin Devine, producers.

There are few people we think we know more about than President Barack Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and everyone has an opinion about their politics, their marriages and a rivalry that is one of the richest in American history.

On Friday, we had the opportunity to sit down with the two of them side by side. The White House offered us 30 minutes, barely enough time to scratch the surface of their complicated personal and professional relationship, let alone discuss their policies on Iran and Israel, Russia and China, Egypt and Libya. There has been much speculation about their evolution from bitter opponents to partners in the corridors of power and the motivation for doing this interview. Now, you can be the judge.

Steve Kroft: This is very improbable. This is not an interview I ever expected to be doing. But I understand, Mr. President, this was your idea. Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?

President Obama: Well, the main thing is I just wanted to have a chance to publicly say thank you, because I think Hillary will go down as one of the finest secretary of states we've had. It has been a great collaboration over the last four years. I'm going to miss her. Wish she was sticking around. But she has logged in so many miles, I can't begrudge her wanting to take it easy for a little bit. But I want the country to appreciate just what an extraordinary role she's played during the course of my administration and a lot of the successes we've had internationally have been because of her hard work.

Steve Kroft: There's no political tea leaves to be read here?

Secretary Clinton: We don't have any tea. We've got some water here is the best I can tell. But you know, this has been just the most extraordinary honor. And, yes, I mean, a few years ago it would have been seen as improbable because we had that very long, hard primary campaign. But, you know, I've gone around the world on behalf of the president and our country. And one of the things that I say to people, because I think it helps them understand, I say, "Look, in politics and in democracy, sometimes you win elections, sometimes you lose elections. And I worked very hard, but I lost. And then President Obama asked me to be secretary of state and I said yes." And so this has been just an extraordinary opportunity to work with him as a partner and friend, to do our very best on behalf of this country we both love. And it's something I'm going to miss a great deal.

Steve Kroft: It's no secret that your aides cautioned you against-- actually were against you offering Secretary Clinton this job. And you were just as determined not to take it. And you avoided taking her phone calls for awhile because you were afraid she was going to say no. Why were you so insistent about wanting her to be secretary of state?

President Obama: Well, I was a big admirer of Hillary's before our primary battles and the general election. You know, her discipline, her stamina, her thoughtfulness, her ability to project, I think, and make clear issues that are important to the American people, I thought made her an extraordinary talent. She also was already a world figure. And I thought that somebody stepping into that position of secretary of state at a time when, keep in mind, we were still in Iraq. Afghanistan was still an enormous challenge. There was great uncertainty in terms of how we would reset our relations around the world, to have somebody who could serve as that effective ambassador in her own right without having to earn her stripes, so to speak, on the international stage, I thought would be hugely important.

Steve Kroft: You've been quoted as thinking or telling people that there was no way you were going to take this job and you weren't going to let anybody talk you into it.

Secretary Clinton: Well, I would--

Steve Kroft: What did he say that night that made you--

Secretary Clinton: Well, I was so surprised, because, you know, after I ended my campaign, I immediately did everything I could to help the president get elected, because despite our hard-fought primary, we had such agreement on what needed to be done for our country.

President Obama: Made for tough debates, by the way, 'cause we--

Secretary Clinton: It did. We could never figure out what we were different on. Yeah, we worked at that pretty hard. And so I really thought I'd be going back to the Senate, where I would be supporting the president on all of the issues. And what surprised me is he said, "Well, I want you to come to Chicago." And honestly, at the time, I thought, "Well, you know, that's a very nice gesture. And maybe he wants to ask me about some people that might serve in the administration." So when I got to Chicago and he asked me if I would consider being his secretary of state, I immediately said, "Oh, Mr. President, there's so many other people. Let me give you some other names." Because it just took me by surprise. But he is pretty persuasive, I'll tell you that much. And he kept saying, "Well, I want you to think about it again. I want you to-- wait a minute, don't make-- don't give me a final answer." I'll tell you what I finally thought. I thought, "You know, if the roles had been reversed. And I had ended up winning. I would have desperately wanted him to be in my cabinet. So if I'm saying I would have wanted him to say yes to me, how am I going to justify saying no to my president?" And it was a great decision, despite my hesitancy about it.

Steve Kroft: What did he promise you? And has he kept the promises?

Secretary Clinton: It was going to be hard. But, you know--

President Obama: And I kept that promise.

Secretary Clinton: --welcome to hard times. I mean, because the one thing he did mention was he basically said, "You know, we've got this major economic crisis that may push us into a depression. I'm not going to be able to do a lot to satisfy the built-up expectations for our role around the world. So you're going to have to get out there and, you know, really represent us while I deal with, you know, the economic catastrophe I inherited." But, you know, we're both gluttons for punishment. And, you know, my assessment was, "Look, we are in a terrible fix." And, you know, I felt like this president was going to get us out of it, but it wasn't going to be easy. And it was going to need everybody, you know, pulling together.

Steve Kroft: Has she had much influence--

President Obama: Well, I--

Steve Kroft: --in this administration?

President Obama: I think everybody understands that Hillary's been, you know, one of the most important advisors that I've had on a whole range of issues. Hillary's capacity to travel around the world, to lay the groundwork for a new way of doing things, to establish a sense of engagement that, you know, our foreign policy was not going to be defined solely by Iraq, that we were going to be vigilant about terrorism, but we were going to make sure that we deployed all elements of American power, diplomacy, our economic and cultural and social capital, in order to bring about the kinds of international solutions that we wanted to see. I had confidence that Hillary could do that. And, you know, one of the things that I will always be grateful for is-- yeah, it wasn't just that she and I had to integrate. I mean, we had Bob Gates, who was a holdover from the Bush administration. You know Leon Panetta to take over the CIA. And so we had a lot of very strong personalities around the table. And, you know, I think one of the things that Hillary did was establish a standard in terms of professionalism and teamwork in our cabinet, in our foreign policy making that said, "We're going to have an open discussion. We're going to push each other hard. There are going to be times where we have some vigorous disagreements. Once the president makes a decision though we're going to go out there and execute.

Steve Kroft: How would you characterize your relationship right now?

President Obama: I consider Hillary a strong friend.

Secretary Clinton: I mean, very warm, close. I think there's a sense of understanding that, you know, sometimes doesn't even take words because we have similar views. We have similar experiences that I think provide a bond that may seem unlikely to some, but has been really at a core of our relationship over the last four years. I mean, I've read a lot about other presidents. And I've, you know, been in the White House as a first lady. And I was a senator in the time of 9/11 and spent time in the White House under the Bush administration. And I know how critical it is to really forge that sense of discipline that the president is referring to. Are there going to be differences? Yeah. Deep differences? Of course. You had a lot of strong-willed, minded people. But the president deserves our best judgment, our advice, and then he deserves us to stand with him and to execute. Now I've watched other administrations, where there was pitched warfare between this cabinet secretary and another or this member of the White House. That's not good for the country. And, it's not something that would have served this president.

Steve Kroft: It's one thing to have disagreements between cabinet people. I spent time with both of you in the 2008 campaign. That was a very tough, bitter race. And I'm going to spare you reading some of the things that you said about each other during that campaign.

Secretary Clinton: Please do.

Steve Kroft: But how long did it take you to get over that? And when did it happen?

President Obama: You know, the-- it didn't take as long as I think people would perceive it. As I said, once the primary was over, Hillary worked very hard for me. Bill worked very hard for me. So we were interacting on a fairly regular basis. I think it was harder for the staffs, which is understandable. Because, you know, they get invested in this stuff in ways that I think the candidates maybe don't. You know, Hillary mentioned, you know, part of our bond is we've been through a lot of the same stuff. And part of being through the same stuff is getting whacked around in political campaigns, being criticized in the press. You know, we've both built some pretty thick skins. And you know, sometimes our staffs don't go through that so they are taking umbrage and offense. And, they're reading every blog and every tweet. And, you know, and most of the time, you know, Hillary, I suspect, you know, handles this the same way I do, you know? We kind of have a block-- a screen from a lot of the silliness that happens during presidential campaigns. And so for me at least, you know, by the time Hillary joined the administration, I felt very confident and comfortable in our working relationship. I think what did evolve was a friendship as opposed to just a professional relationship. It be--friendships involve a sense of trust and being in the foxhole together. And that emerged during the course of months when we were making some very tough decisions.

Steve Kroft: You said the staff took a little longer to ignore, to forget the campaign stuff. What about the spouses? Is that an impertinent question?

Secretary Clinton: What I was going to say, Steve, is having been a spouse, having been a candidate, I think spouses take it much harder. You know, in a way-- just as the president said, we're out there. And we're responding minute by minute. And you just don't have time to sit around and, you know, think about what, you know, some insult that you've-- felt you've suffered. I can remember, you know, watching my husband do debates. And I mean, I was like this. And he was relaxed and everything like that. And then when the shoes were on the other feet, all of a sudden, you know, this calm, cool guy who never was upset by anything is all of a sudden watching me. So look, but that is just ancient history now. And it's ancient history because of who-- the kind of people we all are, but also we're professionals.

Steve Kroft: This administration, I mean, you've generally gotten high marks. You've generally gotten very high marks, particularly from the voters for your handling of foreign policy. But there's no big, singular achievement that-- in the first four years-- that you can put your names on. What do you think the biggest success has been, foreign policy success, of the first term?

President Obama: For us to be able to wind down one war, to be on the path of ending a second war, to do that in a way that honors the enormous sacrifices our troops have made, to sustain the pressure on al Qaeda and terrorist organizations so that not only did we avoid a significant terrorist attack on the homeland, but we're able to dismantle the core leadership of al Qaeda. That's all a consequence of the great work that Hillary did and her team did and the State Department did in conjunction with our national security team.

Steve Kroft: What's the, I have to ask you, what's the date of expiration on this endorsement?

Secretary Clinton: Oh, Steve, what-- you know--

Steve Kroft: No, no, I have to ask that question. I mean, come on. You're-- I mean, you're sitting here together. Everybody in town is talking about it already and the inter-- and this is-- it's taking place.

President Obama: You know, Steve, I gotta tell you, the-- you guys in the press are incorrigible. I was literally inaugurated four days ago. And you're talking about elections four years from now.

Secretary Clinton: Yeah, and I am, as you know, Steve, I am still secretary of state. So I'm out of politics. And I'm forbidden from even hearing these questions. I think that, you know, look, obviously the president and I care deeply about what's going to happen for our country in the future. And I don't think, you know, either he or I can make predictions about what's going to happen tomorrow or the next year. What we've tried to do over the last four years is get up every day, have a clear-eyed view of what's going on in the world. And I'm really proud of where we are.

When we come back, the president and Secretary Clinton discuss the disaster in Benghazi and the state of her health.

Hillary Clinton's final days as secretary of state included one of her most difficult. On Wednesday, she spent more than five hours being grilled on Capitol Hill for the security failures in Benghazi that led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans; the biggest diplomatic disaster of this administration. The Accountability Review led by Admiral Mike Mullen and Ambassador Thomas Pickering found, among many failures, that Stevens' repeated requests for better security never made it to Clinton's desk. And representatives and senators pressed her on whether the administration covered up the nature of the terrorist attack.

[Secretary Clinton: We have four dead Americans, was it because of a protest or was it because of guys going out for a walk and deciding they'll go kill some Americans. What difference-- at this point, what difference does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from happening again, senator.]

Steve Kroft: I want to talk about the hearings this week. You had a very long day. Also, how is your health?

Secretary Clinton: Oh, it's great. It's great. Now, you know, I still have some lingering effects from falling on my head and having the blood clot. But, you know, the doctors tell me that that will all recede. And so thankfully I'm, you know, looking forward to being at full speed.

Steve Kroft: Right, I noticed your glasses are--

Secretary Clinton: Yeah, I have some lingering effects from the concussion that are decreasing and will disappear. But I have a lot of sympathy now when I pick up the paper and read about an athlete or one of our soldiers whose had traumatic brain injury. I'd never had anything like that in my family. And so, you know, I'm very conscious of how lucky I was.

Steve Kroft: You said during the hearings, I mean, you've accepted responsibility. You've accepted the very critical findings of Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering.

As the New York Times put it, you accepted responsibility, but not blame. Do you feel guilty in any way, in-- at a personal level? Do you blame yourself that you didn't know or that you should have known?

Secretary Clinton: Well, Steve, obviously, I deeply regret what happened, as I've said many times. I knew Chris Stevens. I sent him there originally. It was a great personal loss to lose him and three other brave Americans. But I also have looked back and tried to figure out what we could do so that nobody, insofar is possible, would be in this position again. And as the Accountability Review Board pointed out, we did fix responsibility appropriately. And we're taking steps to implement that. But we also live in a dangerous world. And, you know, the people I'm proud to serve and work with in our diplomatic and development personnel ranks, they know it's a dangerous and risky world. We just have to do everything we can to try to make it as secure as possible for them.

President Obama: I think, you know, one of the things that humbles you as president, I'm sure Hillary feels the same way as secretary of state, is that you realize that all you can do every single day is to figure out a direction, make sure that you are working as hard as you can to put people in place where they can succeed, ask the right questions, shape the right strategy. But it's going to be a team that both succeeds and fails. And it's a process of constant improvement, because the world is big and it is chaotic. You know, I remember Bob Gates, you know, first thing he said to me, I think maybe first week or two that I was there and we were meeting in the Oval Office and he, obviously, been through seven presidents or something. And he says, "Mr. President, one thing I can guarantee you is that at this moment, somewhere, somehow, somebody in the federal government is screwing up." And, you know you're-- and so part of what you're trying to do is to constantly improve systems and accountability and transparency to minimize those mistakes and ensure success. It is a dangerous world. And that's part of the reason why we have to continue to get better.

Steve Kroft: The biggest criticism of this team in the U.S. foreign policy from your political opposition has been what they say is an abdication of the United States on the world stage, sort of a reluctance to become involved in another entanglement, an unwillingness or what seems/appears to be an unwillingness to gauge big issues. Syria, for example.

President Obama: Yeah, well--

Steve Kroft: I mean, that--

President Obama: Well, Muammar Qaddafi probably does not agree with that assessment, or at least if he was around, he wouldn't agree with that assessment. Obviously, you know, we helped to put together and lay the groundwork for liberating Libya. You know, when it comes to Egypt, I think, had it not been for the leadership we showed, you might have seen a different outcome there. But also understanding that we do nobody a service when we leap before we look. Where we, you know, take on things without having thought through all the consequences of it. And Syria's a classic example of where our involvement, we want to make sure that not only does it enhance U.S. security, but also that it is doing right by the people of Syria and neighbors like Israel that are going to be profoundly affected by it. And so it's true sometimes that we don't just shoot from the hip.

Secretary Clinton: We live not only in a dangerous, but an incredibly complicated world right now with many different forces at work, both state-based and non-state, technology, and communications. And, you know, I'm older than the president. I don't want to surprise anybody by saying that.

President Obama: But not by much.

Secretary Clinton: But, you know, I remember, you know, some of the speeches of Eisenhower as a young girl, you know? You've got to be careful. You have to be thoughtful. You can't rush in, especially now, where it's more complex than it's been in decades. So yes, are there what we call wicked problems like Syria, which is the one you named? Absolutely. And we are on the side of American values. We're on the side of freedom. We're on the side of the aspirations of all people, to have a better life, have the opportunities that we are fortunate to have here. But it's not always easy to perceive exactly what must be done in order to get to that outcome. So you know, I certainly am grateful for the president's steady hand and hard questions and thoughtful analysis as to what we should and shouldn't do.

President Obama: You know, there are transitions and transformations taking place all around the world. We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation. Sometimes they're going to go sideways. Sometimes, you know, there'll be unintended consequences. And our job is to, number one, look after America's security and national interest. But number two, find where are those opportunities where our intervention, our engagement can really make a difference? And to be opportunistic about that. And that's something that I think Hillary has done consistently. I think the team at the State Department's done consistently. And that's what I intend to continue to do over the next four years.

Steve Kroft: Thank you very much.

Barack Obama: All right.

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