Obama: We Don't Get Enough Credit for Success

President Barack Obama interviewed by CBS News' Harry Smith on Friday, July 30, 2010 in Detroit.
President Barack Obama interviewed by CBS News' Harry Smith on Friday, July 30, 2010 in Detroit.
A year and a half into his presidency, Barack Obama is facing some tough challenges now at home and abroad. He talked about them the other day in an interview with Harry Smith of "The Early Show":

"Hello, Detroit!"

On Friday President Obama was in the Motor City to toot his own horn, to tell the story that without his leadership things would be worse:

"Today, for the first time since 2004, all three U.S. automakers are operating at a profit, the first time in six years," he told cheering workers at a Chrysler assembly plant.

"Today, U.S. automakers have added 55,000 jobs since last June, the strongest job growth in more than 10 years in the auto industry," Mr. Obama said.

"Do you feel sometimes like your administration is not given the credit it deserves?" asked Smith.

"Yes," Mr. Obama laughed. "But here's the reason: We've gone through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. No other depression comes close. When people have gone through that much trauma, people have every right to be scared, to be angry, to be frustrated. And I don't expect the American people to be satisfied when we're only half of the way back."

With approval ratings in the forties, an economy that is displaying a failure to thrive, and unemployment numbers that hardly budge, the president is back on the road - and back on the air, with humor, resuming his role as Explainer-in-Chief.

"Here's what happened: First of all, the recession was much worse than I think anybody anticipated," the president told Smith. "This has been an extraordinary downturn. So that means that if you're in a deeper hole, it's gonna take longer to come back.

"And if we can now say to ourselves, 'Despite the traumas of the last two years, things are actually poised to rebound strong and we can get confidence back,' I'm confident actually that we're gonna grow faster."

But U.S. corporations are sitting on piles of cash - nearly two trillion dollars worth #0151; waiting for that Goldilocks moment when it's "just right" to invest again.

"But the noise out there in the world is the reason all these corporations are sitting on this almost $2 trillion of cash, [and] they say, 'Well, it's Obama's fault,'" said Smith.

"Right," said Mr. Obama.

"He's a regulator, he likes big government, we don't know what he's gonna do with taxes.' It's all you: You're the thing that's stopping the economic engine from really turning over."

"Well, you know, one of the things when you're President is, folks are gonna, you know, direct attention - when things aren't going right for them - at you."

If there is a perception gap between the president's sagging popularity ratings and a performance that the White House believes is praiseworthy, it is soon to be put to the test.

"You have Congressional elections coming up in just a couple of months, and whether you like it or not, this really ends up being a referendum on you," said Smith. "If you had to give yourself an assessment for these first 18 months, how would you grade yourself?"

"Well, I think it's incomplete," President Obama said, "Until the economy has rebounded fully. But when I look back on what we've accomplished in the last 18 months, preventing the country sinking into a Great Depression, two economists, including John McCain's economist from the campaign, estimated that if we hadn't made the decisions we've made, you would have had an additional eight million people unemployed, and we would be in a Great Depression.

"So saving the economy, stabilizing the financial market, saving the U.S. auto industry, oh, and by the way, passing health care, I'd say that's a pretty good track record.

"But until the unemployment rate is down and the economy is where it needs to be, I'm not gonna be satisfied."

Maybe the promise that was assigned him on that cold clear January day exceeded the reality ahead: A near-depression, and a discouraging war still left to fight.

"Nobody thinks that Afghanistan is gonna be a model Jeffersonian democracy," Mr. Obama said. "What we're looking to do is difficult, very difficult, but it's a fairly modest goal, which is, don't allow terrorists to operate from this region; don't allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the U.S. homeland with impunity.

"That can be accomplished," he said. "We can stabilize Afghanistan sufficiently and we can get enough cooperation from Pakistan that we are not magnifying the threat against the homeland."

"As we end July it's the most deadly month for U.S. troops since the war began in 2001," said Smith. "For the families of the men and women who are being sent to Afghanistan, can you promise those families that the sacrifice of their loved ones is worth the fight?"

"If I didn't think that it was important for our national security to finish the job in Afghanistan, then I would pull them all out today," the president said. "Because I have to sign the letters to these families when a loved one is lost."

We often think of politics as a sport. But no one would confuse governing with a game. The stakes are too high. Still, the president is not all work and no play.

"What is the one thing you most look forward to when you leave the Oval Office and head into the family quarters in the White House?" Smith asked.

"Well, that's easy," Mr. Obama said. "I mean, that's sitting down with my girls for dinner. That's a prize. And it reminds me of why I do what I do, because I want to make sure that when they've got kids, that, you know, we've got an America that's strong. And I think we will."

Yet, problems abound . . . the Gulf oil spill . . . immigration reform. He will speak about both tomorrow morning on "The Early Show."