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Transcript Excerpt: Sen. Barack Obama

On February 6, 2007 - just days before announcing his candidacy for president - Illinois Senator Barack Obama sat down for an interview with 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft. The interview took place in Obama's office in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC.

STEVE KROFT: What qualifies you to be President of the United States?

BARACK OBAMA: Something that I think I bring to bear to this process is the capacity to bring diverse people together around a common goal. And I think more than anything, that's what America needs right now: the ability for us to unite around a common-sense, practical, non-ideological effort to solve some very big problems that we face.

KROFT: I'm a voter looking at your resume, and you served seven years in the Illinois legislature, two years in the U.S. Senate. No executive experience in government and no real credentials in international affairs. It's a tough job. What qualifies you?

OBAMA: If you look at my track record, not only in Washington, but prior to Washington, I think what you'll see is a diverse set of experience that prepares me well for the particular challenges that we face right now. Let's take the issue of foreign policy. You know, I've served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I've worked with colleagues like Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, a Republican, on the issue of nuclear proliferation and actually passed last year a piece of legislation dealing with proliferation on conventional arms. On issues dealing with Africa, a major area where we've got to deal with a potential terrorist threat, we passed legislation to make sure that we are stabilizing countries like the Congo that are currently ungoverned and are vulnerable to terrorist infiltration. So on the international front, I've got a body of work that I think is relevant to the job. But more importantly than that, I've got a set of experiences prior to joining the Senate, including having lived overseas and having family overseas and understanding, I think, in a very intimate way, both the challenges that we face in America's image abroad, but also the opportunities to win back the hearts and minds of people who I think over the last six years have felt entirely alienated from how our administration's operated and, I think, that has actually made us less safe than we should be.

KROFT: Anything else in your background that you think serves as a qualification for this job?

OBAMA: You know, here in Washington, people don't take experience outside of Washington seriously. Seven years in the Illinois Senate actually prepares pretty well, because Illinois is a wonderful microcosm for the country. You know, it's north/south. It's east/west. It's black/white/Hispanic. There are a whole host of issues that have a direct impact on people's everyday lives. So when I pass legislation that expands healthcare for kids; or struggle with welfare reform on the ground where it matters; or bringing together opponents of the death penalty with law enforcement to come up with the first in the nation videotaping of interrogations and confessions in capital cases -- those are all issues that matter deeply to people. They are similar to the issues that we deal with at a national level.

KROFT: You touch people's imagination with your campaign.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

KROFT: People are worried about your experience.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: Why are you in such a hurry?

OBAMA: You know the truth is I'm not. If I was on my own internal timetable, then I would be happy to wait ten years before I was running for higher office. This is not something that I've engineered. It's something that presents itself as an opportunity to make a difference right here and right now. We have a narrow window to solve some of the problems that we face. Ten years from now, we may not be in a position to recover the sense of respect around the world that we've lost over the last six years. Ten years from now, we may have dug ourselves such a deep hole when it comes to our fiscal health that some of those problems are irreversible. Certainly when you look at our energy policy and environment and the prospects of climate change, we've got to make some decisions right now. And so I feel a sense of urgency for the country. It's possible that, you know, after we go through this whole process, the voters conclude: You know? He's not ready. And I respect that. I don't expect that simply because I can move people in speeches that automatically qualifies me for this job. I think that I have to be tested and run through the paces, and I have to earn this job

KROFT: What do you think you bring to the race that Senator [Hillary] Clinton doesn't or former Senator [John] Edwards?

OBAMA: I don't want to get into the comparisons at this stage with the candidates. I think as the campaign unfolds, people will get a sense of our differences.

KROFT: Do you think that your inexperience in any way is an advantage?

OBAMA: I do think that I'm able to look at what's going on in Washington with a little more objectivity, because I haven't been there that long. I think that the work that I've done in the past gives me a pretty good sense of the various dimensions of some of the problems we face. I'll be very specific. When we're having education debates here in Washington, my positions are informed by having tried to figure out how to fundamentally change the way that we finance public education at the state level. It's informed by work that I've done as a community organizer in inner city classrooms. And so I end up recognizing that we need more money to fix our schools, but we also need a transformation in attitudes. And in Washington, that's typically framed as a "either/or" proposition. You know, the conservative position is we don't need more money; we just need to blow up the bureaucracy. You know, on the left, sometimes the sense is we just need more money, and we and our problems will be solved. When you have actually been in these schools and worked with these parents and talked to the teachers and sat down in a meeting with principals who are trying to figure out how to hold this thing together, then you realize that it's not an "either/or" proposition. It's both ends. You know, parents need to do a better job of parenting. Teachers need to do a better job teaching. Some of the anti-intellectualism that exists in the African-American community and Latino communities and low-income communities has to change. And the federal government's got to put more money, because the fact is that they don't have enough resources.

KROFT: I want to read you a quote from The St. Petersburg Times. "Obama needs more than one Senate term to qualify for the Presidency of the United States. The world is too complex and dangerous for this likeable, charismatic, African-American neophyte to practice on-the-job training." Your reaction?

OBAMA: I expect to have to earn this job, and I trust the American people that they will be able to watch over the course of this campaign to see whether I've got the knowledge, the skills, and the grace under pressure to perform. And if I don't, then I think they'll let me know. And I'll be able to go back to doing the good work that I've been able to accomplish here in the Senate.

KROFT: If you were President today and given the present situation in Iraq, what would you do?

OBAMA: I've been very specific. I've introduced legislation.

KROFT: You've introduced a bill to get the U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of March 2008.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: But how would you do it? And what do you think the consequences would be?

OBAMA: Well, number one, we should have thought this through before we went in. I'm proud of the fact that, although I was at the start of a U.S. Senate campaign and there were some risks involved, I indicated that we hadn't thought this thing through. Now we don't have a lot of good options. We've got bad options and worse options. What I've proposed is that we should initiate a phase redeployment. Start taking our combat troops, deploying them in the region, deploying them in Afghanistan, focus them on the broader war on terror. What happens is dictated by conditions on the ground and what the commanders say. We set a target goal of getting our combat troops out, leaving logistics and training and counter-terrorism forces on the ground, and we set up some benchmarks, benchmarks that were laid out by the Iraq Study Group, benchmarks that were laid out by the President himself for the Iraqi government to meet.

KROFT: So essentially you're acknowledging defeat?

OBAMA: Not at all, because what the bill says is that if conditions allow for success and the military can assist in creating a stable Iraqi government, then we should do so. It is acknowledging that the President's policies in Iraq have failed, that we have spent over $400 billion, over 3,000 lives, and made us less safe, and that unless we fundamentally change course in Iraq, that we're going be having this same debate two years from now, four years from now, six years from now with who knows how many more incredibly brave American soldiers dying on the battlefield.

KROFT: So you would send some troops to Afghanistan. You would bring some troops home, and you would send some troops to other areas in the Middle East.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: Where would you send them in the Middle East? And for what purpose?

OBAMA: I think having the potential for an over-the-horizon force, that if you started having some sort of conflagrations that necessitated immediate U.S. action, that we could send them there. If you had spillover of Iraqi civil war activities into other parts of the Middle East, that they would be there. That you would potentially prevent Iran or Syria from taking advantage of some of the problems in Iraq; that you could potentially create some sort of perimeter around Iraq.

KROFT: If a full-scale civil war erupted, if you got into a situation where there was ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis, looking at a possible genocide situation, would that be grounds to re-deploy the troops?

OBAMA: My hope is at that point that we would have done enough diplomatic work that we would actually have a coalition to try to prevent genocide. Part of the problem that we have right now is that there is no coalition left. This is essentially a situation in which the rest of the world has said, "You made your decision. It hasn't worked out. We weren't really consulted in the process, and as a consequence, you're now on your own."

KROFT: You said you would hope that by that time you would have established coalitions. Coalitions with who?

OBAMA: We still have a lot of allies, not just in Western Europe, but around the world, who I think would be willing to participate, if there is a sense that this is not simply a matter of the United States calling folks in after we've made a decision, but where there's genuine consultation. Reshaping our international institutions I think is going to be absolutely critical. Part of that's diplomatic. But I think there's going to have to be a military component to that.

KROFT: Would you talk to Iran or Syria?

OBAMA: Yes. I think that the notion that this administration has -- that not talking to our enemies is effective punishment -- is wrong. It flies in the face of our experiences during the Cold War. Ronald Reagan understood that it may be an evil empire, but it's worthwhile for us to periodically meet to see are there areas of common interest. And most importantly, those conversations allow the possibility that our ideas and our values gain greater exposure in these countries. The fact of the matter is that Iran currently is governed by an oppressive regime, one that I think is a threat to the region and to our allies, but there are a lot of people in Iran who potentially would like to be part of this broader community of nations. For us not to be in a conversation with them doesn't make sense. Now I don't think that that conversation should be conditioned on our accepting their support of terrorism or their building nuclear capacity and potentially sparking an arms race in the Middle East, any more than our conversations with the Kremlin presumed that we approved of their aggression around the world. You know, we can have a robust strategy of blocking and containing aggressive actions by hostile or rogue states, but still open up the possibility that over time those relationships may evolve and they may change. And there may be opportunities for us to resolve some of our differences, not all of them, but some of them in a constructive way.

KROFT: Would you advocate the use of military force to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

OBAMA: I think we should keep all options on the table, but I think that our first step should be a much more aggressive approach to diplomacy than we've displayed thus far. And I think this is an example of where our blundering in Iraq has cost us dearly. Iran's the big winner from the Iraq War. They have gained immeasurable strength in the Middle East, and because of the strains that it's placed on our alliances and our leverage with other countries around the world, it's made it more difficult for us to be able to mobilize international pressure to get them to stand down from what I believe is a process of developing nuclear weapons.

KROFT: Do you have solutions for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict?

OBAMA: Well, probably not solutions that I can lay out in the next two minutes. Look, I think that both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are weary of the ongoing conflict. I think they want to see solutions. What we don't have right now, particularly in the Palestinian community, are a set of leaders who have both the will and the capacity to renounce violence as a strategy to resolve the problems and to actually enforce any agreement that might be reached with the Israelis. And that is something that we can't do single-handedly, but if we're much more active than we've been, if we're paying attention, if we're deploying special envoys, if we are indicating to the Palestinians that we are ready and willing to work with them and the Israelis in finding an agreeable two-state solution, then it is possible that that leadership will emerge.

KROFT: You have a government that's run by Hamas.

OBAMA: Well, that's right. Whether it is a maturation of Hamas leadership where they realize that violence is leading their people nowhere, or it's Fattah cleaning up its act and recognizing that they have to be a responsible government as opposed to a patronage system in the Palestinian Authority -- the possibilities of those two parties coming together and then being willing to say to Israel, "We renounce violence. We recognize your right to exist. We accept the various agreements that have been signed between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people, and we are ready to create a two state solution." Until that happens I think we're not going see much progress. But the United States being actively engaged in encouraging that process I think is critical.

KROFT: What do you think the biggest issues are facing this country right now?

OBAMA: Our starting point has to be our security. Priority number two is creating a situation in this country where the basic values of opportunity and the ability to compete in a globalized world are available to all people. What we've seen over the last several years I think is a situation in which the economy's been productive, [but] the fruits of that productivity have been restricted to a very small portion of the population, and the average worker is feeling more insecure in terms of their healthcare, more insecure in terms of their retirement. Solving our healthcare crisis, and you know I've said previously that by the end of my Presidency I would want to see a plan to provide healthcare to all Americans. I think it is critical that we get a handle on our energy strategy in this country, and that's something that I've worked on quite a bit here in the United States Senate. I think that we have to have a President who's willing to use the bully pulpit and all the tools at his or her disposal to say that we can create a future of alternative fuels and we can deal with the problem of climate change. We can enhance our national security by weeding ourselves off oil imports. [Also] critical is revamping our education system in a much more fundamental way. I think that George Bush made a half step when he passed the No Child Left Behind act. But he left money behind, and the way it was structured has not created the kind of change that we'd like to see on the ground.

KROFT: Would you raise taxes?

OBAMA: I would start by engaging in some honest budgeting, because one of the things that this President has done over the last six years is engage in a lot of smoke and mirrors budgeting, and it's done incredible damage to our long-term fiscal health. So, I think it's going to be important for us to start by saying, "We're going to pay as we go. We're not going to run the credit card up for our kids and our grandchildren." And if we are going to cut taxes or we are going to engage in new spending, then we've got to figure out how to pay for it. That's a starting point.

KROFT: You think the Bush tax cut should be rolled back?

OBAMA: I think the Bush tax cuts to you and me. The Bush tax cuts to people in the top income brackets should be rolled back, because I don't think we can afford them.

KROFT: You're a fairly traditional left of center Democrat, right?

OBAMA: I think there's no doubt that I'm a Democrat, and there's no doubt that I'm a progressive. [However,] how we label ourselves in this town as conservative or liberal has to do with a handful of highly ideological issues that are of marginal importance to the everyday lives of Americans. And yet there is this huge area where there's potentially overlap between conservative and liberal ideas, between Republican and Democratic legislators where we could do a lot of work and get stuff done.

KROFT: How important is race in defining yourself?

OBAMA: I think all of us in America and particularly African-Americans have to think about race at some point in our lives. The way I like to think about it, I am rooted in the African-American community, but I'm not defined by it. I am comfortable in my racial identity and recognize that I'm part of a very specific set of experiences in this country, but that's not the core of who I am. Another way of saying is that's not all I am.

KROFT: Your mother was white. Your father was African.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: You spent most of your life in a white household.

OBAMA: Yeah.

KROFT: I mean, you grew up white.

OBAMA: I'm not sure that would be true. I think what would be true is that I don't have the typical background of African-Americans. Not just because my mother was white, but because I grew up in Hawaii; I've spent time in Indonesia. There was all sorts of ethnicities and cultures that were swirling around my head as I was growing up. That's proven to be an enormous strength for me. It's part of the reason why I think I'm able to bring people together in ways that may be useful to the country. There were times where that was difficult. One of the things that helped me to resolve a lot of these issues is the realization that the African-American community, which I'm now very much feel a part of, is itself a hybrid community. It's African. It's European. It's Native American. So it's much more difficult to define what the essential African-American experience is, at least more difficult than what popular culture would allow. What I also realized is that the American experience is, by definition, a hybrid experience. I mean, you know one of the strengths of this country is that we have these people coming from, you know, all four corners of the globe converging, and sometimes in conflict, living side by side, and over time coming together to create this tapestry that is incredibly strong. And so, in that sense, I feel that my background ironically, because it's unusual, is quintessentially American.

KROFT: You were raised in a white household?

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: Yet at some point, you decided that you were black?

OBAMA: Well, I'm not sure I decided it. I think if you look African-American in this society, you're treated as an African-American. And when you're a child in particular that is how you begin to identify yourself. At least that's what I felt comfortable identifying myself as.

KROFT: There are blacks who say that you don't carry the psychological burden of slavery, or growing up in Harlem, or the south side of Chicago as descendants of slaves, but that you're more recent-immigrant stock.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: What do you make of that whole debate?

OBAMA: I think [that's] a small bunch of very intellectualized African-Americans, because that's not how I feel when I go into my barber shop to get my haircut. It's not what I experience when a cab driver drives by and waves and says, "I'm rooting for you." What I think I will plead to is a different perspective on some of the racial issues that we face in the sense that I come at it with the assumption that there is racial prejudice in our society, that we do continue to carry the historical legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. We've never fully addressed that. It manifests itself in much higher rates of poverty and violence and lack of educational achievement in minority communities. But I know in my heart that there is a core decency to the American people, and that decency can be tapped. I think America is at the point now where if a white person has the time to get to know who you are, that they are willing on average to look beyond race and judge you as an individual. That doesn't mean that they've stopped making snap judgments. It doesn't mean that before I was Barack Obama, and I was just Barack Obama, that if I got into an elevator, a woman might not clutch her purse a little tighter. Or if I'm walking down the street, that you might not hear some clicks of doors locking, right. I mean, there's still a host of stereotypes that I think a lot of people are operating under. But I think if they have time to get to know you, they will judge you as they would judge anybody else, and I think that's enormous progress. We've made progress. Yes, things are better. But better is not good enough. And we've still got a long way to go.

KROFT: You think the country's ready for a black President?


KROFT: You don't think it's going to hold you back?

OBAMA: No. I think if I don't win this race, it will be because of other factors. It's going to be because I have not shown to the American people a vision for where the country needs to go that they can embrace.

KROFT: So far the African community has not exactly rushed to support your candidacy, at least according to some of the polls. There's one poll that shows Hillary Clinton is ahead of you among black voters, 25 percent to ten percent. Another poll says she's leading 53 to 27 among African-Americans.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: Are you surprised by that? Are you disappointed by that?

OBAMA: Not at all. I think that there is an assumption on the part of some commentators that somehow the black community is so unsophisticated that the minute you put an African-American face up on the screen, that they automatically say, "That's our guy." Well, they're like any other community. They've got to get to know who I am nationally. And so, not only am I not surprised by it, but I'm proud of the fact that there's a maturation in the African-American community where a black candidate has to earn black votes the same way that he's got to earn white votes. And that's exactly how it should be.

KROFT: What'd you think of [Senator] Joe Biden's comments?

OBAMA: Joe himself would acknowledge that he hadn't fully thought those through. I didn't take it personally, but I think it spoke to some larger issues that we as a society are still working on.

KROFT: I want to ask you a question about your past. I mean, you've been very frank in your books, particularly the first book, with your language.

OBAMA: Yeah. Don't quote those on-air, or you'll get fined.

KROFT: I don't think I can. And about your drug use when you were in high school and in college, that you smoked marijuana and inhaled.

OBAMA: Right. I did. I did.

KROFT: And did a little blow, as you put it, when you could afford it, and considered using some heroin.

OBAMA: Only considered it briefly.

KROFT: Explain that. Why did you do it?

OBAMA: Well, it was typical of a teenager who was confused about who he was and what his place in the world was, and thought that experimenting with drugs was a way to rebel. It's not something that I'm proud of, but I thought it was important to write about it because that's part of the journey that I've taken. And I think that one of the things that I'm absolutely clear about is that if I'm trying to project this image of perfection, if I suggest to people that I emerged from the womb wise and worldly and diligent and never made mistakes, then, number one, it's a lie. Number two, I like to think that by letting people know the mistakes I've made, that maybe young people behind me are looking and saying, "You know what, this is a guy who made mistakes, but he was able to right his life and get on track."

KROFT: You made this confession in a book that you wrote before you'd really expressed any interest in politics.

OBAMA: Yeah.

KROFT: Do you regret in any way that you were so candid?

OBAMA: No. You know, I don't. I think one of the things about national politics is this attempt to airbrush your life, it's exhausting, right, you know. I think it's just a lot easier to say, "This is who I am. This is where I've come from." You know, if we have problems in this campaign, I suspect it's not going to be because of mistakes I've made in the past. I think it's going to be mistakes that I make in the future.

KROFT: You wrote an op-ed page piece to The Washington Post last month saying we must stop any and all practices that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a public servant has become indebted to a lobbyist.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: Yet, you know, it's been reported that you bought a piece of undeveloped property, a lot next to your house, on very favorable terms, from a political fundraiser named Tony Rezko, who is now currently under indictment for influence peddling.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: What's your relationship with him?

OBAMA: First of all, I didn't purchase the land on very favorable terms. I paid the market price, and I think everybody's acknowledged that. This was somebody who I had known since I came back from law school. He was a developer in the area, had been a supporter, had never asked me for anything, and we had never done any government business together of any sort. He purchased a lot next to the house that my wife and I bought. I offered to him to buy a small strip of his land to expand my side yard, and, you know, had it assessed and paid the market price. This was prior to his indictment. But, you know, what is absolutely true is that he was already under a cloud of suspicion on something entirely unrelated to me -- some work that he had done with the state, and it was a bone-headed decision on my part, for the reasons that I say in my op-ed, that appearances matter.

KROFT: It looked like he was trying to help you out.

OBAMA: In retrospect, there's no doubt that he thought that buying a lot next to me would be an expression of friendship. Now, as I said, I have never done any favors for him; he had never asked me for anything. I was never in a position to do anything for him, but I think it is entirely legitimate to say that I should have known better.

KROFT: How do you expect to go out and raise $100 million or $200 million to run for this office without making deals with the special interests?

OBAMA: I've tried to set up a system that will avoid some of the worst improprieties. I'm not accepting money from federal lobbyists. But look, it's still a problem. You know, I think the fact that somebody gives me a $2,000 donation probably doesn't necessarily influence my vote. But it probably influences whether or not I take that person's phone call, and that's a problem, which is why I would love to see public financing of campaigns, and I've said so publicly and repeatedly. Now in the interim until we get there, I'm going to have to do some fundraising, but I'm hopeful that the internet facilitates the kind of small donations that are able to support a campaign like mine.

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