Monday, March 30, 2009 at 8:54
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HOST BOB SCHIEFFER: Today on “Face the Nation” from the White House, it’s Obama’s war now, and he talks about that in our exclusive interview.
Mr. President, thank you for joining us. This economic crisis has been so severe that it has literally pushed all the other issues off the television, out of the newspapers. But as -- when you outlined your program for Afghanistan and the new strategy, it really underlined in the starkest terms that we may not be talking about these serious issues, but there’s some very serious things going on out there. So I’d like to start there.
SCHIEFFER: If I could. This is a hugely ambitious plan -- 22,000 more troops. You’re going to increase spending by 60 percent. You said in your announcement, we must defeat Al Qaida.
SCHIEFFER: This has really now become your war, hasn’t it?
OBAMA: I think it’s America’s war. And it’s the same war that we initiated after 9/11 as a consequence of those attacks on 3,000 Americans, who were just going about their daily round, and the focus over the last seven years I think has been lost.
What we want to do is to refocus attention on Al Qaida. We are going to root out their networks, their bases. We are going to make sure that they cannot attack U.S. citizens, U.S. soil, U.S. interests and our allies’ interests around the world.
In order for us to do that, we have to ensure that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can serve as a safe haven for Al Qaida. And unfortunately, over the last several years, what we’ve seen is essentially Al Qaida moving several miles from Afghanistan to Pakistan, but effectively still able to project their violence and hateful ideologies out into the world.
SCHIEFFER: You talked many times during your -- as you outlined this strategy about Al Qaida in Pakistan. You talk about safe havens in Pakistan.
SCHIEFFER: Are you giving our commanders now in Afghanistan the green light to go after these people even if they’re in what used to be safe havens in Pakistan?
OBAMA: Well, I haven’t changed my approach. If we have a high- value target within our sights -- after consulting with Pakistan, we’re going after them. But our main thrust has to be to help Pakistan defeat these extremists.
Now, one of the concerns that we’ve had building up over the last several years is a notion, I think, among the average Pakistani that this is somehow America’s war and that they are not invested. And that attitude, I think, has led to a steady creep of extremism in Pakistan that is the greatest threat to the stability of the Pakistan government, and ultimately the greatest threat to the Pakistani people. What we want to do is say to the Pakistani people, you are our friends, you are our allies. We are going to give you the tools to defeat al Qaeda and to root out these safe havens, but we also expect some accountability, and we expect that you understand the severity and the nature of the threat.
In addition, what we want to do is to help Pakistan grow its economy, to be able to provide basic services to its people, and that I think will help strengthen those efforts.
If the Pakistan government doesn’t have credibility, if they are weakened, then it’s going to be much more difficult for them to deal with the extremism within their borders.
SCHIEFFER: But you’re talking about going after them. Are you talking about with American boots on the ground, pursuing these people into these so-called safe havens?
OBAMA: No. Our plan does not change the recognition of Pakistan as a sovereign government. We need to work with them and through them to deal with Al Qaida, but we have to hold them much more accountable and we have to recognize that part of our task in working with Pakistan is not just military. It’s also our capacity to build their capacity through civilian interventions, through development, through aid assistance.
OBAMA: And that’s part of what you’re seeing both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I think, is fully resourcing a comprehensive strategy that doesn’t just rely on bullets or bombs, but also relies on agricultural specialists, on doctors, on engineers, to help create an environment in which people recognize that they have much more at stake, in partnering with us and the international community, than giving in to some of these extremist ideologies.
SCHIEFFER: Help me out here. How do you -- what if they can’t do it? What if they won’t do it?
I mean, we have reports now about members of Pakistan’s intelligence service actually actively helping the Taliban and Al Qaida.
OBAMA: Well, some of those...
SCHIEFFER: What if they don’t do it?
OBAMA: Some of those reports aren’t new. There are a whole host of contingencies that we’ve got to deal with. I mean, this is going to be hard, Bob. I’m under no illusions. If it was easy, it would have already been completed.
So we’re going to have to go with a strategy that is focused, that is narrowly targeted on defeating Al Qaida. We think that, if you combine military, civilian, diplomatic, development approaches; if we are doing a much better job of coordinating with our allies, we can be successful.
But we recognize there are going to be a lot of hurdles between now and us finally having weakened Al Qaida or destroyed Al Qaida to the point it cannot -- it doesn’t pose a danger to us.
And we will continue to monitor and adjust our strategies to make sure that we’re not just going down blind alleys.
SCHIEFFER: Are you concerned at all -- because some people say the more troops you put in, it’s just going to inflame the situation; it’s going to make it worse. What do you say to them?
OBAMA: I’m very mindful of that. Look, I -- I’m enough of a student of history to know that the United States, in Vietnam and other countries, other epochs of history have overextended to the point where they were severely weakened. And the history in Afghanistan obviously shows that that country has not been very favorably disposed towards foreign intervention. And that’s why a central part of our strategy is to train the Afghan National Army so that they are taking the lead, increasingly, to deal with extremists in their area.
That’s been one of the few success stories we’ve seen over the last several years, is the Afghan National Army actually has great credibility. They’re effective fighters. We need to grow that. And that’s part of the reason why we want to make sure that there are trainers there.
But the last point I would make, you know, a request was made for increased troop levels in Afghanistan. I have already authorized 17,000. We’re now adding 4,000 trainers, specifically designed to train Afghan security forces.
But what I’ve also said to the Department of Defense and what I will say to the American public is that, you know, we now have resourced properly this strategy. It’s not going to be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources. We’ve just got to make sure that we are focused on achieving what we need to achieve with the resources we have.
SCHIEFFER: What you seem to be saying is we have to win; there’s no choice here. So does that mean, if more is needed; if the commanders come back to you and say, we may need more troops, Mr. President, to do this, you’re going to be ready to do that?
OBAMA: What I will not do is to simply assume that more troops always results in an improved situation.
I think there was a good argument, after us scrubbing this very hard and talking to a lot of our allies in the region, including the Pakistan and Afghanistan governments, the Europeans and our other NATO allies, that this was the best strategy.
But just because we needed to ramp up from the greatly underresourced levels that we had doesn’t automatically mean that, if this strategy doesn’t work, that what’s needed is even more troops.
There may be a point of diminishing returns in terms of troop levels. We’ve got to also make sure that our civilian efforts, our diplomatic efforts and our development efforts are just as robustly encouraged.
And, so for example, in the budget that I’ve presented to Congress, I’ve said we’ve got to increase foreign aid in Afghanistan and we’ve got to increase foreign aid in Pakistan. And I’m going to be really pushing Congress, because sometimes foreign aid is a, you know, juicy target, particularly during tough times.
I’m going to tell them, this is central to our strategy. And it can save lives and troops if we properly execute it.
SCHIEFFER: But you described this in very dark terms. I mean, and there’s no question that things are worse than ever in Afghanistan. You would agree with that?
OBAMA: I do.
SCHIEFFER: But you’re saying...
OBAMA: Let me make sure I’m clear. They’re not worse than they were when the Taliban was in charge...
OBAMA: ... and Al Qaida was operating with impunity. We have seen a deterioration over the last several years. And unless we get a handle on it now, we’re going to be in trouble.
SCHIEFFER: You said the other day in the “60 Minutes” interview that you would not have thought at this point in your presidency that Iraq would be the least of your worries, something to that effect.
SCHIEFFER: Are things going well enough there now that you may consider speeding up the withdrawal of troops from Iraq?
OBAMA: No, I think the plan that we put forward in Iraq is the right one, which is let’s have a very gradual withdrawal schedule through the national elections in Iraq. There’s still work to be done on the political side to resolve differences between the various sectarian groups around issues like oil, around issues like provincial elections. And so we’re going to continue to make progress on that front.
I’m confident that we’re moving in the right direction, but Iraq is not yet completed. We still have a lot of work to do. We still have a lot of training of Iraqi forces to improve their capacity. I’m confident, though, that we’re moving in the right direction.
SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you about something closer to home, and that is Mexico. You talked about sending more aid to the Mexican government, but things down there are really serious, as you well know. It’s my understanding that 90 percent of the guns that they’re getting down in Mexico are coming from the United States. We don’t seem to be doing a very good job of cutting off the gun flow. Do you need any kind of legislative help on that front? Have you, for example, thought about asking Congress to reinstate the ban on assault weapons?
OBAMA: I think the main thing we need is better enforcement. And so this week, we put forward a comprehensive initiative to assist those border regions that are being threatened by these drug cartels to provide assistance to the Mexican government, to make sure that on our side of the border we’ve got more personnel, more surveillance equipment.
SCHIEFFER: Why are we having so much trouble with that? I mean...
OBAMA: Well, what’s happened is that President Calderon, I think, has been very bold, and rightly has decided that it’s gotten carried away. That the drug cartels have too much power, are undermining and corrupting huge segments of Mexican society, and so he is taking them on, in the same way that when Eliot Ness took on Al Capone back during Prohibition, oftentimes that causes even more violence. And we’re seeing that flare up.
SCHIEFFER: Do you think it’s a threat to the United States security?
OBAMA: I don’t think that it is a -- what would be called an existential threat, but it is a serious threat to those border communities, and it’s gotten out of hand. And so what we have to do is to recognize that, look, this is a two-way street. As Secretary Clinton indicated, we’ve got to reduce demand for drugs. We’ve got to do our part in reducing the flow of cash and guns south.
SCHIEFFER: Are we anywhere close to putting U.S. troops on the border?
OBAMA: You know, obviously, there have been calls to increase National Guard troops on the borders. That’s something that we are considering. But we want to first see whether some of the steps that we’ve taken can help quell some of the violence. And we want to make sure that we are consulting as effectively as we can with the Mexican government in moving this strategy forward.
SCHIEFFER: All right. Let’s take a break here and we’ll come back and talk about some domestic issues.
SCHIEFFER: Mr. President, you’re scheduled to announce on Monday what you plan to do with the auto industry, as they’re asking for more federal money.
SCHIEFFER: You’ve told them they’re going to have to cut back, present a different business plan. Our sources tell us that, as far as the White House is concerned, they’re not there yet.
Do they have to do more in order to get this money?
OBAMA: Yes. They’re not quite there yet. There’s been some serious efforts to deal with a combination of long-standing problems in the auto industry and the current crisis, which has seen the market for new cars drop from 14 million to 9 million.
Everybody is having problems, even Toyota and other very profitable companies.
And so what we’re trying to let them know is that we want to have a successful auto industry -- U.S. auto industry. We think we can have a successful U.S. auto industry. But it’s got to be one that’s realistically designed to weather this storm and to emerge at the other end much more lean, mean and competitive than it currently is.
And that’s going to mean a set of sacrifices from all parties involved, management, labor, shareholders, creditors, suppliers, dealers. Everybody is going to have to come to the table and say it’s important for us to take serious restructuring steps now in order to preserve a brighter future down the road.
SCHIEFFER: But they’re not there yet?
OBAMA: They’re not there yet.
SCHIEFFER: You campaigned on cutting taxes for the middle class. And yet, lately, I don’t see any middle-class tax cut in the version of the budget that’s going through the Senate right now.
You have suggested that maybe you’d let the tax cuts you put for the middle class in the stimulus bill run out next year.
Can you tell us, are you still pushing a middle-class tax cut? I know you said you want the Congress to follow the principles you set out, your priorities: education...
OBAMA: Health care.
SCHIEFFER: ... reducing the deficit, health care and so on -- and education. But have you abandoned the middle-class tax cut?
OBAMA: Absolutely not. Now, first of all, let’s understand, Bob, I’ve delivered that middle-class tax cut for two years, in the stimulus package. So people will be getting...
SCHIEFFER: This year and next year?
OBAMA: That’s right.
SCHIEFFER: But are you going to let that run out?
OBAMA: Hold on a second. They’ll be seeing their tax cuts in their -- their paychecks starting on April 1, for 95 percent of working families, just as we promised.
I strongly believe that we should continue those tax cuts. We should make them permanent because the average worker out there, the average family, saw their wages and incomes flatlined, even during boom times, over the last decade.
And there’s been a huge growth in income at the very top echelons but not for average American workers. They’ve been losing ground. So I think it’s the right thing to do. What I’ve also said, though, is we’ve got to pay for it.
Now, in my original budget, we had a way of paying for it. And some of the proposals that we have made, members of Congress have said, well, we’re not quite comfortable with that.
So what I’ve said is, if you don’t want to pay for it in those ways, let’s find another way to pay for it. I think it’s still the right thing to do. And I’m going to be pushing as hard as I can to get it done in this budget.
If it’s not done in this budget, then I’m going to keep on pushing for it next year and the year afterwards, so that we don’t see a drop-off after the two-year tax cuts...
SCHIEFFER: So what you’re saying is that the Congress may want to find a different way to pay for it but you’re going to insist on...
OBAMA: Absolutely. That’s still...
SCHIEFFER: ... a middle-class tax cut? I want to ask you, also, about these bonuses and all that on Wall Street. Congress expressed outrage. You seemed outraged. And then after the Congress -- the House passed the bill to get that money back with some kind of taxes on those people, you seemed to throw a little cold water on that. You said we shouldn’t legislate out of anger.
Have you now, on reflection, decided that maybe you let that go a little too far?
OBAMA: Oh, no. I think that the anger was justified. And had we not seen some healthy expressions of anger, we wouldn’t have gotten $50 million of those bonuses back that had been sent to AIG.
But what I consistently said -- and I said this even on the first day, when I announced that, in fact, we were going to do everything we could to get some of those bonuses back.
OBAMA: I said at the time that it is important to keep our eye on the ball. My most important job is to get this economy moving again, to get credit flowing again, so that businesses, large and small, can start rehiring, open their doors, and we can start seeing economic growth again. That’s my most important job.
What I don’t want is that larger project to be threatened by short-term gratifications of our legitimate frustrations with some of the behavior that we’ve seen on Wall Street. And I met with bankers, some of the...
SCHIEFFER: Did you talk about that in your big meeting with the bankers at the White House?
OBAMA: I did. I talked to them. And what I said was, look, first of all, there are a lot of bankers that are doing good work in the community, that are acting responsibly, that haven’t taken huge risks. I understand that. But understand that for the average single mom who is just barely struggling to pay her mortgage or medical bills for her kid, who is paying her taxes, who is playing by the rules, and then finds out that a taxpayer-assisted firm is paying out multimillion-dollar bonuses, that’s not just not acceptable.
Show some restraint. Show some -- show that you get that this is a crisis and everybody has to make sacrifices.
SCHIEFFER: So what did they say?
OBAMA: They agreed. And they recognized it.
Now, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I expect to see that restraint operate. Another way of putting it is I said to those folks, let me help you -- help me help you. It’s very difficult for me as president to call on the American people to make sacrifices to help shore up the financial system if there’s no sense of mutual obligation and mutual help.
Now, the flip side is I have got to explain to the American people we’re not going to get this recovery if we don’t see a recovery of the financial sector. And there’s no separation between Main Street and Wall Street. We’re all in this together. And it’s my job to help keep that focus as we move forward.
SCHIEFFER: One more question, Mr. President. This week, I went down to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, where they have this wonderful new visitors’ center. And one of the historians down there reminded me that Thomas Jefferson once said the presidency is a splendid misery. But at the end of his term, he also said, quote, that the presidency had brought him nothing but increasing drudgery and a daily loss of friends.
I just wonder, have you lost any friends yet?
OBAMA: I don’t think I’ve lost any friends. But I’m sure I’ve strained some friendships.
And look, this is an invigorating job. In some ways, I feel incredibly fortunate to be in this job at a time where the presidency really matters. This is not a caretaker presidency right now. Every decision we’re making counts, and my team understands that.
You know, if I had my preferences, would I love to deal with one of these at a time? Deal with Afghanistan now and maybe put off banking until later, or deal with health care three years from now? That would be great.
I don’t have that luxury because the American people don’t have that luxury. They need to be kept safe now. They need health care assistance now. They need this economy back on track now. They need to educate their kids now. And given that they’re having to make a lot of difficult choices, it’s important for us to work as hard as we can to help them live out their American dream.
SCHIEFFER: Thank you, Mr. President.
OBAMA: Great to talk to you, Bob. Thank you.