Barack Obama photo

Interview With Anthony Mason of CBS News

August 21, 2011

MASON: Mr. President, to start with, there's talk of a new economic package that you're gonna unveil after Labor Day. And there's some details that have been leaking out. Is-- is this gonna be a comprehensive job plan that you're gonna propose after Labor Day?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, keep in mind that for the last two and a half years all we've been thinking about is how we get people back to work and grow the economy. And we had made some progress. We've seen over 2 million jobs created over the last 17 months. But clearly over the last six months there've been a lot of headwinds on the economy and we have not seen the kind of growth that ensure the unemployment rate coming down as fast as it needs to.

So what we've said is let's redouble our efforts and investment on putting people back to work on the front end, but let's make sure we're paying for it by dealing with the debt and deficit issues on the back end. And so what we're gonna be doing is arguing for a larger deficit reduction package than had been agreed to during this debt ceiling debacle.

It will be based on principles that are consistent with what I've been talking about for the last several months a balance approach consistent with what the bipartisan Bowles Simpson Committee talked about. And by securing those savings and stabilizing our debt and deficits over a 10- and 20-year horizon it allows us to also do more in terms of spurring job growth right now.

MASON: Are you talking about doing things beyond what you've been talking about here the last three days?

THE PRESIDENT: I think we will have some additional components to it. It's still very important that we extend the payroll tax cut that we initiated in December into next year. That's $1,000 in the pocket of an average family that will boost the economy overall. We think it's still important for us to do trade deals, patent reform. So there are a host of measures that are consistent with what we said before.

But we also think that there are some additional things we need to do given that the economy has slowed down in part because of how badly I think the American people responded to the brinksmanship that we saw around the debt ceiling. That has hampered business confidence and consumer confidence and we're gonna need to give it another jump start.

MASON: There are reports that you're considering a middle class tax cut. Is that on the table?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the payroll tax cut is a middle class tax cut that, that applies to everybody who's on a payroll. We'll look at a variety of other incentives, particularly helping businesses to hire more workers. But you know, I think what you can be assured of is that the package will be paid for and that economists independently will say this is something that will help drive economic growth and jobs not just this year, but into next year.

MASON: The larger question of course is what is the reception in Congress likely to be to it?

THE PRESIDENT: Well you know, it's hard these days to figure out what the reception to anything in Congress is gonna be. I mean, we've had a lot of plans that historically have had bipartisan support where we've seen resistance, particularly in the House of Representatives.

But one of the things that I've been saying on this bus tour and I think you've seen has gotten a hearty response from audiences is they want Congress to be thinking about the country and not politics. And if both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are thinking about country first and not politics first, then they'll see that whether it's a payroll tax cut, infrastructure, you know, trade deals, patent reform, these are all things that historically have secured Democratic and Republican support. There's no reason why we shouldn't be doing 'em right now.

MASON: People as you know, people look at Washington and they think it's broken to the point of being irreparable. Do you think the damage to the process is irreparable?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't think it's irreparable. I mean, keep in mind, you know, as President out of necessity you read a lot of history. And there've been times when Congress was just as dysfunctional, there've been times where the country was full of vitriol in its politics. So this isn't unique to our time.

But I think what people are especially frustrated about is the fact that we're at a turning point in this country where if we make good decisions we can win the 21st century and we can continue to be the most successful country on Earth. And if we don't deal with some of these challenges, we could see a potential decline in our relative status.

And so I think the American people understand the urgency of the situation right now and recognize we don't have time to play games. You know, it's one thing when you had President Clinton and Newt Gingrich going back and forth back in '95 at the end of the Cold War when the economy was expanding and we didn't have competition around the world and, you know, it might have been unpleasant, but it wasn't gonna affect the underlying economy. We're at a time now where we've gotta make very good choices and we've gotta make 'em quick in order for us to succeed.

MASON: But saying that doesn't make it happen. And as we've seen, I mean, we thought a debt ceiling timetable might spur some action, it didn't happen. And obviously a lot of Americans are extremely discouraged. We had an extremely volatile stock market. First of all, what was your takeaway from the stock market volatility? When you saw that kind of volatility on Wall Street in your view what was the mar-- what were the markets saying?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, what the markets were saying - and I think this is borne out by subsequent events - they don't worry about the United States not being a AAA country. You know, the markets voted and they rejected the down, the assessment of downgrade because they all rushed to treasuries as soon as they saw stock market volatility.

What I think the markets were reacting to is the fact that the economy has not grown as quick as it needs to. They've have been a lot of headwinds, the European debt crisis, Japan, high gas prices from the Arab spring. And so if the economy is not growing faster than two percent it means unemployment's not coming down as quick as it needs to. And what a lot of folks are worried about is that the recovery that we have been on is stalling or not moving as quickly as it needs to.

MASON: Do you think we're in danger of another recession?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't think we're in danger of another recession, but we are in danger of not having a recovery that's fast enough to deal with what is a genuine unemployment crisis for a whole lot of folks out there --

MASON: Well, it seems--

THE PRESIDENT: -- and that's why we need to be doing more.

MASON: --we, we have that already though, don't we? I mean, it seems to me the, I mean, the concern last week and the week before was that the market was saying we were closer to it than we thought and that in fact the markets themselves might cause consumers to pull back and tip us into a recession.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, what is absolutely true is confidence matters. We should not have had any kind of brinksmanship around the debt ceiling. I wish that the Speaker had taken me up on a grand bargain to deal with our long-term debt and deficit. We still have the opportunity to fix that, it's not too late. I will be putting forward a plan that will be very similar to the plan that I put forward to the Speaker.

I will let the American people judge whether it's the kind of balanced plan that I've been talking about for the last couple of months. We can fix these problems. Compared to a lot of countries around the world the adjustments we have to make are so much more modest. And I think that's part of the reason why the American people are so frustrated. It'd be one thing if we had the kinds of problems that a Greece did where, you know, you potentially have to completely restructure your economy and your society. That's not the situation here.

Here we're talking about closing some loopholes in the tax code, making some modest adjustments in entitlements, paring back a little bit on programs that don't work. And if we do that - and I on the back of an envelope I could show you what it would take for us to do it - most folks wouldn't notice.

But the markets would notice, businesses would notice, consumers would notice that Washington finally had it acts together. So you're right, ultimately it's gonna be up to Congress to prove that they can take these kinds of actions. And I will be putting pressure on them and I think the American people will as well.

MASON: In your view why did the grand bargain fail?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I think the Speaker was sincere about wanting to get something done. But I think he had problems selling it in his caucus.

MASON: He said you moved the goal post.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that's, here's the test as to whether that's accurate or not. I told him even after he said that the deal was off, I still wanted to try to work something out and he wouldn't do it. And the reason is because he couldn't do it. I think that he was constrained within his party. And you've seen what's been happening among the presidential candidates on the Republican side.

When they say that they can't take a deal that involves $10 of spending cuts to $1 of revenue increases, then what your seeing is ideology has taken over, as opposed to common sense practical approaches to solving the deficit. So my sense is that if they're listening to the public including the majority of Republicans who think that we should take a balanced, thoughtful approach to deficit reduction that does not just rely on drastic spending cuts, then there's no reason why they're not gonna have a partner in me who's willing to take on my party on some tough stuff. And some more proof that, I was ready to bargain here, is the degree to which I got folks in my own part pretty mad at me during that discussion.

MASON: Margaret Thatcher famously said when when Gorbachev took power in Russia, "I can do business with this man." Can you do business with the Republican leadership?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I absolutely can do business with 'em. The question is whether they can make sure that their caucuses, their - the members of the House of Representatives in particular - are prepared to break out of some of these very rigid positions that they've been taking where they keep on drawing lines in the sand that make it very hard to solve these problems.

So the issue's not gonna be whether I can do business with John Boehner. The issue is if John Boehner and I are able to come to an agreement, can he sell it among his fellow Republicans inside the House of Representatives. And so far at last that's proven to be difficult.

MASON: Have you spoken to him since that deal fell through?

THE PRESIDENT: I did speak to him, obvious we had to get at least a deal done to avoid default, which we did. But that's not good enough. The --

MASON: Was that relationship damaged because of the failure of that to work?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I think it raises questions as I said as to whether the Speaker is able to move his caucus to take tough decisions. Because I know that I'm willing at least to go to my party, to go to my fellow Democrats and say to them, 'You know what, even if there's some things that you think aren't good short-term politics, this is good for the country and we should be willing to go ahead and find the kinds of common ground and compromise that allows us to move the country forward.' And if that's happening on both sides, there no reason why we can't solve problems.

MASON: This past week Congress' popularity obviously is, they're, it barely registers. But this past week your popularity hit a record low. What does that say to you?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, what it says to me is I'm the President of the United States and when people aren't happy with what's happening in Washington, that I'm gonna be impacted just like Congress is. And you know I completely understand that, we expected that.

But when you look at how people feel about my approach to deficit reduction or when you look at how people feel about my belief that we've gotta continue to invest in education or medical research or making sure that we're rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our seaports and our airports, when you look at how people feel about the agenda to rebuild America so that it's competitive in the 21st century that I've been promoting over the last couple of years, it turns out that people are supportive of that.

What they're frustrated right now is they want me to be able to wrangle Congress and get them moving. And you know, we've got this thing, separation of powers, and we don't have a parliamentary system. And it means that there are times where Congress is gonna do things despite what I saw as opposed to because I think this is the right direction for the country.

And that, and that frustrates people understandably. And you've got an unemployment rate that is still too high, an economy that's not growing fast enough. And for me to argue, 'Look, we've actually made the right decisions, things would have been much worse has we not made those decisions,' that's not that satisfying if you don't have a job right now. And I understand that and I expect to be judged a year from now on whether or not things have continued to get better.

MASON: If you were a middle class voter out out there right now, if you were a middle class voter out there right now would you give yourself another term?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I actually would, because I believe that we've made good decisions. And whether it's been saving the auto industry or stabilizing the financial system or getting the economy growing again or helping small businesses with their loans or investing in clean energy and starting entire new areas of industry like advanced battery manufacturing, I think we've actually taken great strides.

And keep in mind ultimately the people are gonna be making a decision based on not only where we are right now but where do we want to be 20 years from now. And when they're looking at a choice between the approach that I'm advocating in which we're investing for the future, we're living within our means, we're focusing on middle class families and fairness and making sure that there's [shared] sacrifice and shared opportunities.

Then you contrast that with an approach that says 'We're not gonna close any corporate loopholes, we're gonna slash benefits on things like Medicare, we can't afford to do the kinds of things that made America great in the past like rebuilding our infrastructure and investing our colleges.' If I'm middle class American I'm gonna say that's the future I want. And I'm confident that we're gonna be able to make that case next year.

MASON: I think what a lot of people are worried about is they look at Republicans have started the presidential campaign. You're in effect on the campaign trail here in a way --

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't think that's right though. I want to make sure, you know, I'm getting out of Washington. And if every time I get out of Washington that's considered campaigning I got problems. Because you know, if anything we have gone out of our way over the last two and a half years not to make decisions based on politics.

If you were to listen to the pundits and the talking heads on TV, most of their criticism isn't necessarily about substance, it's, you know, 'You didn't package it right, you didn't message it right, you ...' Well, part of the reason is we've been spending a lot of time just focused on doing the right thing, not out there selling it. Now, I think there's a legitimate criticism that part of my job as President [is] also selling and making sure that people know that I'm in touch with them.

And the reason we went on this bus tour, aside from the fact that it makes me feel better just to be with ordinary folks who are out there working and raising their kids and tending to their communities, is also it gives people a sense that, you know what, their President's not some remote, detached guy on a TV screen.

This is somebody who cares about them, who comes from communities like this who knows their struggles because he's been through 'em. And that's not a function of campaigning, that's part of governing.

MASON: Do you think that, given that we're headed into an election year, presidential election year and the tendency on the part of both parties not to want to give the other side any leg up on anything, is there any hope that anything will be accomplished in this country in the next year?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I think there are some things we can do. First of all, keep in mind that there's some things we've been doing without Congress' help because they're the right thing to do. For example, we've been able to get the auto industry and the trucking industry to increase fuel efficiency standards. That's gonna increase our energy independence. It's gonna be good for consumers, it's gonna save folks ultimately at the pump.

So there's some things we can do administratively. I think we'll be able to get trade deals done because historically Republicans have been for these. And we've actually negotiated trade deals that for the first time you had the UAW, the auto workers supportive of. So we've done a good job there. We think we can get patent reform.

I think it'll be very hard for Congress to explain how they don't renew the payroll tax cut. That would mean $1,000 out of the pockets of middle class families all across the country. So we're gonna keep on putting the pressure on Congress to act where we can find common ground. I want us to move forward.

And I tell you, it's not gonna be good politics for those in Congress who decide we're just gonna do nothing when folks around the country are demanding action. I think that it would be a bad strategy on their part. Of course I'm not advising politi --

MASON: Do you think the deficit reduction committee has any hope of reaching agreement?

THE PRESIDENT: I think it should.

MASON: That's a different --

THE PRESIDENT: But the, you know, I think a lot of it's gonna depend on whether Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell in having assigned these members to the committee stick to this notion that revenue cannot be part of any package. Because if you start taking that kind of position, if you start drawing those lines in the sand, then it's very hard to achieve the deficit reduction that we need without slashing Medicare so that seniors having to pay an extra $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 a year. And I don't think you'll get a lot of take up from Democrats on that kind of approach.

MASON: You still like this job?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I love this job. There are gonna be days where, like any job - I'm assuming like your job - there are days where you say, 'Boy, there's a lot of headaches here.' And there are times where I am so incredibly frustrated because I know how many folks out there need help. And I know that there are things we could be doing right now that we're not doing.

And you know, you'll have folks like in these town hall meetings today saying, 'You know, why can't we get the parties to come together on a more sensible approach to this or that or the other?' And you have to explain to 'em, 'Well, this is a big, messy democracy and people have different points of view,' and, you know, but that can drive you nuts sometimes.

MASON: You don't want to walk away from it all? You could.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, no, the, because I actually think that we've done great work. I think it is an extraordinary privilege to be able to serve the American people. And what also happens as I'm traveling around the country is, you know, two days ago I met a guy whose son was a hemophiliac, had, you know, had almost run out of insurance. Our health care bill meant his son's still insured and doing great and going into high school.

You know, you talk to farmers who say, 'You know, what I got a wind project going that is good for my farm and I'm selling energy to folks that I never expected to.' And so you get stories back where we're making a difference. And nothing is more satisfying than that.

So are there times where I want to get out of Washington? Yeah. Are there times where I'm not sleeping as well at night as I'd like to because, you know, we're grappling with some big problems? Absolutely. But every single day I consider myself the luckiest man on earth to have the privilege of trying to move this country forward and helping people who hadn't, you know, the willingness to put the, to entrust me with this great responsibility and I'm very grateful toward.

MASON: Okay, thanks Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much, appreciate it.

Barack Obama, Interview With Anthony Mason of CBS News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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