Barack Obama photo

Interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS News' "Face the Nation"

September 20, 2009

MR. SCHIEFFER: Mr. President, thank you very much.


MR. SCHIEFFER: You have made speeches, you've addressed the joint session of Congress, you've done interviews, but the polling continues to show that people are still skeptical about your health reform plans.

Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah -- who's done a lot of work on health care over the years, summed it up this way, these are his words, he said, "If anyone believes that Washington can do a plan that will cost close to a trillion dollars, cover all Americans, not raise taxes on anyone, not increase the deficit, not reduce benefits or choices for our families and seniors, then I have a bridge to sell you."

Have you promised too much, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, I don't think I've promised too much at all.

Look, first of all, everybody acknowledges this is a problem -- everybody -- acknowledges that the current path we're on is unsustainable, not just for the people who don't have health insurance but for those who do. We just had a study come out this week showing that premiums for families went up 130 percent over the last decade. Those costs probably went up even higher for the average employer.

And that's part of the reason why you're seeing, each successive year, fewer Americans having health insurance from their employers than they previously did. Health care inflation went up 5.5 percent this past year when inflation was actually negative, because of this extraordinary recession. So we know that standing still is not an option.

Now, what I've said is that we can make sure that people who don't have health insurance can buy into an insurance pool that gives them better bargaining power. For people who have health insurance, we can provide health insurance reforms that make the insurance they have more secure. And we can do that mostly by using money that every expert agrees is being wasted and is currently in the existing health care system.

So, in fact, what we've got right now is about 80 percent consensus on how we would accomplish that. Now, let me be honest, with a piece of legislation this complicated, and a sector the economy that's about one-sixth of our economy, there's a reason why, for the last 40 years, people have been talking about this and it hasn't gotten done. It's hard -- (laughs) -- and there are a lot of moving parts.

And so I appreciate the fact that the American people are really cautious about this, because it's important to them, and the majority of people still have health insurance. What I'm trying to do is to explain the facts, which are: If we don't do anything, a lot of Americans are going to be much worse off, and, over time, the federal budget just can't sustain it.

MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me just ask you, the main concern that people seem to have is that this plan is somehow going to mean a tax on middle-class Americans. Now, you promised during the campaign that that was not going to happen -- no tax increase on people who made under $250,000, no payroll tax, no capital gains, no tax of any kind on Americans. Can you still make that promise to people today?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I can still keep that promise, because, as I said, about two-thirds of what we've proposed would be from money that's already in the health care system but just being spent badly.

And, as I said before, this is not me making wild assertions. You know, you always hear about "waste and abuse in Washington ," and usually it doesn't mean much because nobody ever finds where that waste and abuse is. This is money that has been directly identified, that the Congressional Budget Office, that Republican and Democratic experts agree is there, that is not improving the quality of our health. So the lion's share of money to pay for this will come from money that's already in the system.

Now, we are going to have to find some additional sources of revenue for the other third or so of the health care plan. And what I -- and I've provided a long list of approaches that would not have an impact on middle-class Americans. They're not going to be forced to pay for this. Insurance companies and drug companies are going to have to be ponying up, partly because right now they're receiving huge --

MR. SCHIEFFER: But aren't they going --

PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- subsidies from folks.

MR. SCHIEFFER: -- to then pass that on to consumers? I mean, that's what, you know, the Chamber of Commerce is saying. They're starting a big ad campaign right now. They say, you're going to put these taxes on the these insurance companies, on people that make things like x-rays, and lab tests, and all of that, and they're just going to turn right around and pass it right on to the consumer.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Here's the problem: They're passing on those costs to the consumers anyway. The only difference is --

MR. SCHIEFFER: But this would be more.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No. The difference is that they're making huge profits on it, Bob. I mean, let's take the Medicare HMO programs that are being run by insurance companies. It's estimated by everybody that they're overcharging by about 14 percent.

This amounts to about $177 billion over 10 years, about $17 billion a year, $18 billion a year that's just going to pad their profits. (It) hasn't been shown to make Medicare recipients any healthier.

And, in fact, because those huge subsidies are going to insurance companies, Medicare recipients are not getting a good deal. Now, if we are enforcing what should be the rules around Medicare, and making sure that people are getting a bang for the buck, it's not going to be possible for insurance companies to simply pass on those costs to Medicare recipients, because ultimately it's Uncle Sam that's paying for those services anyway.

Look, bringing about change in this town is always hard. When you've got special interests that are making billions of dollars, absolutely they're going to want to keep as much of the profits that they're making as possible. And, by the way, those insurance companies, even during these down years, have been making terrific profits. We don't mind them making profits, we just want them to be accountable to their customers.

MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you a little bit about the tenor of this debate. It seems to me that there's a sort of meanness that's settled over our political dialogue. It started this summer at these town-hall meetings. We saw this outbreak when you spoke on the -- to the joint session. Some people clearly just don't agree with your policy --


MR. SCHIEFFER: -- but there seem to be others that are just mad --


MR. SCHIEFFER: -- and angry. President Carter is now saying that he thinks it's racial. Nancy Pelosi says it could be dangerous. What do you think it's all about?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, what I think we have to remember is that, at various periods in American history, people get pretty rambunctious when -- (laughs) -- it comes to our democratic debate. That's not new. And every president who's tried to bring about big changes, I think, elicits the most passionate responses. I mean, if you hear what people had to say about Abraham Lincoln, or what they had to say about FDR, or what they had to say about Ronald Reagan when he first came in and was trying to change our approach to government -- that elicited huge responses.

Now, I think that what's driving passions right now is that health care has become a proxy for a broader set of issues about how much government should be involved in our economy, particularly coming off a huge economic crisis. And the only thing that I've been trying to say is:

Number one, I have no interest in increasing the size of government. I just want to make sure we've got a smart government that is regulating, for example, the financial institutions smartly, so I don't have to engage in any kind of bank bailouts -- that's point number one.

And point number two, even though we're having a passionate disagreement here, we can be civil to each other, and we can try to express ourselves, acknowledging that we're all patriots, we're all Americans, and not assume the absolute worst in people's motives.

And I have to -- one last point I've got to make, Bob, and that is, I do think part of what's different today is that the 24-hour news cycle, and cable television, and blogs, and all this, they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides. They can't get enough of conflict. It's catnip to the media right now.

And so the easiest way to get 15 minutes of fame is to be rude to somebody. In that environment, I think it makes it more difficult for us to solve the problems that the American people sent us here to solve.

MR. SCHIEFFER: Mr. President, seven former directors of the CIA have sent you a letter today asking you to reverse the decision of the attorney general to reopen the criminal investigation of CIA interrogations that took place after the attacks on September 11th. Would you consider that?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, I have the utmost respect for the CIA. I have said consistently that I want to look forward, and not backward, when it comes to some of the problems that occurred under the previous administration when it came to interrogations. I don't want witch hunts taking place. I've also said, though, that the attorney general has the job to uphold the law.

MR. SCHIEFFER: So you intend to let him go forward?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: He's got to make a judgment, in terms of what is going -- what has occurred. My understanding is, it's not a criminal investigation at this point. They are simply investigating what took place.

And I appreciate the former CIA directors wanting to look out for an institution that they helped to build. But I continue to believe that nobody's above the law, and I want to make sure that, as president of the United States , that I'm not asserting, in some way, that my decisions overrule the decisions of prosecutors who are there to uphold the law.

MR. SCHIEFFER: Afghanistan : We keep hearing that General McChrystal is about to ask you for tens of thousands of new Americans troops to go to Afghanistan -- our David Martin has reported that. Are you considering something of that nature -- sending that large a force to Afghanistan ?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm not considering at that point, because I haven't received the request.

But I just want to remind people how we got here. You know, when I came in Afghanistan was adrift, because we, frankly, hadn't focused on it. I immediately ordered a top-to-bottom review. Part of that review was, when General McChrystal got to Afghanistan , for him to do his own assessment.

In the meantime, I sent 21,000 troops to make sure that we could secure the election that was going to take place in the early fall. The election is now complete. General McChrystal has completed his assessment.

But my job it make sure that we get a strategy that focuses on my core goal, which is to dismantle, defeat, destroy al Qaeda and its allies that killed Americans, and are still plotting --

MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, if he asked you --

PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- to kill Americans.

MR. SCHIEFFER: -- for that many troops, you're going to have a hard time saying no, are you not?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, no, let's be clear. My central focus is: What we doing to protect the American people and the American homeland? Afghanistan and Pakistan are critical elements in that process. But the only reason I send a -- single -- young man or woman in uniform anywhere in the world is because I think it's necessary to keep us safe.

And so whatever decisions I make are going to based first on a strategy to keep us safe, then we'll figure out how to resource it. We're not going to put the cart before the horse, and just think by sending more troops we're --


PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- automatically going to make Americans safe.

MR. SCHIEFFER: Didn't you say on March 27th that you had announced the comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan ? I thought you already had a strategy.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, we did. But what I also said was that we were going to review that every six months, because, you know, this is a very complicated terrain; we had just started getting our troops in -- in fact, the 21,000 that I already ordered in are just now getting in place.

And what I did not want is a situation in which we are just continually sending more and more troops, or putting (in) more and more resources, without having looked at how the whole thing fits together; making sure that our efforts, in terms of building Afghan capacity is in place, that our civilian and diplomatic efforts are in place.

So what we're going to do is continue to reassess, review what's taking place, and make sure that our strategy and resources fit together for the aim of making sure that al Qaeda is not able to attack the United States .

MR. SCHIEFFER: You announced yesterday a major change in American strategic strategy when you said that we would not go forward with the missile defense system that would be there on the border of Russia.

The Russians saw that as a "poke in the eye" from the very beginning. But even people who agree that that missile system is out of place are asking questions. Shouldn't you have tried to get something from the Russians in exchange for doing that?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that when George Bush announced his strategy for putting missile defense in place -- in the Czech Republic and in Poland, I said at the time I think we need missile defense, but I want to make sure it works, that it's cost- effective, that the technologies are operable, that it's our best possible strategy. And that hadn't been shown.

So when I came in I asked the same people who had signed off on the first one, Bob Gates, my secretary of Defense, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tell me, given the intelligence you've got now, and the technology we possess, and what we know about the Iranian threat -- which has always been our main concern, not Russia, tell me if the system that we've designed is the best possible system.

And they came back to me and said, you know what, given what we know now, we actually think that this is a better way of doing it. So we're not eliminating missile defense. In fact, what we're doing is putting a system in that's more timely, more cost-effective, and that meets the actual threats that we perceive coming from Iran.

Russia had always been paranoid about this. But George Bush was right. This wasn't a threat to them. And this new program will not be a threat to them. So, you know, my task here was not to negotiate with the Russians. The Russians don't make determinations about our -- what our defense posture is.

We have made a decision about what will be best to protect the American people, as well as our troops in Europe and our Allies. If the byproduct of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid, and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or the nuclear development in Iran , you know, then that's a bonus.

MR. SCHIEFFER: Mr. President, our time is up. Thank you so much.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you so much. Appreciate it, Bob.

Barack Obama, Interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS News' "Face the Nation" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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