Barack Obama photo

Interview with Brian Williams of NBC News

February 03, 2009

WILLIAMS: Philadelphia Inquirer today: "Surely President Obama can find qualified people to serve in his Cabinet who aren't hustling to write overdue checks to the IRS." You lost two nominees, two appointments today. Did that make you angry, I imagine?

President BARACK OBAMA: Oh, it made me angry and disappointed and, you know, it's something I have to take responsibility for. I appointed these folks. I think that they are outstanding people. I think Tom Daschle, as an example, could have lead this health care effort, a difficult effort, better than just about anybody. But as he acknowledged, this was a mistake. I don't think it was intentional on his part but it was a serious mistake. He owned up to it and ultimately made a decision that we couldn't afford the distraction.

And I've got to own up to my mistake, which is that, you know, ultimately it's important for this administration to send a message there aren't two sets of rules, you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes. And, you know, so I'm frustrated with myself, with our team. But ultimately, you know, my job is to get this thing back on track, because what we need to focus on is a deteriorating economy and getting people back to work.

WILLIAMS: How do you prevent the lesson from being that no matter how lofty the goals of the new guy coming in, Washington wins in the end?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, no, I don't think Washington wins. I mean, look, the fact of the matter is Tom Daschle pulled out today. And I'm here on television saying I screwed up. And that's part of the era of responsibility, is not never making mistakes, it's owning up to them and trying to make sure you don't repeat them. And that's what we intend to do.

WILLIAMS: Mr. President, how do you make the case to American families who are losing jobs today, right now...


WILLIAMS: ...and hurting, and those who aren't are worried, that you've got something for them? That a big, enormous stimulus package is either going to save their job, get them a job, or generally help their lot in life. And meantime, they see the federal government buying up bad banks.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, what you just described is my entire orientation. Every day I'm waking up thinking, `How do I make sure that ordinary families are able to survive, thrive, send their kids to college, keep their homes, keep their jobs?' And there's no magic bullet. We dug a deep hole for ourselves. And because of,I think some bad decisions that were made, we have the worst economy since the Great Depression. Now the recovery package that we've put together has not only immediate relief to families: if they've lost their job they're going to get extended unemployment insurance, they get to keep their health insurance. We're going to make sure that states don't have to lay off teachers and that they can train teachers for the math and science that is so important for our children. We're also investing in critical infrastructure, green jobs, making sure that we're weatherizing two million homes. Making certain that we're laying an electric grid that can save energy over the long term and wean ourselves off Middle Eastern oil. And so there are a range of investments that not only provide jobs immediately but are also designed to lay the groundwork for long-term economic success.

Is everything in this bill going to be providing immediate, direct relief? I hope that the overwhelming bulk of it will. But it's not the only thing that we're going to have to do. We're also going to have to fix a bank system that's broken. We're going to have to make sure that loans are being given to small businesses who are right now having a terrible time. That people can get a car loan if they want to buy a car. One of the things that we're going to do tomorrow is to talk about the need to control executive compensation for companies that are taking money from the federal government. If taxpayers are helping you, then you've got certain responsibilities not to be living high on the hog.

WILLIAMS: For all the provisions you just chose to outline, there are others, like the one Senator McConnell was mocking today, a subsidy for Hollywood filmmakers. Is it tougher to make the case that this enormous package is more like a million little things, is it getting pecked to death as you watch?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, it's got to go through Congress. That means there are 535 people who have an opinion about what's good policy. I suspect that Senator McConnell has some opinions about what he thinks are good policy that other people might not agree with. And I understand that. That's part of the process. I think it's important to point out that of all the things that some opponents of the package have talked about, if you tally all those up, they amount to less than 1 percent of the entire package. Nobody disputes that we should extend unemployment insurance. Nobody disputes that it is important for us to make sure the people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own still have some meaningful access to health care. Nobody disputes that if we don't use some of this money, this enormous expenditure, to deal with our energy dependence or the rising cost of health care, that we are going to continue to be in a very perilous situation 10 years from now or 20 years from now. So are there ways that we can improve the bill? Absolutely. And I want to continue to work with Democrats and Republicans to find some common ground.

But what I can't accept is the politics as usual, where we think about scoring points in terms of--instead of acting. We've lost a million jobs in the last two months. We can't afford another four million jobs lost this year. And every economist that I talk to projects that if we don't act quickly, we could end up seeing a much more severe situation than we're seeing right now.

WILLIAMS: Among the levers your enemies on the Hill are using is about this personnel matter. This is from Howard Fineman, Newsweek magazine, MSNBC last evening. "If they keep saying"--they, the Obama White House--"that all these people deserve special treatment because they're indispensable, Geithner's indispensable, it begins to sound not only hypocritical but elitist. It's like there are rules for everybody else and then there are rules for indispensable people, and that's exactly the opposite of the grassroots message that he"--meaning you, Mr. President--"came here with."

THE PRESIDENT: Well, Brian, I just--as I just addressed, we--there are no--there are not two sets of rules. That's exactly why I think that today was an embarrassment for us. I think it was a problem. And we're fixing it. But I think that we've appointed now hundreds of people, all of them topnotch. Everybody, I think, acknowledges that--you know, you look at somebody like Janet Napolitano or Steven Chu or Arne Duncan, outstanding Cabinet members and we've got equally outstanding sub-Cabinet members. So did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely. And I'm willing to take my lumps, you know that's part of--part of the job here. But I think it's important not to paint a broad brush here, because overall, not only have we gotten in place a functioning government in record time, but overall, the quality of these people are outstanding.

Barack Obama, Interview with Brian Williams of NBC News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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