Barack Obama photo

Interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News "Meet the Press"

September 07, 2014

TODD: Mr. President, welcome back to your 12th appearance on Meet the Press.

THE PRESIDENT: Great to see you.

TODD: Thanks for doing this. We start with a very basic question. Are you preparing the country to go back to war?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL. Keep in mind that this is something that we know how to do. We've been dealing with terrorist threats for quite some time. This administration has systematically dismantled Al Qaeda in the FATA. We just yesterday announced the fact that we had taken out the top leader of Al-Shabaab the terrorist-- organization in Somalia.

ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria. But the good news is coming back from the most recent NATO meeting is the entire international community understands that this is something that has to be dealt with.

So what I have done over the last several months is, first and foremost, make sure that we got eyes on the problem, that we shifted resources, intelligence, reconnaissance. We did an assessment on the ground. The second step was to make sure that we protected American personnel, our embassies, our consulates. That included taking air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.

The next phase is now to start going on some offense. We have to get an Iraqi government in place. And I'm optimistic that next week, we should be able to get that done. And I will then meet with congressional leaders on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I'll make a speech and describe what our game plan's going to be going forward.

But this is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops. This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war. What this is is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we've been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years. And the good news is is that because of American leadership, we have I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem.

TODD: What are you asking of the American people on Wednesday? You say you're giving a speech. That's the type of thing, I assume, you're preparing the country for something. What are you asking of them? What do you want--what do you want the American people to receive?

THE PRESIDENT: Well more than that, I just want the American people to understand the nature of the threat and how we're going to deal with it and to have confidence that we'll be able to deal with it.

TODD: You realize you're giving that speech the day before the 13th anniversary of 9/11.

THE PRESIDENT: But right. And I--I want everybody to understand that we have not seen any immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL. That's not what this is about. What it's about is an organization that, if allowed to control significant amounts of territory, to amass more resources, more arms to attract more foreign fighters, including from areas like Europe, who have Europeans who have visas and then can travel to the United States unimpeded, that over time, that can be a serious threat to the homeland.

In-- in the more immediate term, it's an imm-- it's a threat to friends, partners in the region and is causing all kinds of hardship. And we've seen the savagery not just in terms of how they dealt with the two Americans that had been taken hostage but the killing of thousands of innocents in-- in Iraq thousands of innocents in Syria, the kidnapping of women the complete disruption of entire villages.

So what I'm going to be ask-- asking the American people to understand is, number one, this is a serious threat. Number two, we have the capacity to deal with it. Here's how we're going to deal with it. I am going to be asking Congress to make sure that they understand and support what our plan is. And it's going to require some resources, I suspect, above what we are currently doing in the region--

TODD: This is asking Congress for a vote, an authorization of your strategy. This is not a what-- what does that mean?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I-- I-- I'm confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people. And I'm always going to do what's necessary to protect the American people. But I do think it's important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy in, to debate it.

And that's why we've been consulting with Congress throughout. And this speech will allow Congress, I think, to understand very clearly and very specifically what it is that we are doing but also what we're not doing. We're not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops.

We are going to be as part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops. We are going to be helping to put together a plan for them, so that they can start retaking territory that ISIL had taken over.

We are going to have to work with our regional partners to attract back Sunni tribes that may have felt that they had no connection to a Baghdad government that was ignoring their grievances. And so there's going to be an economic element to this. There's going to be a political element to it. There's going to be a military element to it. And what I want people to understand, though, is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em.

TODD: Long way, long way from when you described them as a JV team.


TODD: Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?

THE PRESIDENT: Keep-- keep-- keep in mind I wasn't specifically referring to ISIL. I've said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally. Weren't focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11. And the point that I was--

TODD: You don't believe these people--

THE PRESIDENT: Not yet. But they-- they can evolve. And I was very specific at that time. What I said was, not every regional terrorist organization is automatically a threat to us that would call for a major offensive. But what is absolutely clear in ISIL, which started as Al Qaeda in Iraq and arose out of the U.S. invasion there and was contained because of the enormous efforts of our troops there then shifted to Syria, has metastasized, has grown. And now we're going to have to deal with--

TODD: They're not a JV team.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, they're not a JV team. But keep in mind that we anticipated some of these problems in the speech that I gave at West Point you know, several months ago, where I specifically said, our goal should not be to think that we can occupy every country where there's a terrorist organization.

Our goal has to be to partner more effectively with governments that are committed to-- pushing back against the kind of extremism that ISIL represents. And that's going to require us to do things a little bit differently. We're going to have to work smarter.

We're going to have to train the military there more capably. We've got to do more effective diplomatic work to eliminate the the schism between Sunni and Shia that has been fueling so much of the violence in Syria, in Iraq. And so we put together a plan that is compatible with the kind of work that we're doing now.

TODD: You've not said the word, "Syria," so far in our conversation. Obviously, if you're going to defeat ISIS, you have used very much stronger language. It's gone through the week during your trip to Wales. You got to go to Syria in some form or another.

You've ruled out boots on the ground. And I'm curious, have you only ruled them out simply for domestic political reasons? Or is there another reason you've ruled out American boots on the ground? Because your own-- your own guys have said, "You can't defeat ISIS with air strikes alone."

THE PRESIDENT: Well, they're absolutely right about that. But you also cannot, over the long term or even the medium term, deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East. We don't have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again. So we--

TODD: That's what happened with Iraq.

THE PRESIDENT: --so-- so we've got to have a more sustainable strategy, which means the boots on the ground have to be Iraqi.

TODD: What about Syria--

THE PRESIDENT: And-- and in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian. And that's why--

TODD: Who?

THE PRESIDENT: Well we have a Free Syrian Army and a moderate opposition that we have steadily been working with but we have vetted. They have been on the defensive, not just from ISIL, but also from the Assad regime. And what-- you know, if you recall, at the West Point speech that I gave, I said, we need to put more resources into the moderate opposition in part because, unless we have people we can work with who are Sunni in these Sunni regions, then we're going to continue to have these problems.

And so the-- the strategy both for Iraq and for Syria is that we will hunt down ISIL members and assets wherever they are. I will reserve the right to always protect the American people and go after folks who are trying to hurt us wherever they are.

But in terms of controlling territory, we're going to have to develop a moderate Sunni opposition that can control territory and that we can work with. The notion that the United States should be putting boots on the ground, I think would be a profound mistake. And I want to be very clear and very explicit about that.

TODD: I-- I got a somewhat snarky email from a-- from a casual viewer who said, "The United States gives a lotta military aid to Saudi Arabia. It's about time they use it." What do you say to that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that it is absolutely true that we're going to need Sunni states to step up, not just Saudi Arabia, our partners like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey. They need to be involved. This is their neighborhood. The dangers that are posed are-- are more directed at them right now than they are us.

And that's part of the conversation that John Kerry's going to be having this week. I sent him there after we left-- the NATO meeting in Wales. And the good news is, I think, for the, perhaps the first time, you have absolute clarity that the problem for Sunni states in the region, many of whom are our allies, is not simply Iran. It's not simply a Sunni-Shia issue.

Sunni extremism, as represented by ISIL, is the biggest danger that they face right now. And with that understanding, it gives us the capacity for them to start getting more active and more involved. And by the way, some of that's military. But some of it is giving political support to Baghdad and strengthening relations with Shia leaders in Baghdad. Some of it is reaching out to the Sunni tribes in Iraq and identifying who we can work with, so that they can fight their own battles to free villages and regions that, you know, where they live. So they've got a big role to play. And, finally, a strategic messaging. One of the things we've seen about ISIL is they're really good on social media.

They--they understand how to -- message to disaffected youth throughout the Arab world and throughout the Sunni world what they're doing. And the question is, when are the moderate Sunni states and leadership going to work systematically to say, "what ISIL represents isn't Islam."It is an abortion-- a distortion-- an abomination of that-- that has, you know, somehow tied Islam to the kind of nihilistic thinking that any civilized nation should-- should eliminate.

TODD: Did you-- did you see those messages they sent to you, naming you, when they-- when they-- when they beheaded those American journalists?


TODD: They sent messages addressing you personally. Did you watch 'em?

THE PRESIDENT: Did I-- I was-- I review-- as part of our overall counterterrorism effort, I review all the social media that many of these groups. And then these are-- this isn't the first organization to deploy social media. This is increasingly the way that they're recruiting, particularly among foreign fighters. And we need a much more effective counter-narrative. And it can't come from us. I mean, because if I--

TODD: I'm just curious. You know, when they address you like that and they behead an American, I mean, does it-- what-- how does that impact you?

THE PRESIDENT: Well-- you know, when you-- it's not so much how it affects me personally. It's thinking about the parents of and family members-- of these folks who were affected. That never goes away. And you understand that, you know, the way to vindicate the love and concern that these families have, is to make sure we've got a good policy, a smart policy, that prevents these kinds of things from happening in the future.

TODD: Assad essentially putting-- putting aside that priority that Assad must go, because ISIS is a more direct threat?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, the reason we're in this situation is because Assad brutalized his people and specifically brutalized the Sunni population that is the majority in Syria. It's going to be hard for us to attract Sunnis to fight against ISIL in this area if they think that we're doing it on behalf of Assad.

So, our attitude towards Assad continues to be that you know, through his actions, through using chemical weapons on his own people, dropping barrel bombs that killed innocent children that he-- he has foregone legitimacy. But when it comes to our policy and the coalition that we're putting together, our focus specifically is on ISIL. It's narrowly on ISIL.

We will continue to look for opportunities, even as we're going after terrorists who could harm Americans and our friends and partners in the region. We'll continue to look for opportunities to see if we can have any political resolution of the challenges in Syria.

We're going to need that. But in order to do that, we've got to have a moderate Sunni opposition. Right now in Syria, you've got a choice, in the minds of a lotta people, between radical Sunni extremists or Assad.

TODD: That's not a choice.

THE PRESIDENT: That's not a choice. We've got and what we know is is that there are millions of decent, good Sunnis, many of whom have been displaced. They're in Turkey. They're in Jordan. Many of them are still in Syria although getting squeezed between these two extremes. And we've got to be able to reach to them, find a military and political structure that'll allow them to express themselves. Then maybe we can get the kinda political resolution that we need.

TODD: I've got a few other topics. Ebola, there's some anxiety in the country about it. Obviously, it's something that Africa's trying to get its hands around. But there is obviously anxiety in the United States. How concerned are you? And how concerned should Americans be?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, Americans shouldn't be concerned about the prospects of contagion here in the United States, short term. Because this is not an airborne disease.

TODD: I noticed you said short term, though.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm going to get to that. It's not an airborne disease, like the flu. You can only catch it through the transmission of bodily fluids where you have a strong public health infrastructure. Now, typically, there's one person who's identified, or a couple of people who are identified as having the virus. Isolate them. Run through a real tight protocol. And it-- it gets contained-- pretty effectively. The problem that we've got is in, right now, a limited portion of western Africa, primarily Li-- especially in Liberia but also Sierra Leone, Guinea--


TODD: A part of Africa that economically had been booming.

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah. They-- they-- they--

TODD: And all of a sudden, I mean, this is--

THE PRESIDENT: They're-- they're-- they're making some significant progress. But they-- they didn't have a public health infrastructure. So now what we have is what should be a containable problem breaking loose because people aren't being quarantined properly. People aren't being trained properly. People aren't being trained properly. There aren't enough public health workers.

So what I've said, and I said this two months ago to our National Security Team, is we have to make this a national security priority. We have to mobilize the international community, get resources in there. We're going to have to use--

TODD: It's going to be a U.S. effort--

THE PRESIDENT: As usual. And we're going to have to get U.S. military assets just to set up, for example isola-- isolation units and-- and equipment there, to provide security for public health workers surging from around the world. If we do that, then it's still going to be months before this problem is controllable in Africa.

But it shouldn't reach our shores. Now, here's the last point I'm going to make. If we don't make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa but other parts of the world, there's the prospect then that the virus mutates. It becomes more easily transmittable. And then it could be a serious danger to the United States.

This is an example of where U.S. leadership is important in dealing with crisis. But it's also an argument for why when-- when I go before Congress, and I say, "Let's give some public health aid to countries like Liberia, so that they can set up hospitals and nurses and vaccinations, et cetera," you know, sometimes, you know, the American public says, "Why are we wasting money on them?" Well, part of it is because, you know, when-- when we make those short-term investments now, it really pays of a lotta dividends in the future.

TODD: Let me go to immigration. You made a decision to delay any executive action until after the election. What do you tell the person that's going to get deported before the election that this decision was essentially made in your hopes of saving a democratic Senate?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, that-- that's not the reason. A couple of things that I want to say about immigration. Number one, I have been consistent about why this is important. The country's going to be better off if we have an immigration system that works, that has strong border security, that has streamlined our legal immigration system, so the best and the brightest who want to stay here and invest here and create jobs here can do so, that families can be unified, and that a system where the millions of people who are here, in many cases, for a decade or more, who have American kids, who are neighbors, often times are our friends, that they have a path to get legal by paying taxes and getting above board, paying a fine, learning English, if they have to.

So the good news is we have bipartisan support for that. We have a Senate bill that would accomplish that. The House Republicans refuse to do that. And what I said to them was, "If you do not act on something that's so common sense that you got labor, business, evangelicals, law enforcement, you've got folks across the board supporting it, then I'm going to look for all the legal authorities I have to act."

What we've now done is laid the groundwork for that. Jeh Johnson, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, has presented me preliminary, you know, ideas in terms of how we can take executive action. And what I've determined is I want to make sure we get it right. I want to make sure, number one, that all the t's--

TODD: But the politics, I mean, it looks like election year politics.

THE PRESIDENT: Not only do I want to make sure that the Ts are crossed and the Is are dotted, but here's the thing, and Chuck, and I'm being honest now, about the politics of it. This problem with unaccompanied children that we saw a couple weeks ago, where you had, from Central America, a surge of kids who were showing up at the border, got a lot of attention.

And a lot of Americans started thinking, "We've got this immigration crisis on our hands." Now, the fact of the matter is-- is that the number of people apprehended crossing our borders has plummeted over the course of the decade. It's far lower than it was 10 years ago.

And in terms of these unaccompanied children, we've actually systematically worked through the problem, so that the surge in June dropped in July, dropped further in August. It's now below what it was last year. But that's not the impression on people's minds. And what I want to do is, when I take executive action, I want to make sure that it's sustainable. I want to make sure—

TODD: But the public's not behind you, you're not taking it -


TODD: That sounds a little bit like that you're concerned the public wouldn't support what you did—

THE PRESIDENT: What-- what I'm saying is that I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country. But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we've done on-- on unaccompanied children, and why it's necessary.

And you know, the truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem. I want to spend some time, even as we're getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we're doing this, why it's the right thing for the American people, why it's the right thing for the American economy.

TODD: What's the rationale for this election? I'm going to be a little cynical here. Three billion dollars, I would argue, is being decided to see if it's Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell that's in charge of gridlock in the Senate. [laughs] I mean, we're talking either-- what's the difference between a two-seat Democratic majority and a two-seat Republican majority as far as your agenda is concerned?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I-- I'll tell you what. First of all, there's a sharp difference between the Democratic agenda and the Republican agenda. And the American people need to know that. If you-- if you've got a Democratic Senate, that means bills are being introduced to raise the minimum wage. That's something Democrats support. We think America needs--

TODD: Is that on your desk?

THE PRESIDENT: The-- I'll-- I'll get to that. Equal pay for equal work. We care about that bill. Republicans, that's not their priority. We think it's important to make sure that issues like family leave and-- and family-friendly policies and-- and more effective childcare in place, so that-- so that folks are getting help, that-- young people are getting more assistance, when it comes to, paying for college educations, rebuilding our infrastructure, putting folks back to work on our roads, our bridges, all of which would boost our economy now and boost it into the future.

On all those issues, there is a sharp contrast. Now, it is true that if the House stays Republican, that it's unlikely that I get a lot of these bills to my desk. But it makes a big difference if we've got at least one branch in Congress that is presenting these ideas, making arguments.

There is, I think, hopefully, an opportunity for us to do something like tax reform next year. But is that tax reform going to be just for folks at the top? Or is it going to be tax reform that closes some corporate loopholes and gives middle class folks a break?

And-- you know-- I-- I know that, you know, given the gridlock that we've seen over the last couple years, it's easy to say that these midterms don't matter. But the fact of the matter is that, on every issue that's important to middle class Americans, overwhelmingly, we're seeing a majority prefer the Democratic option and us having a Democratic Senate that can present those issues and put them forward, just like they did on immigration, even if the House Republicans fail to act, means that we're debating the right stuff for the country. We're debating the things that are going to help us grow.

TODD: This wouldn't be Meet the Press if I didn't have a chart with me. Your year of action on the State of the Union. And it's a little small here. It'll be bigger for the television.

THE PRESIDENT: Right, you're going to make it a bigger--

TODD: I will. Yeah, there you go. A lot not accomplished here. The one thing about in your State of the Union supporting Syrian rebels. But immigration, overhauling the tax system, raising the minimum raise. You brought up these issues yourself. That was with a Democratic Senate. So that's why you look at this. And you sit there and say, "How do things change?" And do you think your presidency is in bigger trouble than if you have a Republican Senate?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, here's the issue. I think elections matter. I think votes matter. And given the fact that the punditry overwhelmingly felt that this was going to--

TODD: You're overtly pointing at me.

THE PRESIDENT: That-- that this was going to be a good year for Senate Republicans, because the seats that were up were in states that were tilting or significantly with-- with significant Republican majorities. If we-- if democrats hold the Senate, I think that should get Republicans to once again--

TODD: You think that sends a national message?

THE PRESIDENT: I think what it does is-- is to-- to send a message to Republicans that people want to get stuff done. Their-- their strategy of just obstructing and saying no to every piece of legislation that might help middle class families, that might create ladders of opportunity, that that is an agenda that the American people reject.

And that then gives us room, hopefully, to find some compromises. I've-- I've said this before, Chuck. You know, if you asked me back in August what I want for my birthday, I'd say, "Give me a loyal opposition that has some common sense and is willing to work on some basic issues that didn't used to be partisan issues."

It didn't use to be that building roads, bridges, improving our airports, improving our water systems, reducing traffic, those didn't used to be partisan issues. They have become partisan issues, because you've got a small portion of the Republican party that is fixated simply on dismantling government or making sure that we don't get anything done around here. And that's why elections matter.

If that approach is rejected, then you possibly have two years where we can get a whole bunch of stuff done. And the good news is that despite all that obstruction, America's made progress. You've heard me speak on the stump about this, Chuck. The fact of the matter is that on almost every economic index that you can think of, America's better off now than we were five years ago.

TODD: Not-- not a boom yet.

THE PRESIDENT: It's not a boom.

TODD: Middle America's not feeling a boom.

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. And-- and that shows that we've still got more work to do. But we've cut the deficit by more than half. We have made sure that manufacturing is stronger than it's been any time since the 1990s. We've got an auto industry that is booming.

We've got a housing industry that is recovering. We've got people's 401(k)s healthy again because of the rise in the stock market. Corporate profits have gone up. We have seen unemployment go down, not as far as it needs to, but going down. Our energy production is unparalleled.

We've never been better positioned for American leadership, economically as well as from a national security standpoint, as we are right now. The questions is, do we take advantage of that? And we can take advantage of it if we can just get the Republican Party to stop tilting toward the extreme, move back towards the center, and work with Democrats not on everything. We're going to disagree on many things, but on some basic things that we know would help the American people.

TODD: Not surprisingly, I'm getting a little bit of hot signs. So let me get you to this last question here. I've had former aides of yours, plenty of supporters of yours, say to me, "He looks exhausted." And understandable, lot going on. This is not-- been a rough year. Are you exhausted?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I actually feel, energized about the opportunities, that we've got. There are days where I'm not getting enough sleep, because we've got a lot on our plate. You know, when you're, when you're president of the United States, you're not just dealing with the United States, as we saw during the NATO summit.

If there's a problem in Ukraine, we're the ones who are expected to mobilize the world community to isolate Russia, put pressure, support Ukrainians, and to vindicate the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and freedom that we stand for.

If there's a problem in the Middle East, the expectation is that we create the coalitions to deal with a problem like ISIL. If there's an issue in Africa around Ebola we need to help mobilize that public health infrastructure. And so you know, it's not just me. It's my staff also, that we're, you know, our inbox gets pretty high. I'm--

TODD: Do you need to rotate-- do you need to rotate some fresh ideas, some new people in here?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I-- no. Actually, my-- my folks are doing really well. But-- but having said all that, despite all those challenges, it is invigorating to see how much U.S. leadership is still appreciated and still expected. You know, you-- when I came back from Wales and I was reminded once again that not only is America the only indispensable nation.

But we perhaps have never been more indispensable. And our leadership is making a difference. And that gives you a lot of satisfaction. That keeps you getting up even if you haven't gotten as much sleep as you want.

TODD: I got to ask, so-- so during that vacation, you made the statement on Foley. You went and golfed. Do you-- do you want that back?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, it is always a challenge when you're supposed to be on vacation. Because you're followed everywhere. And part of what I'd love is a vacation from--

TODD: Yeah, you want to--

THE PRESIDENT: --the-- the press and-- and-- because--

TODD: I promise you, 2 1/2 years, I think that happens.

THE PRESIDENT: Because the possibility of a jarring contrast given the world's news, is always-- there's always going to be some tough news somewhere-- is going to be there. But there's no doubt that-- after having talked to the families, where it was hard for me to hold back tears listening to the pain that they were going through, after the statement that I made, that you know, I should've anticipated the optics.

You know, that's part of the job. And you know, I think everybody who knows me, including, I suspect, the press, understands that that you know, you take this stuff in. And-- it-- it's serious business. And-- and you care about it deeply.

But part of this job is also the theatre of it. A part of it is, you know, how are you, how, how are you, well, it's not something that-- that always comes naturally to me. But it matters. And I'm mindful of that. So the important thing is, in addition to that, is am I getting the policies right? Am I protecting the American people? Am I doing what's necessary?

And when it comes to the policies, when it comes to the actions we've taken, I have no higher priority than keeping the American people safe. I think I've done a very good job during the course of these last, close to six years, doing so. And I intend to continue to meet that responsibility or meet that duty, for as long as I have the privilege of holding this office.

TODD: Well, I think I need to pre-book you for next week, because I got another 35 questions. So with that, I'm going to leave it there, Mr. President. But thank you very much.

THE PRESIDENT: Enjoyed it. Great to see you.

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Barack Obama, Interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News "Meet the Press" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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