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Interview With George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "Good Morning America"

April 09, 2010

George Stephanopoulos: So you have no doubt you're going to get the eight Republicans you need to ratify this [nuclear arms reduction] treaty [signed with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev April 8, 2010]?

The President: Well, listen, I've now been in Washington for long enough for me to say I have no doubt -- [laughs] -- about how the Senate operates. It would be foolish. I feel confident that leaders like Dick Lugar, who actually was somebody I worked very closely with when I was in the Senate on issues of arms control, when they have had the opportunity to fully evaluate this treaty, will come to the conclusion that this is in the best interests of the United States.

What I will also say to those in the Senate who have questions is that this is absolutely vital for us to deal with the broader issues of nuclear proliferation.

George Stephanopoulos: Sarah Palin taking aim at your decision to restrict use of nuclear weapons, your pledge not to strike nations -- non-nuclear nations -- who abide by the nonproliferation treaty. Here's what she said. She said it's unbelievable. No other administration would do it. And then she likened it to kids on a playground.

[Begin video clip.]

MS. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR AND FORMER VICE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: You know, that's kind of like getting out there on the playground, a bunch of kids ready to fight and one of the kids saying, "Go ahead, punch me in the face, and I'm not going retaliate."

[End video clip.]

George Stephanopoulos: Your response?

The President: I really have no response to that. The last I checked, Sarah Palin is not much of an expert on nuclear issues.

George Stephanopoulos: But the strain of criticism has been out there among other Republicans as well. They think you're restricting use of nuclear weapons too much.

The President: And what I would say to them is that if the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are comfortable with it, I'm probably going to take my advice from them and not from Sarah Palin.

George Stephanopoulos: But not concerned about her criticism?

The President: No.

George Stephanopoulos: Let's talk about President Medvedev. I'm going to see him tomorrow. You've spoken with him about 14 times negotiating this treaty. What did you learn about him?

The President: You know, he's a very deliberate, very methodical, very honest partner in negotiations which I find very useful. He is somebody who says, "Here's what I can do. Here's what I can't do --

George Stephanopoulos: Are you convinced he's the man in charge in Russia?

The President: You know, I will tell you he has been able to consistently follow through on the commitments that he's made. You know, I think there's no doubt that he takes the counsel of Putin very seriously. I think that there's no doubt that, you know, Russia is a big, complicated country just like the United States is and that there are all sorts of different voices coming at him at any given time that he's got to take into account.

George Stephanopoulos: And it sounds like you may be now on the same page in dealing with Iran. Are you convinced that Russia and President Medvedev take this as seriously and feel the same urgency that you do?

The President: I am convinced that what you heard today who have been unimaginable a year ago.

[Begin video clip.]

The President: We are working together at the United Nations Security Council to pass strong sanctions on Iran.

[End video clip.]

The President: For me to lay out clearly our approach to sanctions and to have them -- a Russian president next to me say, "There's nothing I heard that I could disagree with --

George Stephanopoulos: But so far, three rounds of U.N. sanctions haven't worked. What will be different this time?

The President: Well, I don't think you have seen the degree of international unity that you've seen in this effort. And I think you're seeing the results of that bear fruit today.

George Stephanopoulos: So far, the Iranian officials are calling the sanctions a joke. I mean, I'm sure you've seen that. And President Ahmadinejad took after you personally. He's basically calling you a callow cowboy. The quote was "inexperienced amateur" and he wants you to "wait until your sweat dries and you get some experience."

What do you make of that?

The President: Well, let's see, George. So far, you've quoted Sarah Palin -- [laughter] --

George Stephanopoulos: Well, and President Ahmadinejad, you have to deal with him.

The President: You're trying to get a rise out of me. [Laughs.]

George Stephanopoulos: And it's not going to work?

The President: No, it's not. [Laughs.] I mean, look, the guy's known for saying some pretty unconstructive stuff -- how's that? -- and offensive stuff. So I don't take that seriously.

What I do take seriously is the fact that, if we are consistent and steady in applying international pressure that, over time, Iran -- which is not a stupid regime, which is very attentive in watching what's happening in the international community -- will start making a different set of cost-benefit, you know, analyses about whether or not pursuing nuclear weapons makes sense for them.

George Stephanopoulos: Let me ask you about Afghanistan. There's been something of a war of words between your administration and President Karzai recently. And your press secretary, Robert Gibbs refused to call him an ally the other day, and I think a lot of Americans wonder if he's not an ally, why are we putting American lives on the line.

The President: Well, first of all, the reason we're putting American lives on the line is because 3,000 Americans were killed by an attack that was launched from Afghanistan, and those people are still out there, still plotting to kill Americans. That means that we are going after al Qaeda to dismantle and destroy them.

Now, President Karzai, I think, is going to be a critical partner in this effort because, if we are just succeeding on the military side but not succeeding on the civilian side, then you're going to continue to have instability --

George Stephanopoulos: Is he a partner now?

The President: Well, I think he has been a partner, but I think that he has his own domestic politics that he has to deal with. And I think the fact is is that real progress has been made, but, you know, this is a country that went through, you know, 30 years of war. And so part of President Karzai's challenge is he's got to bring his country along into a 21st century in which it is functioning and effective --

George Stephanopoulos: But are you convinced he's committed to doing that?

The President: I think he is committed to doing that. That doesn't mean that it's easy. And that doesn't mean that there aren't going to be times where he and I disagree in terms of how things should proceed and how rapidly things should proceed.

. . .

[question about Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proclamation on ?Confederate History Month? omitted from transcript]

The President: I'm a big history buff, and I think that understanding the history of the confederacy and understanding the history of the Civil War is something that every American and every young American should be a part of.

Now, I don't think you can understand the confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery. And so I think that was an unacceptable omission. I think the governor has now acknowledged that.

And I think it's just a reminder that, when we talk about issues like slavery that are so fraught with pain and emotion that, you know, we better do so thinking through how this is going to affect a lot of people and their sense of whether they're a part of a commonwealth or a part of our broader society.

George Stephanopoulos: Speaking of history, the new book out by David Remnick, a biography of you, includes a story that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin -- she recounts a conversation she had with you during the campaign where she was really struck by your ambition.

She quotes you saying, "I have no desire to be one of those presidents who are just on the list, you see their pictures lined up on the wall."

You're pretty confident now you're going to avoid that fate?

The President: Well, look, here's what I've been spending my time thinking about. I'm pretty confident that we're not going to plunge into a Great Depression, which I wasn't so clear about a year ago. I'm pretty confident that we've stabilized the financial system. I'm pretty confident that the economy is on the mend and that -- I'm also pretty confidence that we've got a heck of a lot of work to do to put people back to work.

I'm confident that health care was the right thing to do, and that's going to be a significant achievement when generations look back on it. And I think this START treaty that we signed is the start of a good direction for American national security policy.

But I'm going wait until I'm maybe 10 years out of office before I start making assessments about how I did.

George Stephanopoulos: Okay. Mr. President, thanks very much.

The President: All right. Thank you, George.

Barack Obama, Interview With George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "Good Morning America" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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