Barack Obama photo

Interview With Katie Couric of CBS News

February 07, 2010

Katie Couric: Thank you for sitting down with us for a few minutes. We really appreciate it.

The President: Thank you.

Katie Couric: Yesterday you said in front of the DNC winter meeting, quote, "Just in case there's any confusion out there, I'm not going to walk away from health care." But specifically, how are you going to move forward?

The President: Well, what I've been doing is consulting closely with the leaders in the House, the leaders in the Senate, on the Democratic side, and I want to consult closely with our Republican colleagues. So they're going to be coming into the White House next week.

And what I want to do is to ask them to put their ideas on the table. And then, after the recess, which will be a few weeks away, I want to come back and have a large meeting with Republicans and Democrats to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward.

But part of the reason that people need to understand why we can't back off on this, the major insurer -- one of the major insurers in California just announced that in the individual market they're increasing their premiums by 39 percent. That's a portrait of the future if we don't do something now. It's going to keep on beating down families, small businesses, large businesses. It's going to be a huge drain on the economy. We're going to have to do something about it, and I think we can.

Katie Couric: So you're inviting Republicans here to the White House. Does that mean, Mr. President, you're willing to start at square one?

The President: Well, I think that what I want to do is to look at the Republican ideas that are out there. And I want to be very specific. "How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance market so people with pre-existing conditions, for example, can get health care? How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don't have health insurance can get it? What are your ideas specifically?"

And if we can go step by step through a series of these issues and arrive at some agreements, then procedurally there's no reason why we can't do it a lot faster than the process took last year.

Katie Couric: You say that jobs are your top priority this year. In retrospect, do you wish you had waited on health care until the economy grew stronger?

The President: No, because, keep in mind, jobs were my number one priority last year. That's why we passed the recovery act, to make sure that not only do we put $300 billion worth of tax cuts into people's pockets so that there was demand and businesses had customers. That's why we provided over $200 billion in assistance to states, so they wouldn't have to lay off teachers and cops and firefighters. And that all supported maintaining the jobs that we have.

That's why we moved forward on infrastructure and clean energy and a lot of job creation. And having taken those steps very quickly at the front end, at the beginning of the year, it was important for us also to start looking at these issues that middle-class families have been struggling with for decades now.

And do I wish we could have done it faster, that it hadn't been so painfully slow through the legislative process? Absolutely. But it was the right thing to do then. It continues to be the right thing.

Katie Couric: Speaking of the legislative process, when it comes to health care, people watched the sausage being made.

The President: Yeah.

Katie Couric: And, quite frankly, it made them pretty sick to their stomachs. Your White House was in the middle of all these negotiations, all these special deals that were given --

The President: Well, I'm not --

Katie Couric: -- to certain senators.

The President: That's probably not a right characterization. But what is --

Katie Couric: Well, you were aware of them.

The President: What is absolutely true is that getting something passed through Congress with 535 members is hard. It's especially hard in something as big as health care. It's going to be true when we try to get the financial reform so that we don't have the same kind of too-big-to-fail bailout nonsense that we had last year.

Each of these issues are huge, complicated issues. There are tons of special interests and lobbyists up there. And each legislator, they think they're doing what's best for their state or for their district. And what we have to do is just make sure that it is a much more clear and transparent process.

I've got to push Congress on that. We've got to make sure that we're watching out for that. But the end product, the actual agreements that were come to on health care, are ones that I'm absolutely convinced benefit millions of people all across the country.

Katie Couric: But did some of these special deals, Mr. President, sort of --

The President: They didn't help.

Katie Couric: -- "Get it passed at all costs" turn your stomach too?

The President: They did not help. They frustrate me. But, you know, this is a democracy. Look, I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant academically approved approach to health care, and didn't have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed. But that's not how it works in our democracy.

Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people, many of whom have their best constituents' -- their constituents' best interests at heart. But cumulatively, what ends up happening is it ends up looking like each individual senator, each individual legislator, is just looking out for their own thing and don't have the larger public interest at heart.

My job is to make sure that we stay focused on that larger vision of how do we lower costs for Americans over the long term.

Katie Couric: A lot of people, including Democrats, wrote to me saying you campaigned on the slogan "Change you can believe in." But their lives and the ways of Washington, they wrote, haven't changed at all. What would you say to them?

The President: Well, it's not true that they haven't changed at all. Let's just take -- we're sitting in the White House here. Every single person who comes into the White House now is posted on a website, so you know every visitor to the White House. That's never happened in the history of the republic.

We are eliminating lobbyists from boards and commissions that have significant power throughout Washington. That hasn't happened in a previous administration. There's more transparency on something like the recovery act and how taxpayer dollars are being spent than there's ever been on a project of this size and scale.

So here in the White House, actually, we have instituted a whole range of changes that give people a lot more confidence in what we're doing. We haven't done as much as needs to be done. So, for example, on earmarks, what people consider to be pork projects, what we've said is, "Members of Congress, if you're going to introduce a project that benefits your district, you should post it on the Internet so people can see it before you vote on it, and we'll put it on a centralized website."

But all these things take time. I mean, you know, you're not going to transform a culture in Washington or anywhere else over the course of a year. You've just got to keep on chipping away at it. And that's what we've tried to do.

Katie Couric: Chris from Falls Church, Virginia writes, "Mr. President, I lost my house two years ago and I've been out of work for a year. Can the federal government really stimulate the economy enough to start creating new jobs anytime soon?"

Without getting into too much policyspeak, what would you say to Chris?

The President: I'd say to Chris I know how tough it's been. I'd say that we are seeing the corner turn on the economy growing again. Last year at this time the economy had contracted, had shrunk by 6 percent. We know now that last quarter it had grown by 6 percent. That's a good sign that companies are starting to pick up hiring again, because they see the opportunities to go out there and make money.

It's not happening as fast as we'd like, and that's why there are still some things we can do in terms of tax credits for small businesses, taking some of that TARP money that's been repaid and giving it to community banks so that they can lend it to small businesses, giving job credits to small businesses for hiring. Potentially a million small businesses out there could get $5,000 for each employee they hire this year.

All those things, I think, are moving us in the right direction, and my hope is that for folks who are unemployed, they're going to start seeing concrete improvement in their own lives in the next few months.

Katie Couric: A cab driver told us to tell you he is scared to death of the deficit. And Congress couldn't even establish a bipartisan commission to study the deficit because Republicans were afraid it would raise taxes and Democrats were afraid it would cut spending. You can understand why people are not only afraid, but so frustrated.

The President: Well, it's important to remember that actually the majority of Democrats did vote to set up this commission. What happened was you had seven Republicans who had been co-sponsors of the bill who decided not to vote for it. And --

Katie Couric: But some Democrats didn't support it, correct?

The President: Well, no, of course. But think about this. You've got seven Republicans who are co-sponsors of the bill. It was their idea. And when I said, "Yes, let's do it," suddenly they decided to say no. That's indicative of a lot of posturing on this issue. And what I think the American people want is just an honest assessment of the situation.

Now, the honest assessment is this. We had a big structural deficit even before the recession. The recession made it much worse. We're not going to solve this overnight. And we don't want to either raise taxes or drastically slash government spending while the economy is still fragile.

If Democrats and Republicans come together in a sensible way, putting everything on the table, not trying to position themselves politically ahead of time, then there's no reason why we can't start putting in place some serious measures that will start driving the deficit down long term.

The biggest thing, the most important thing that we can do on deficits -- and I would say this to your cab driver and everybody else -- is to get a health-reform package passed. The package that we put together, the Congressional Budget Office says, will cut the deficit by a trillion dollars. Even in Washington, that's real money. If we can start bending the cost curve on health care, that's the most important thing we can do to deal with the deficits long term.

Katie Couric: Have you ruled out trying confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City?

The President: I have not ruled it out, but I think it's important for us to take into account the practical logistical issues involved. I mean, if you've got a city that is saying no and a police department that's saying no and a mayor that's saying no, that makes it difficult.

But I think that the most important thing for the public to understand is we're not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush administration handled them all through 9/11. They prosecuted 190 folks in these Article III courts, got convictions, and those folks are in maximum-security prisons right now. And there have been no escapes. And it is a virtue of our system that we should be proud of.

Now, what I've also said is that, you know, it's important for us to recognize that when we're dealing with al Qaeda operatives that they may have national-security intelligence that we need, and it's important to make sure that the processes and procedures we approach with respect to these folks are not identical to the ones that we would use if we're apprehending the local drug dealer. And that's why we put in place some very particular ways of dealing with these issues that ensure our security but also still uphold our due process.

Katie Couric: Are you talking about reading them the Miranda rights, their Miranda rights?

The President: Well, yeah --

Katie Couric: In other words, like Abdulmutallab, who was read his Miranda rights? A lot of people are very upset about that because he was giving information to the FBI. Then his rights were read to him and he clammed up.

The President: Well, that's actually not what happened. What happened was he clammed up. And after we had obtained actionable intelligence from him, that's when the FBI -- the FBI folks on the ground then read him his Miranda rights.

But keep in mind, Richard Reid was read his Miranda rights five minutes after he was arrested under the previous administration. Some of the same critics of our approach have been employing this policy for years.

Katie Couric: Having said that, should the practice of reading suspected terrorists their Miranda rights be reviewed?

The President: Absolutely. Everything should be reviewed. And what we've done is we've said let's have the best interrogators around. Some of those, by the way, are going to be FBI officials. Some of them are going to be police officers, who are very good at their jobs. Some of them are going to be national-security experts.

Let's put together teams that are in charge of the interrogation process, because we want to make sure priority number one, when these kinds of events happen, have we gotten all the information we need to ensure that there's not going to be any additional attacks?

Katie Couric: But you have not ruled out New York City as a venue.

The President: We have not ruled out anything. We will make a definitive judgment based on consultations with all the relevant authorities.

Katie Couric: All right. And finally, a Super Bowl question.

The President: That's (correct ?).

Katie Couric: I know you have said that you are rooting for the Saints a bit. You're impressed by what Drew Brees has done for New Orleans. But I'm going to let you show off your sports knowledge for a moment. Who do you think will win, and why?

The President: You know, I think the Colts probably have to be favored, mainly because they've got perhaps the best quarterback in history. I mean, Peyton Manning is unbelievable. And, you know, they've got a team that has complete confidence in him. Everybody knows the system. There's enormous continuity with that team. So they are tough.

I do have a soft spot in my heart for New Orleans, mainly because of what the city has gone through over these last several years, and I just know how much that team means to them. And I got to know Drew Brees when we shot a commercial for having kids get more active and get off the couch. And he's just a class act, terrific guy, wonderful family. But I would say that the Colts have to be favored.

Now, one other factor that I have to confess here is that when my Bears went to the Super Bowl several years ago, it was the Indianapolis Colts that beat them, so I probably still have --

Katie Couric: Ah, got an ax to grind.

The President: -- [Laughs.] -- a little bit of an ax to grind.

Katie Couric: And you'd like to issue an executive order, I understand, mandating a close game.

The President: Mandating a close game. We had a great game last year. And I'm hopeful that we've got the same kind of game we had with the Cardinals and the Steelers.

Katie Couric: All right, President Obama, again, thanks so much for talking with us; appreciate it.

The President: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

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

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