Barack Obama photo

Interview with Katie Couric of CBS News

February 03, 2009

COURIC: Mr. President, I wanted to start by asking you: Tom Daschle withdrew his name this afternoon, you issued a statement saying, quote, you accept his decision with "sadness and regret." Did you try to talk him out of it?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know we had a conversation and obviously that conversation's private, but, uh, it's frustrating for me and it's something that I take responsibility for. Tom, I think, is an outstanding individual. I am absolutely convinced that he would've been the best person to help shepherd through what's going to be a very difficult process to get health care for American families.

But as he said yesterday, he made a mistake and a pretty big one when it came to these taxes. He didn't offer excuses and I don't think there is an excuse and what became apparent was that not only could this be a distraction, but I don't want my administration to be sending a message that there are two sets of rules: one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes everyday. I think that we're going to move forward, learn from our mistakes. I will learn from mine and we still have this pressing problem of millions of people who are either losing their health care or can't afford the health care they've got and … I'm going to make sure we get a team in place to solve that problem.

COURIC: Questions have been raised about a number of your choices. Bill Richardson, Tim Geithner, now Tom Daschle. Then less than two hours before Tom Daschle bowed out, your pick for chief performance officer and deputy director of OMB dropped out because of her personal tax issues. Is there something wrong with your vetting process?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I, you know, don't think there's something wrong with the vetting process. I think that what happened, certainly, let's just take Tom as an example. I made a judgment that he was the best person possible for the job. I was very eager to make sure that we can deliver on a commitment that I have to deliver healthcare for the American people. I think I messed up. I screwed up in not recognizing the perception that even though this is an honest mistake, I believe, on Tom's part, that, you know, ordinary people are out there paying taxes every day and whether it's an intentional mistake or not, it was sending the wrong signal. So again, this was something that was my fault. I continue to consider Tom Daschle an outstanding public servant, uh, and what we're going to do now is make sure we get somebody confirmed and start moving forward.

COURIC: Meanwhile, a former lobbyist for the defense contracting firm Raytheon is slated to be the No. 2 person at the Pentagon. During the course of the campaign, you spoke passionately about ethics reform and against lobbyists. So what happened? It gives people the impression you talk the talk during the campaign, but now you're in office and you're not walking the walk.

THE PRESIDENT: On this one … I'll disagree. Oon the other one, I think we screwed up. On this one, we've got the highest lobbyist … standards in terms of former lobbyists or people who want to influence the government being involved in our administration - the highest standard that's ever been set up. And I'm appointing thousands of people. Now, what I said in appointing Mr. Lynn was that this … along with maybe a handful, maybe three or four positions, may end up being so unique that we are going to make an exception.

That doesn't obviate the fact that we are setting a standard that no other president has ever met. And it's the right standard. So, again, I've got thousands of appointments here. In this particular job, what we have to have is somebody who understands the procurement process, by statute has to understand not only government, but also how industry operates, and so we made one exception. But that does not negate the over-arching approach that we're taking on this thing which no other administration's ever taken.

COURIC: You don't think it's a slippery slope...


COURIC: You make one exception. One, two, three, four, five, multiple?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I think when you have thousands of people that you're appointing, as long as we disclose it. We're upfront which is exactly what we did, I mean, I came out and said we're making an exception here, so people didn't discover it. We weren't trying to sneak anything by anybody. I think the American people understand that we are moving in a new direction. It's not going to be perfect. There are going to be bumps and fits and starts on this thing. But as long as I stay focused on them and putting them back to work, making sure that they have health insurance, making sure their kids can afford college, cleaning up attitudes around here, including making sure that when I screw up that I'm taking responsibility for it. I think that people will feel that three or four or five years down the road that you know we set a new course.

COURIC: Lets talk about the stimulus package, which I think is what you really wanted to focus on today.

THE PRESIDENT: Right. Well, this is the problem when you make these self-inflicted wounds, you end up being distracted really from the people's business.

COURIC: You met last night here at the White House with the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. And word has it you were pretty blunt with them. What did you tell them?

COURIC: Well here's what I said: We have to act. We have to act now. We have to act in a way that is responsible and we have to make sure that our overarching focus is on putting people back to work. Marking sure small businesses can stay open. And the package that passed out of the House I think in a lot of ways has been unfairly maligned. If you look at the overarching package, it's got no earmarks in it.

That's something that not even the current critics can say about budgets they had passed over the last 8 years. Most of the money is either going directly to families in the form of unemployment insurance or making sure that they've got health insurance if they've lost their job. Or it's designed to spark the economy by creating jobs in green technologies, in health care - making sure that we've got information technology system that drives down costs, that we're going to be training thousands of teachers across the country in math and science and investing in science and technology.

So, what's happened, and this is what tends to happen in this town is people have plucked out this program or that program that doesn't look particularly simulative, the contraceptives issue being a primary example. If you add all that stuff up, it accounts from less than 1 percent of the overall package. Now that doesn't mean that the package can't improve and that's what I said to the leadership last night, "Let's improve it. Let's make this a package that is big enough for the moment, and is really focused on the American people." But I also wanna make sure that people don't get some notion which I think has been systematically promoted out there that this is full of silly spending 'cause it's not.

COURIC: Sen. Mitch McConnell said over the weekend that surely you're privately embarrassed by some of the product that came out of the house version and let me just mention some of the spending in this package: $6.2 billion for home weatherization, $100 million for children to learn green construction, $50 million for port modernization water and wastewater infrastructure needs in Guam, $50 million for the NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts. Even if some of these are a legitimate use of taxpayer dollars, Mr. President, why are they included in this bill designed to jumpstart the economy and create jobs right now?

THE PRESIDENT: Lets take that example. I'm stunned that Mitch McConnell use this as an example.

COURIC: We actually got these examples, so you can't necessarily blame him

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let's think about it. We're going to weatherize homes, that immediately puts people back to work and we're going to train people who are out of work, including young people, to do the weatherization. As a consequence of weatherization, our energy bills go down and we reduce our dependence on foreign oil. What would be a more effective stimulus package than that? I mean, you're getting a threefer. Not only are you immediately putting people back to work but you're also saving families on your energy bills and you're laying the groundwork for long term energy independence. That's exactly the kind of program that we should be funding.

Now, I think a more legitimate criticism that some people have leveled is while not all this money is going to be spending out right away. We're trying to balance the need for quick spending with the need for laying the groundwork for long term economic growth. And in some cases, some of the major energy plans or projects we have, some of the infrastructure projects that we have that are out there it may take three or four years to get all the money spent as opposed to the first year or two. now 75 percent of the money is spent in the first two years, 25 percent will be spent a little bit after that, that's where there are areas that we could potentially improve it and if Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid or anybody has a better idea of how to do it I'm happy to accept those ideas.

COURIC: One of your biggest supporters, Claire McCaskill said quote all democrats did was tee up ammunition for the other side to tear this thing down. Do you blame some of your fellow Democrats for at least giving the impression that this has been loaded up with too many partisan pet projects and conversely how do you reach out to Republicans and give them what they need to be satisfied so this thing can get passed?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, many of the projects that people have pointed out as partisan pet projects are actually pretty good policy. They may just not belong in this bill so I don't want to cast doubt on the intentions of a lot of my democratic colleagues here. The contraception bill that people have talked about, well, that's not "stimulus," well it probably save us money and is probably good public policy. But I think it may be harder to argue that it's going to create jobs.

But what I'd say to the Republicans is the same thing I would say to the Democrats and that is "we have an urgent situation right now." This is an extraordinary time. I think the American people because they're feeling it day-to-day. Understand this, I'm not sure that Washington does at times - we're still getting our paychecks, we're not being laid off. But you go out into any city or town in America right now and they are scared. So what I would say is let's try to make sure we stay focused on solving the problem and we've got to act relatively quickly. I don't know a single economist out there who thinks that it makes for us to delay another two or three or four months to get this thing done. I will cooperate with people. I already gave significant concessions in the original design of the bill. You'll recall that many of my Republican colleagues complimented me and said they are pleasantly surprised by the number of tax cuts that were in there. Things that they support. I suppose that I could have left them out of initial framework so that now I could offer them up those aren't the games I want to play. I just want to get the job done and put people back to work.

COURIC: You campaigned to change the culture in Washington, to change the politics as usual culture here. Are you frustrated do you think it is much, much harder to do that than you ever anticipated?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all I never thought it was easy. Change is hard. Just like changing how campaigns were run is hard. We didn't do that overnight. If you recall my campaign for president, we had a lot of fits and starts. I wasn't the best candidate, and, you know, we made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, and over time we stayed focused on being true to our central message, which was that the American people deserve a better government.

That passion has not changed. And we're going to make some mistakes. I'm going to screw up sometimes, there are people here who are well intentioned but disagree with me philosophically, or have just fallen into old habits that need to be broken. And its not going to happen overnight, but I'm confident that if we just stay on the course if we stay focused on what's good for the American people that ultimately we're going to be able to deliver. I'm here not to just occupy space. This is a nice office. But we are making everybody who is involved in this are making policy based on what we think is going to be best for the American people and as long as I think we're doing that we'll have a good outcome.

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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