Barack Obama photo

Interview With Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today"

March 29, 2010

[Broadcast Date: March 30, 2010]

Matt Lauer: And now to our exclusive conversation with President Obama. We sat down on the White House -- or at the White House on Monday to talk about the passage of his landmark health-care legislation and the nasty political tone in Washington these days. But I began by asking President Obama about Sunday's surprise visit to Afghanistan and why he felt it was important to go now and not earlier, when he was making his decision about a troop surge.

[Begin videotaped segment.]

The President: Well, keep in mind that as I was making the decision about troop strength, Afghanistan was still in the midst of an election or the post-election jockeying that was taking place, and it was very important to make sure that the president of the United States doesn't look like he's parachuting in and changing the outcomes there.

And I thought it was important now not only to send a strong message to the troops that we are fully behind what they're doing -- I think we've seen some progress, and I wanted to mark that progress that's been made -- but also it's an important time for President Karzai. He has made some important steps in the right direction, in improving governance, reducing corruption. But there's a long way to go. And as our troops are on the front line, as they're going into places like Helmand, potentially into Kandahar, how the Afghan government performs is going to be just as important as how the Afghan national security forces perform.

Matt Lauer: I'm curious to hear you say there has been progress, because I was in Afghanistan with Secretary Gates back in December, and he told me, when he met with President Karzai, he talked about cracking down on corruption and cracking down on the drug trade, the very same topics you talked to President Karzai about. And I'm curious. Do you think he is listening? Is he getting it?

The President: I think he is listening, but I think that the progress is too slow. And what we've been trying to emphasize is the fierce urgency of now, that on all of these issues, whether it's making sure that farmers are actually getting help on their irrigation, whether it's emphasizing the need to make sure that police and prosecutors and judges are operating fairly, in terms of making sure that in these provinces that the governors are actually looking out for the best interests of their people and what kind of appointments are being made -- on all those issues, we've got to make progress faster, and we can't dilly-dally around.

And so, look, obviously this is a country that has been stressed and in war, in one way or another, for decades now. It's not going to transform itself overnight. But my hope is that President Karzai can recognize the incredible opportunity he has to be the father of a modern Afghanistan.

Matt Lauer: Let's talk about health-care reform; health-care law now we can talk about. It's seen as a huge victory for you, your presidency, for Democrats. It's a tough pill to swallow for Republicans. It's been described in a lot of different ways. Your vice president described it in colorful terms.

The President: [Laughs.]

Matt Lauer: How do you describe it?

The President: I think it is a critical first step in making a health-care system that works for all Americans. It's not going to be the only thing. We're still going to have adjustments that have to be made to further reduce costs.

Now what we have is a system in place that preserves the employer-based system but says, number one, insurance companies, they have to behave themselves. We're going to have a private system in insurance, but you can't bar people from getting insurance because of pre-existing conditions. You can't drop people when they get sick and need coverage most. So you can't game the system.

The second thing is we've set up what's going to be called an exchange, but it's basically just a marketplace where individuals who right now have to go out on their own and buy insurance and have no leverage are suddenly going to be part of a pool of millions of people, including, by the way, members of Congress. And that gives them more buying power, the same way Wal-Mart has more purchasing power when it buys from its suppliers. That will force insurance rates down for the vast majority of people.

So what we now have is the basic principle that in a country as wealthy as ours, nobody should have to go without basic health care. My hope is that this year we're going to see some very concrete benefits that people get. Small businesses are going to get billions of dollars in tax breaks to provide insurance to their employees. Parents are going to be able to put their children on their health insurance up to the age of 26. Insurers are not going to be able to just drop people from coverage because they feel like it.

Matt Lauer: This version of health-care reform did not receive one Republican vote.

The President: Mmm-hmm. [Acknowledging.]

Matt Lauer: You almost have to say that again --

The President: Yeah.

Matt Lauer: -- to let it really sink in: Not one Republican vote. And a lot of people wonder how a bill, or now a law, could be good for the American public in general when it didn't receive one single Republican vote and when a recent poll said 50 percent of people aren't in favor of this plan. How do you respond to that?

The President: Well, look, I think that the Republican Party made a calculated decision, a political decision, that they would not support whatever we did. There was a quote by a well-known Republican senator who said, "This is going to be Obama's Waterloo. This is going to -- we're going to bring him down just the same way that we brought down Bill Clinton, by making sure that health care fails."

And I think that's unfortunate, because when you actually look at the bill itself, it incorporates all sorts of Republican ideas. I mean, a lot of commentators have said, you know, this is sort of similar to the bill that Mitt Romney, the Republican governor and now presidential candidate, passed in Massachusetts. A lot of the ideas in terms of the exchange, just being able to pool and improve the purchasing power of individuals in the insurance market, that originated from the Heritage Foundation. And so --

Matt Lauer: So you think it's all politics.

The President: Well --

Matt Lauer: It's not about the inner workings of the bill. It's all politics.

The President: I will say that any objective observer looking at this bill would say that this is a middle-of-the-road, centrist approach to providing coverage to people and making sure that we are also reducing costs.

I am frustrated that Republicans, who I think had an opportunity to help shape this bill, declined that opportunity. That's not to say that on specific provisions there might be legitimate concerns that they had, philosophical concerns that they had. Some of them, I think, sincerely believe that we should do more on this aspect of the bill or that aspect of the bill. But the overall architecture of it was actually something that was right down the middle.

Matt Lauer: Daniel Henninger, who's the deputy editorial-page editor of The Wall Street Journal, had an interesting take on it, Mr. President. He said, "If you produce a bill that even Olympia Snowe of Maine cannot vote for, you have not produced legislation for the generations. You've produced once-in-a-lifetime legislation that no Republican from any constituency across America can vote for." What's your response to that?

The President: And my response is -- well, number one, the Wall Street Journal editorial page -- [laughs] -- generally isn't favorable to --

Matt Lauer: [Inaudible.] Right.

The President: -- much of what I do. But I think what's interesting is that if you actually break down the specifics of the bill, you will see that this historically has had a lot of Republican support.

There historically was a lot of Republican support for the notion of an individual mandate, that everybody should take responsibility. There was historic Republican support for the idea that we should make sure that entitlement reform exists within Medicare. There was historically a lot of Republican support for the idea of the exchange, which is the centerpiece of the bill.

So if you actually look at the particulars, these are all things that in the past others, including the Wall Street Journal editorial page, have endorsed. And yet, oddly --

Matt Lauer: What you keep coming back to is that the fix was in is what you're basically saying.

The President: I think what happened is that they made a calculation, which, if you are thinking in terms of short-term politics, you can see the argument. Their attitude is, "Look, if we stop this bill, if we paint it as" --

Matt Lauer: "(We can ?) stop this president here."

The President: -- "and we stop this president here, then that will give us a lot of political benefit in November."

What I've tried to say throughout is I will continually reach out to Republicans. I will continue to incorporate their ideas even when they don't vote for the ideas that I've presented. But what I'm not going to be dissuaded from is us going ahead and taking on these big challenges that are critical in terms of America's long-term economic health.

Matt Lauer: When we announced that we would be sitting down here with you at the White House today, our in box filled quickly with e- mails from viewers all around the country.

And Jeff in Minnesota asked a question I'd like your response to. He said, "Mr. Obama, the CBO just issued a statement this past week that Social Security had reached the tipping point a full six years earlier than they originally had estimated. With that said, how can we believe their figures on your health-care plan that says we'll save $138 billion over 10 years?"

The President: The reason that the tipping point was reached a little bit earlier is because the recession was so devastating. And presumably if growth picks up, then you'll see that adjustment made again.

Now, Social Security generally has to be reformed to ensure long- term sustainability. But in any given year or any given period, it might end up being way off from estimates because of something like the financial crisis.

Here's the interesting thing, though. The Congressional Budget Office historically has actually underestimated the savings whenever Medicare has been reformed, whenever we've made changes. And that was true the last time it was done. So we actually feel pretty optimistic that not only is $138 billion going to be saved in the first 10 years, but more significantly, a trillion dollars is going to be saved in the second 10 years.

Matt Lauer: Let's talk about where we are politically right now. And I don't have to tell you that this passage of this bill and turning it into law has left this country as politically divided as I think it has been in a long time. You might be able to cite some other examples. But the vitriol, the rhetoric, the sniping, the threats -- how are you possibly going to continue with any kind of legislative agenda when your opponents have said to you, "I'm not going to cooperate with this president, with these Democrats, unless it's a matter of national security"? How do you move on?

The President: Well, first of all, I think that a lot of the rhetoric has been overheated and overblown. And this is what happens in Washington when you have a big debate. Suddenly the passage of this bill is Armageddon. And as I pointed out, the next day, after I signed it, I looked around and no asteroids had hit the planet -- (laughs) -- and no cracks had appeared in the earth.

This is a bill that is going to help a lot of people and help to lower costs of health care, but it's not a radical departure from what we've done in the past.

Matt Lauer: Let's talk about faith a little bit, all right? There's been a lot of tension, and had been in the previous year, about your family's choice of a church here in Washington. As of yet, I haven't heard that you've settled on an exact church. Where do you stand on that? And how important a decision is it for your family?

The President: Well, you know, what we've decided for now is not to join a single church. And the reason is because Michelle and I have realized we are very disruptive to services. Now, there are a whole bunch of churches who would say it's okay, but when every other member of the congregation has to be magged any time that you attend -- so what we've done is we occasionally go across the street to St. John's, which is a church that a lot of presidents traditionally have gone to. We love -- the chapel up in Camp David is probably our favorite place to worship, because it's just families up at Camp David.

Matt Lauer: Right.

The President: There's a wonderful chaplain up there who does just a great job. And so usually when we go to Camp David, we go to church on Sundays there. And in the meantime, what we've done -- there was a prayer circle of pastors from across the country who, during the campaign, would say a prayer for me or send a devotional. And we've kept that habit up. And it's a wonderful group, because it's a mix of some very conservative pastors, some very liberal pastors, but all who pray for me and Michelle and the girls. And I get a daily devotional on my BlackBerry, which is a wonderful thing.

Matt Lauer: It's spirituality meets high tech.

The President: Yeah, (that's right ?).

Matt Lauer: That's pretty good.

Your girls have been here in the White House for more than a year now, along with Michelle. And when I spoke to Mrs. Obama not long ago, I said, "You know, the normalcy thing, how's that going?" Here comes summer.

The President: Yeah.

Matt Lauer: A lot of kids -- "Okay, I'm going to summer camp."

The President: Yeah.

Matt Lauer: "I'm going to go to sleep-away camp, Dad." Have you gotten that question?

The President: I have.

Matt Lauer: And how do you handle it?

The President: I have. And I handle it like every other dad, which is saying, "Don't you want to spend it with me?"

Matt Lauer: (Laughs.) Yeah. "No, I want to go to sleep-away camp, Dad."

The President: [Laughs.] So the -- you know, the happiest thing about the past year and a half has been the girls' adjustment. They have just been terrific. They're doing well in school. They're not as constrained. They can wander around. Their Secret Service protection is a lot more low key. And so, you know, they've got soccer. They've got basketball. They go sleep over at their friends' houses.

Matt Lauer: Right.

The President: They've got -- you know, sometimes I've got 12 little girls screaming on the third floor of the White House. And they've made a great adjustment. And during the summer they're going to do what their friends are doing. If I wasn't in the Oval Office --

Matt Lauer: So it is possible to have a normal summer as a first daughter.

The President: It is. It is. Now, I get a little worried about them when they're teenagers, because I think that's the time when you're already embarrassed about your parents.

Matt Lauer: [Laughs.]

The President: And then imagine if your dad's --

Matt Lauer: He's president of the United States.

The President: -- in the newspaper every day and people are calling him an idiot. You know, so I feel a little worried about that. On the other hand, Malia and Sasha have just turned out to be unbelievably well-adjusted kids. And the thing that's most important to me is that they are so respectful of everybody and haven't gotten on any airs. And I attribute that directly to Michelle, because she wouldn't put up with any of that stuff.

Matt Lauer: All right, four names, okay? Butler, Duke, West Virginia, Michigan State. How's your bracket look, first of all?

The President: It is completely blown up.

Matt Lauer: [Laughs.]

The President: It is a sign that I was paying singular focus on health care.

Matt Lauer: That's your excuse, and you're sticking with it?

The President: Well, you know, I had done great in the first several rounds. I was in first place. I think ESPN calculated I was in the top 98th percentile.

Matt Lauer: Yeah.

The President: And then every single --

Matt Lauer: Then the bottom fell out.

The President: Every single number one seed except Duke -- and Duke's the one number one seed I didn't pick --

Matt Lauer: To get to the Final Four.

The President: -- at least to get to the final eight.

Matt Lauer: But if you think about what we have left, you've got three schools that represent states you carried in the election.

The President: Absolutely.

Matt Lauer: You've got one school that represents a state you did not carry.

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: So who are you picking?

The President: Well, I'm not going to pick now.

Matt Lauer: Oh, you have to pick now.

The President: No, you just --

Matt Lauer: When I was here for the Super Bowl, you picked then.

The President: You just explained to me why it was such bad politics. But I will say this. Just to show that I'm not biased, I actually think that West Virginia's got a great chance. And I did not win that state, but they've got a really good team.

Matt Lauer: So West Virginia over Duke --

The President: I think the winner of West Virginia-Duke will end up winning the championship.

Matt Lauer: You don't see a number five seed --

The President: I don't.

Matt Lauer: -- winning the championship. Good luck with that.

The President: Thank you.

Matt Lauer: We sat here a year ago, Super Bowl Sunday.

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: And at that time, we were talking about hope and change.

The President: Right.

Matt Lauer: And you were going to change the dialogue and the tone in this country. And you said, "Matt, it takes time."

The President: It does.

Matt Lauer: "We have to build trust with the Republicans before the tone can change." Things now are worse.

The President: If you look at historically what happens is that a party that's out of power, oftentimes in those first few years out of power end up reacting very negatively. Their base ends up being very agitated. And it may take the next election or the next presidential election before things settle down.

I think what's important is that we recognize, A, we can disagree without being disagreeable; B, that all of us, Republicans and Democrats, have a responsibility as leaders to set the tone -- to not exaggerate what the other side is trying to do, to not suggest that they're bad people, to assume that they want what's best for America, even if we disagree on the particular approach. And so my hope is that the Republican leadership will take that tone. Certainly that's the tone that I want to take.

And I think that when you look at the issues that are still out there -- we still have to have an energy policy in this country that reduces our dependence on foreign oil; we've still got a broken immigration system; we still have financial regulatory reform, a major issue that I've been talking about now for several years, where we've got to figure out how to prevent the same kind of situation where a few reckless banks can bring down an entire economy.

And on each of these issues, I'm going to actively seek Republican support. But there are going to be areas where we disagree, and I will continue to maintain a tone where, if they've got good ideas, I'm going to take them.

Matt Lauer: Right.

The President: But if we disagree, then we'll fight it out --

Matt Lauer: We're talking a lot about --

The President: -- on the floor of the Senate or the House.

Matt Lauer: We're talking a lot about Republican disagreement. In your opinion, do Democrats deserve any of the blame for the tone in Washington right now?

The President: Well, there's no doubt that Democrats are known to play the same game, which is to exaggerate the venality -- (laughs) -- of the other side. There are times where Republicans do things I don't like, but, you know, my working assumption is that they are doing what they think is best for the country. And I think there have been times where Democrats don't confer that same benefit of the doubt onto the Republicans, and I think that's a tone that all of us should take.

Matt Lauer: When I look at the division right now, I was thinking of President Bush in preparing for this interview. And I remember, he came to office saying, "I want to be the uniter." And by the end of his second term, people were calling him the opposite. They were saying, "You are a divider." And I'm sure President Bush would argue that the country was divided because he had to tackle some very difficult issues and make tough choices.

Having been through what you've just been through with health- care reform, do you now have a different opinion of the job that George Bush did in this office?

The President: You know, I think that, having sat in the Oval Office as president, I am much more sympathetic to all presidents -- (laughs) -- generally, because what is true is that there are big, tough decisions that you make, and you know that unless you try to avoid those problems, whatever you decide is going to make some people happy and some people unhappy. And I think there are some things that George Bush has done that were smart and the right thing to do. I've said that before.

I do think that we now have a pattern of polarization, not just with George Bush, but also previous to George Bush with Bill Clinton, where the political culture gets so wound up. Frankly, Matt, it gets spun up partly because of the way the media covers politics these days, in the 24/7 news cycle and the cable chatter and the talk radio and the Internet and the blogs, all of which tend to try to feed the most extreme sides of any issue instead of trying to narrow differences and solve problems.

There's something about the political culture here in Washington that is a chronic problem. I haven't solved it yet. My hope, though, is that by the end --

Matt Lauer: Is it solvable?

The President: Well, I do think it's solvable, because I think that when I go around the country and I talk to folks, they don't think in ideological terms. They don't think in terms of Republican- Democrat. They think in terms of "Is this good for my family? Will this help my kid go to college? Is this going to help me keep a good job that pays the rent or pays my mortgage?"

And if we can demonstrate, as an administration, that, regardless of whatever the day-to-day news cycle is saying, that we're staying focused on the big picture and helping families, and the results are good, then I think that will show that it's possible to be principled and stick to your convictions and not worry about the polls, and ultimately be rewarded politically. And, you know, nothing succeeds like success in this town. If other politicians watch and it turns out that taking a common-sense approach to problems works, suddenly, lo and behold, you might see more of that.

Matt Lauer: Let me ask you about the tea party. This is a movement, this is an organization, that didn't exist before you were president. And now they're in the headlines almost every day. Some say they are a legitimate movement. Others think they're a fringe group. Where do you fall?

The President: You know, I think that it is a still loose amalgam of forces. There's a part of the tea-party movement that actually did exist before I was elected. We saw some of it leading up to my election. There are some folks who just weren't sure whether I was born in the United States -- (laughs) -- whether I was a socialist, right? So there's that segment of it, which I think is just dug in ideologically. And that strain has existed in American politics for a long time.

Then I think that there's a broader circle around that core group of people who are legitimately concerned about the deficit, who are legitimately concerned that the federal government may be taking on too much. And last year a bunch of the emergency measures we had to take in terms of dealing with the bank crisis, bailing out the auto industry, fed that sense that things are out of control. And I think those are folks who have legitimate concerns. And so I wouldn't paint in broad brush and say that, you know, everybody who's involved or have gone to a tea-party rally or a meeting are somehow on the fringe. Some of them, I think, have some mainstream legitimate concerns.

And, you know, my hope is that as we move forward and we're tackling things like the deficit and imposing a freeze on domestic spending and taking steps that show we're sincere about dealing with our long-term problems, that some of that group will dissipate. There's still going to be a group at their core that question my legitimacy or question the Democratic Party generally or question people who they consider to be against them in some way. And that group we're probably not going to convince.

Barack Obama, Interview With Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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