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Interview With Steve Kroft on CBS' "60 Minutes"

December 13, 2009

Steve Kroft: As President Obama approaches his first anniversary in the White House, some of the public's enthusiasm for his ambitious agenda at home and abroad is on the wane. While he helped avert a worldwide financial collapse and may well achieve his goal of health- care reform during his first year in office, the U.S. economy is still very weak with double-digit unemployment. And his approval ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency.

This past week before he left for Europe to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, we sat down with the president in the Map Room at the White House for a wide-ranging discussion, much of it focused on his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

[Begin videotaped interview.]

Steve Kroft: Was that the most difficult decision of your presidency so far?

The President: Absolutely.

Steve Kroft: Why?

The President: Because when you go to Walter Reed and you travel to Dover and you visit Arlington and you see the sacrifices that young men and women and their families are making, there is nothing more profound. And it is a solemn obligation on the part of me as commander in chief to get those decisions right.

The President: [From videotape.] I do not make this decision lightly.

Steve Kroft: In your West Point speech, you seemed very analytical, detached, not emotional. The tone seemed to be, I've studied the situation very hard, it's a real mess, the options aren't very good, but we need to go ahead and do this. There were no exhortations or promises of victory. Why? Why that tone?

The President: You know, that was actually probably the most emotional speech that I've made in terms of how I felt about it, because I was looking out over a group of cadets, some of whom are going to be deployed in Afghanistan, and potentially some might not come back.

There is not a speech that I've made that hit me in the gut as much as that speech. And one of the mistakes that was made over the last eight years is for us to have a triumphant sense about war. There was a tendency to say, we can go in, we can kick some tail, this is some glorious exercise, when in fact this is a tough business.

Steve Kroft: Most Americans right now don't believe this war is worth fighting. And most of the people in your party don't believe this is a war worth fighting.

The President: Right.

Steve Kroft: Why did you go ahead?

The President: Because I think it's the right thing to do, and that's my job. If I was worrying about what polled well, there are a whole bunch of things we wouldn't have done this year.

Steve Kroft: Do you feel like you've staked your presidency on it?

The President: There are a whole bunch of things that I've staked my presidency on, right, that are tough and entail some risks, there are no guarantees, but that I'm confident we have addressed in the best possible way.

Steve Kroft: The West Point speech was greeted with a great deal of confusion.

The President: I disagree with that statement.

Steve Kroft: You do.

The President: I absolutely do. Forty million people watched it, and I think a whole bunch of people understood what we intend to do.

Steve Kroft: Well, it raised a lot of questions. And some people thought it was contradictory. That's a fair criticism.

The President: I don't think it's a fair criticism. I think that what you may be referring to is the fact that, on the one hand, I said, we're going to be sending in additional troops now. On the other hand, by July 2011, we're going to move into a transition phase where we're drawing our troops down. There shouldn't be anything confusing about that.

First of all, that's something that we executed over the last two years in Iraq, so I think the American people are familiar with the idea of a surge.

In terms of the rationale for doing it, we don't have an Afghan military right now, a security force, that can stabilize the country. If we are effective over the next two years, that then frees us up to transition into a place where we can start drawing down.

Now, the other point of confusion I think that at least the press has identified is this notion of, well, what happens on July of 2011?

Steve Kroft: Right. What does happen?

The President: And what I've said is that we then start transitioning into a drawdown phase. How many U.S. troops are coming out, how quickly, will be determined by conditions on the ground.

Steve Kroft: So if the situation is not going well in July of 2011, you could decide -- and I'm not making light of this -- to send home the band and a couple of Civil Affairs units and nonessential units and keep as many combat people on the ground as are necessary to perform the mission?

The President: Well, look, as commander in chief, obviously I reserve the option to do what I think is going to be best for the American people at that point in time and our national security. But we will know, I think, by the end of December 2010 whether or not the approach that General McChrystal has discussed in terms of securing population centers is meeting its objectives.

And if the approach that's been recommended doesn't work, then, yes, we're going to be changing approaches.

Steve Kroft: Why set a deadline? I mean, Senator McCain, most prominently --

The President: And the answer is that, in the absence of a deadline, the message we are sending to the Afghans is, it's business as usual, this is an open-ended commitment. And very frankly, there are, I think, elements in Afghanistan, who would be perfectly satisfied to make Afghanistan a permanent protectorate of the United States, in which they carry no burden, in which we're paying for a military in Afghanistan that preserves their security and their prerogatives.

That's not what the American people signed on for when they went into Afghanistan in 2001. They signed up to go after al Qaeda.

Steve Kroft: The main reason we're doing this is al Qaeda. Why send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan? Because according to your government's own estimates, there are maybe fewer than 100 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, that the rest are in Pakistan and the tribal territories.

The President: What you have here between the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan is the epicenter of violent extremism directed against the West and directed against the United States. This is the heart of it. This is where bin Laden is. This is where its allies are. It's from here that you see attacks launched, not just against the United States, but against London, against Bali, against a whole host of countries.

Steve Kroft: And half of this territory is in Afghanistan.

The President: Half of this territory is in Afghanistan, half of it is in Pakistan. Ultimately, in order for us to eradicate the problem, to really go after al Qaeda in an effective way, we are going to need more cooperation from Pakistan. There is no doubt about that.

Steve Kroft: You're a student of history. The British lost the Revolutionary War, and the Americans lost the Vietnam War, in spite of the fact that they won almost all of the major battles. They lost it because it got to be too expensive, it was too far away, and not enough people cared about it. Aren't you facing some of those same problems right now?

The President: I think what is true is that if we have an open-ended commitment in a place like Afghanistan, with no clear benchmarks for what success means, that the American people, who have just gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, who have already endured eight years of war, at some point are going to say, enough, and rightly so.

Steve Kroft: In Afghanistan, I mean, you can make the argument that it's not even really a country, that it's a collection of tribes, and it is run really by a very corrupt government, some of whose major figures are alleged to be involved in the drug business, including the brother of the president. How are you going to deal with this?

The President: [Laughs.] Look --

Steve Kroft: How are you going to do this?

The President: Look, Steve, I mean, the reason I laugh is because this is really hard, and there's not a question you ask that I haven't asked in meetings and that I don't ask myself. I don't have the luxury of choosing between the ideal and what exists on the ground. I have to make decisions based on how, given where we are right now, how do we get to the best possible place.

Steve Kroft: Okay, let's change the subject.

The President: Okay, why not?

Steve Kroft: Jobs.

The President: We can talk about Afghanistan some more. [Laughs.]

Steve Kroft: [Narration.] The president's frustration is understandable. While the economy is showing signs of growth and job losses may finally be bottoming out, the unemployment rate is still at 10 percent. This past week, he outlined a new jobs program built around tax breaks for small businesses, more infrastructure projects for local and state governments and cash rebates for people to make their homes more energy efficient.

The President: What I'm interested in is a targeted jobs package that can help to boost what's already taking place. Companies are already starting to hire again. Is there a way to boost their confidence? And I think there is.

Steve Kroft: [Narration.] The president hopes to subsidize the job program and pay down some of the deficit with the billions of dollars being returned to the government under the TARP program. Some Wall Street banks have now recovered to the point where they can not only afford to pay back the loans, but once again hand out huge bonuses to their employees. At three of the biggest banks, they're expected to total $30 billion. That's roughly what it will cost the government to finance the surge in Afghanistan. And President Obama is furious.

The President: I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat-cat bankers on Wall Street. The only ones that are going to be paying out these fat bonuses are the ones that have now paid back that TARP money and are --

Steve Kroft: Do you think that's why they paid it back so quickly?

The President: I think, in some cases, that was a motivation, which I think tells me that the people on Wall Street still don't get it. They don't get it. They're still puzzled, why is it that people are mad at the banks? Well, let's see. You know, you guys are drawing down 10 (million dollars), $20 million bonuses after America went through the worst economic year that it's gone through in decades, and you guys caused the problem, and we've got 10 percent unemployment? Why do you think people might be a little frustrated?

Steve Kroft: Do you think that they've made some of these bonuses based, in part, on the generosity and policies of the United States government to help put the financial system back on its feet?

The President: I think there is no doubt about it. And what's most frustrating me right now is you've got these same banks, who benefited from taxpayer assistance, who are fighting tooth and nail with their lobbyists up on Capitol Hill, fighting against financial regulatory reform.

Steve Kroft: Why is it taking so long?

The President: Well, everything appears to take long in Congress. We can talk about health care when you want. [Laughs.] This is democracy in action.

Steve Kroft: You mentioned Congress and health care. You ran for office based on the fact that you were going to try and reform the system. You wanted to change the status quo in Washington.

Then you came in and you turned over your top priority, health care, to the Congress.

The President: That's not true.

Steve Kroft: Five hundred thirty-five -- well, you laid out what you wanted, and you set the guidelines --

The President: Right, exactly.

Steve Kroft: -- and then stood back and turned it over to 535 people, who produced a 2,000-page bill that is --

The President: What?

Steve Kroft: Well, I haven't read it so --

The President: Finish your thought, Steve.

Steve Kroft: -- I can't really -- I'd say, some people think is incomprehensible.

Not very many people have read it. I've not met anybody who's read it.

The President: Steve, look, look, let's be clear here. Seven presidents have tried to reform a health-care system that everyone acknowledges is broken. Seven presidents have failed, up until this point. We are now that close to having a bill that does all the things that I said and most experts said needed to be done when we started this process. It is not only deficit-neutral but will actually bring down the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Steve Kroft: You think it's going to pass.

The President: Yes.

Steve Kroft: Do you think it's going to pass before Christmas in the Senate?

The President: I think it is going to pass out of the Senate before Christmas.

Steve Kroft: Are you going to be involved in that process?

The President: I've been involved the whole time.

Steve Kroft: [Narration.] At that point, we thought the interview was over, and then our executive producer suggested one more question.

Steve Kroft: [On camera.] The gate crashers --

The President: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: By now, you must know that --

The President: It's really a shame that I had to go through a whole "60 Minutes" interview without talking about the gate crashers. [Laughter.] Good catch.

Steve Kroft: You must know -- you must know what happened. Can you share that with us?

The President: I think that what I know is what everybody knows, which is that these people should not have gotten through the gate.

Steve Kroft: Were you unhappy with your social secretary?

The President: I was unhappy with everybody who was involved in the process. So it was a screw-up. Now, I don't think that, from a policy perspective, this was the most important thing or even the fifth or sixth most important thing that happened this week, although it got the most news.

Steve Kroft: Were you angry when you found out about it?

The President: Yes. That's why I --

Steve Kroft: Seriously angry, correct?

The President: Yes. That's why it won't happen again.


Barack Obama, Interview With Steve Kroft on CBS' "60 Minutes" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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