Barack Obama photo

Interview with Steve Kroft of CBS News' "60 Minutes"

September 21, 2008

KROFT: This is the biggest financial crisis this country has had, a lot of people say, since the Great Depression.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: What caused it? Who's to blame?

OBAMA: Hey, look, there were a lot of factors involved. But I think there is no doubt that if we had had a regulatory system that had kept pace with the changes in the financial system, that would have had an enormous impact in containing some of the problems that are out there. I mean, you've got greedy CEOs and investors who are taking too much risk. But that's why we set up rules of the road, to prevent that from spreading into the system as a whole. And, unfortunately, we had a lot of deregulation. And instead of modifying the rules for this new economy, we just eliminated them. So we've got to change our regulatory system. But, Steve, there's a bigger problem. And that is that the economy has not been working for ordinary Americans.

KROFT: Senator McCain made some of the same noises this week, blaming Wall Street greed, promising reform and oversight, and new regulations to protect investors. What's the difference between the two of you?

OBAMA: Well, the difference is, I think, that I've got a track record of actually believing in this stuff. And, you know, Senator McCain, fairly recently, said, "I'm a deregulator." It's one of his top chief economic advisors was Phil Gramm , who was one of the architects of deregulation in this sector. And he's always taken great pride in believing that we have to eliminate regulations.

KROFT: Really in some ways, this past week has been historic.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

KROFT: Do you think that Secretary of Treasury Paulson has done the right thing?

OBAMA: I think by the time Secretary Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke were looking at these problems, they had no good options left.

KROFT: Should the government be bailing out all of these banks and insurance companies? We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars.

OBAMA: I think that our basic principle has to be that you don't bail out shareholders. You don't bail out CEOs who are getting golden parachutes and $100 million bonuses. That you are doing everything you can to protect taxpayers, making sure that people are able to stay in their homes, and that their mortgages don't go overboard because of bad decisions that other people make.

KROFT: You think we're in a recession?

OBAMA: Oh, I think there's no doubt that we're gonna see, when the numbers come out, that we are officially in recession. I think, for a lot of people, they've been feeling like we've been in a recession for years now. When their wages and incomes don't go up, and the cost of gas and groceries and home heating oil and prescription drugs are all going up, that feels awfully like a recession to them.

KROFT: Do you think the worst is over?

OBAMA: It's hard to say.

60 Minutes spoke with Sen. Obama on Wednesday in Elko, Nev., a heavily Republican mining town of less than 20,000 people in a remote corner of this battle ground state. The town is lined with casinos, Basque restaurants, and legal brothels. It is not the kind of place you would expect to find a presidential candidate with 47 days left till the election. But Obama has been here three times, hoping to scrounge a few thousand votes that could help him carry Nevada and put him in the White House. The election is that close.

"John McCain actually said that if he's president, he'll take on and I quote, the ol' boys network in Washington. I am not making this up. This is someone who's been in Congress for 26 years The ol' boy network? In the McCain campaign, that's called a staff meeting. Come on," Obama told the crowd in Elko.

The Wall Street debacle had stalled the post-convention momentum of Sen. McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, and brought Obama's strongest issue, the economy, back to center stage. And Obama is trying everything he can to keep it there.

KROFT: This is the most aggressive speech I've seen you a while.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: What changed?

OBAMA: Well, partly, it's just, we're getting closer to the election. Partly, as you will recall, we, for several weeks, were putting up with a lot of silliness from the other side. Britney Spears ads, we were talking about lipstick and pigs, and one of the things that we felt very strongly was that we had to make the contrast between John McCain's economic agenda and ours very clear.

KROFT: You've been running for 18 months on the topic of change.

KROFT: I mean, they've gotten some traction.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: Particularly with women. Last time I talked to you, Sarah Palin was a name.

KROFT: How did she change the race?

OBAMA: You know, look. She's a skilled politician. I think she was an unexpected choice, which is always fascinating for the media. She sort of came out of nowhere. And so, it gave, I think, the McCain campaign some energy, a boost. Over time, people want to know, what are the policies? And the policies of John McCain haven't changed since Sarah Palin was named as the vice-presidential candidate.

With that, he waded back in the crowd to try and find the person who was yelling at him. It turned out to be an African-American woman. She wanted to tell Obama that she had just lost her husband of 70 years, and that he tried to live long enough to vote for him.

The candidate was riding a resurgence in the polls, at least for the time being, although they still show a weakness with white working class voters and significant concerns about his lack of executive experience.

KROFT: Why do you think you'd be a good president?

OBAMA: Well, I think that when you think about the challenges we face, these are challenges that require us to look forward and not backwards; when it comes to the economy I think we have to realize that we are now in a global economy.

KROFT: Why you? I mean, why do you think you would be a good president?

OBAMA: Well, I was gonna get to that.

KROFT: All right.

OBAMA: I think both by training and disposition. I understand where we need to take the country.

KROFT: But what is there specifically about you. You mentioned disposition. What skills and traits do you have that would make you a good president?

OBAMA: I am a practical person. One of the things I'm good at is getting people in a room with a bunch of different ideas who sometimes violently disagree with each other and finding common ground, and a sense of common direction. And that's the kind of approach that I think prevents you from making some of the enormous mistakes that we've seen over the last eight years.

KROFT: Suppose you wake up on the day after the election, the president-elect of the United States. What are you gonna do? I mean, how are you gonna govern? ...You've never run anything. And now, all of a sudden, you're in charge of...running the United States.

OBAMA: Look, if the question is executive experience, then Senator McCain and I are on equal footing. If people want to know what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I'm gonna tell them, "We need to find a way to bring this war in Iraq to a close. And we want to do it safely and protect our troops. But we are gonna get it done because we can't keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when the Iraqis themselves aren't taking responsibility. "And we have to refocus our attention on Afghanistan."

The second thing I'm gonna do is we're gonna pull together a working group, including our treasury secretary, and everybody involved in our economy, and we are gonna make an assessment of where are we? What do we need to do in terms of stabilizing the financial markets and the housing markets?

Third thing we're gonna do is we're gonna finally have an energy proposal that has moved through Congress that includes increasing production, but also make sure that we are making this economy more energy efficient.

Fourth thing we're gonna do is get moving on a health care plan that finally provides people health insurance at affordable rates. The people who know me, the people who've worked with me and for me understand that I know how to make things run and get things done. Otherwise I wouldn't be here, sitting, having this interview with you. It's not just because, you know, I can give a good speech once in a while.

Friday in Coral Gables, Fla., Obama was surrounded by a financial brain trust that includes three former treasury secretaries and a former Federal Reserve chairman who are advising him on the Wall Street crisis and on his ambitious and expensive economic agenda - $60 billion to create jobs improving infrastructure, $150 billion to develop alternative energy sources, and a similar amount for health care.

KROFT: The McCain campaign, right now, is characterizing you as just another big spending liberal. And that, as a result of this, who wants to raise taxes.

OBAMA: Right. They're wrong. And I think they're being deliberately misleading. Under my tax plan, 95 percent of American workers would get a tax cut. Ninety-five percent. If you are making less than $250,000, you would not see a single dime of tax increase. Not on anything.

KROFT: And at what level would the tax break start to kick in? Salary-wise?

OBAMA: I would say if you are making $150,000 a year or less, you are definitely getting a tax cut under my plan. Between 150 and 250,000 you're probably gonna stay roughly the same. It is true, if you make more than $250,000 a year you'll probably pay a slightly higher rate.

KROFT: Is it a good idea to be raising taxes at a time when the country seems to be broke?

OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, that we are cutting taxes for 95 percent of the people who are more likely to spend the money to go and put that money to work in a small business. Who are more likely to give a boost to the economy, a stimulus to the economy, at a time when it's needed.

The most expensive part of the Obama program is the health heath insurance plan, which would make coverage for children mandatory, and promises affordable government subsidized insurance to all Americans, with premiums based on a percentage of their income.

KROFT: How much is it gonna cost? $150 billion it's gonna cost, right?

OBAMA: It is. If it is. But we pay for every dime that we propose to spend. I believe in pay as you go. That if you want to propose a new program, you better cut some old ones. If you want to expand a program, then you better figure out where the money's coming from.

KROFT: So this is paid for with the increased taxes on people who make more than 250,000...dollars a year.

OBAMA: It's rolling back the Bush tax cuts. It's closing corporate tax loopholes. But look, I don't make a claim that we are going to be able to eliminate our deficit within my first term as president.

KROFT: Right now it's, what, 400...

OBAMA: It's a lot.

KROFT: ...billion.

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: Is it gonna go up under an Obama administration?

OBAMA: No. It's gonna go down. But it's not gonna go away. Because we dug ourselves a deep hole.

KROFT: Iraq. When we talked to you the first time, back in February of 2007, you had proposed, at that time, a piece of legislation that would have had all the troops out in 16 months. Which means they would have been out by today, if it would have been passed. We would have missed the surge. We would have missed the reduction in violence.

OBAMA: Oh, wait, wait, wait, Steve. I mean, now you're just engaging in a huge hypothetical. We don't know what would have happened if we had initiated the plan that I put forward at the beginning of 2007. And the fact of the matter is that, as successful as our troops have been in lowering the violence in Iraq, and they have performed brilliantly. But the truth of the matter is we still don't have an oil agreement. We still don't have provincial elections. The commanders on the ground themselves acknowledge that the political progress that's needed has not been made. So we all welcome the reduction in violence, but the notion that somehow this was the only way for us to solve the problem, and that the problem has been solved, I completely disagree with.

KROFT: The McCain campaign, the last day or two, has been running nothing but ads talking about you and the surge...that you were opposed to the surge.

OBAMA: That's all they had to talk about. You notice that, according to the McCain mythology, I guess the Iraq war started with the surge. They seem to forget that there were five years before that where they got everything wrong, where they anticipated that we would be greeted as liberators. Where they said this would be easy. These are John McCain's quotes. That this would all pay for itself. Because the Iraqi oil revenues would more than cover it. The fact of the matter is that John McCain has been consistently wrong on Iraq. And now's the time for us to bring this to a close. Even the Iraqi prime minister and the Iraqi government recognize it's time to have a time frame. The Bush administration has talked about time horizons. And John McCain, moving forward, is the only one who stubbornly clings to reasons to stay in Iraq.

Obama wants to move an additional 7, 000 troops to Afghanistan, where he says the military situation is rapidly deteriorating.

KROFT: You were one of the first people to say that the United States ought to follow the Taliban and al Qaeda back into the tribal territories of Pakistan.

OBAMA: Here's what I said. We can't tolerate al Qaeda having base camps and safe havens where they are planning attacks against U.S. targets. That's not acceptable. If we have a high value al Qaeda target in our sights, then we need to make sure that if the Pakistanis are unwilling or unable to go after them, that we do. That's common sense. And I think that's appropriate.

KROFT: Is a nuclear-armed Iran a direct threat to the United States?

OBAMA: Yes. I think that a nuclear armed Iran is not just a threat to us, it's a threat to Israel. And it is a game changer in the region. It's unacceptable. And that's why I've said that I won't take any options off the table, including military, to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But I do think that it is important for us to use all the arrows in our quiver. And we have not applied the kind of tough diplomacy over the last eight years that I think could have made a difference.

Like Sen. McCain, Barack Obama's life has been unconventional - and in many ways just as inspiring - community organizer, law professor, legislator, best selling author, U.S. senator. Born 47 years ago, to a white mother and a father from Kenya who were both students at the University of Hawaii, he was raised under modest circumstances by white family members and left to struggle with his own identity.

KROFT: Senator McCain talks a great deal about his experience as a prisoner of war. And how it has shaped him. What are the things, or what is the thing, that has shaped you?

OBAMA: Well, I don't think I can come up with something as powerful and unique as the experience Senator McCain talks about as a POW. You know, he deserves extraordinary thanks for his service while in uniform.

The story for me is of being born into pretty humble circumstances. Not having a dad in the house. But having a mother and grandparents who loved me. Who instilled in me some pretty, you know, Midwestern Kansas values of hard work and stick-to-it-ness, and honesty and looking out for other people. And what's shaped me most powerfully, maybe because I'm half black and half white-that a big chunk of my childhood, I was sort of an outsider, didn't quite fit anywhere. Part of what shapes me is being able to find a connection with all kinds of different people, and want to bring them together and bridge misunderstandings, and bridge conflict, so that we can actually get things done. And that, I think is something that led me into public service. And in some ways, that's something very profoundly American about me. Because when I think about America, at its core, we've got these common values. But we come from all kinds of different places. And if we can unify around those values, that are quintessentially American values, then I don't think there's any problem that we can't solve in this country. And that's the kind of leadership that I want to provide for the White House.

And Senator Obama took a large step toward that goal last month in Denver when he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination, and admitted backstage that he'd overcome some long odds.

KROFT: Did you ever doubt it was gonna happen?

OBAMA: Of course.

KROFT: When?

OBAMA: Well, let's see. About a year ago we were down 30 in Iowa. But I never doubted that it could happen.

KROFT: When we did our very first interview, and I asked you, "Do you think the country's ready for a black president," you said that you didn't think it would hold you back. That if you don't win this race it will be because of other factors. Do you still believe that?

OBAMA: Yes. I believe it even more now. We're only 47 days out and I'm still here. Yeah.

KROFT: I know, for a fact, that there are a lot of people out there, there are a lot of people right here in Elko, who won't vote for you because you're black. I mean, there's not much you can do. But how do you deal with it? I mean, are there ways that, from a political point of view, that you can deal with it? And how do you fight that?

OBAMA: Well, look there is a historic aspect to this candidacy. There's no doubt about it. We haven't had an African-American nominee, much less president, before. So, you know, this is something new for America. But what I know is this: after the toughest primary in history, against one of the best fields in history, I emerged as the nominee. Going up against a very formidable Republican machine, and having been subject to constant attack and millions of dollars spent trying to scare people over the last two months, I'm still tied or in the lead with John McCain.

That tells me that the American people are good. That they are judging me on my ideas and my vision my values, and not my skin color. Now are there gonna be some people who don't vote for me because I'm black? Of course. There are probably some African-Americans who are voting for me because I'm black. Or maybe others who are just inspired by the idea of breaking new ground. And so I think all that's a wash. The bottom line is am I viewed as somebody who's gonna be a champion for the guy who's waking up every day, working hard for a paycheck? And I'm confident that if they think I can help them, that I've got a shot at getting their vote. And it may take a little more work on my part. But I don't mind working harder than the other guy.

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

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