Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press"
RUSSERT: Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
OBAMA: Thank you, Tim. Always great to be here.
RUSSERT: The Wall Street Journal, NBC News went out and talked to viewers last week, asking them about the Democratic candidates, asking them to give marks, grades to the candidates. Likeability, this is what they said: Obama, 72; Hillary Clinton, 49, very strong grade. Then we asked knowledgeable and experience to handle the presidency: Clinton, 76; Obama, 41. These are members of your own party. Why are people in your own party skeptical about your knowledge and experience to be president?
OBAMA: Well, look at–I have not been on the national scene as long as some of the other candidates in this race, and so part of our job throughout this campaign is to give people some sense of what I've done before I got to Washington; what I did as a constitutional law professor, as a civil rights lawyer, as a state legislator. And what we discover is when people actually find out my track record, they're pleasantly surprised. And so that's why our focus on the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire's been so important, because we can interact much more intimately with people and give them a sense not only about my track record but also my vision for the future.
RUSSERT: Hillary Clinton was first lady in Arkansas, first lady at the White House for eight years, U.S. senator for seven years. Can you compete with that?
OBAMA: Well, you know, if you're comparing how long I've been in public office, I've actually been in public office longer than her. I think that Senator Clinton is a capable and, and intelligent person. I think she's been a fine senator from New York. But when it comes to the issues that are really moving the American people right now–healthcare, energy, how we deal with a shifting economy–those are all issues that I've been working with at every level of government.
RUSSERT: Mayor Giuliani said Obama, Clinton have never managed a city, managed a state, run a business, met a payroll. How can they possibly want the top executive job in the country?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I think I have shown through my legislative work my knowledge of the issues, my judgment and character, and those are the qualities that I think the next president is going to need. One of the things that I'm very clear about during the course of this campaign as I'm meeting voters all across the country is they don't expect the president to be the next chief operating officer. What they want is somebody who understands the struggles they're going through, is going to be thinking every day about how to make their lives better, has a grasp of the issues that not only Democrats, but Republicans and independents are worried are not being attended to in Washington. And if I provide that kind of leadership, I think that they will feel confident that I'm going to be able to do the job.
RUSSERT: Charles Rangel, the Democrat from Harlem, very important in the Democratic Party, was giving an interview. And he said, "I don't think on-the-job training is going to be a great asset for the next president of the United States." Question: "That's what we would have to have with Obama?" Rangel: "Of course."
OBAMA: Well, look, the only real training for the presidency is the presidency. I mean, the fact of the matter is it's a unique job, and every president who's ever taken that job acknowledged–acknowledges that that's the case. What right now I think the American people need is somebody who can bring the country together to overcome the gridlock that has become so pervasive in Washington. I think they need somebody who is willing to push against the special interests that have come to dominate the agenda in Washington. And maybe most importantly, what they are looking for is a president who can lay out in a honest and clear and convincing fashion what are the choices that we face? If we're serious about climate change, what does that mean in the lives of ordinary people? What decisions do we have to make, what costs and sacrifices are going to be involved? If we're serious about healthcare, how do we move a process forward that's transparent and accountable, so the drug and insurance companies aren't dominating the debate? Those are the questions I think people are going to be asking.
RUSSERT: A year ago, you were asked about Hillary Clinton. And this the exchange. "Where do you find yourself having the biggest differences with Hillary Clinton, politically?" Obama: "You know, I think very highly of Hillary. The more I get to know her, the more I admire her. I think she's the most disciplined–one of the most disciplined people I've ever met. She's one of the toughest. She's got an extraordinary intelligence." "She is–she's somebody who's in this stuff for the right reasons. She's passionate about moving the country forward on issues like healthcare and children. So it's not clear to me what differences we've had since I've been in the Senate." Do you still hold to that? There aren't any differences?
OBAMA: Well, I think that I, as I said earlier, I have admiration for Senator Clinton. I think she's a fine public servant. The reason I'm running is because I think we're in a unique moment in American history right now. The nation's at war; our planet is in peril. We've got a series of decisions that we're going to have to make. And I believe that I can more effectively than any other candidate in this race bring the country together, overcome some of the same old arguments that we've been having since the 1990s. I think I can reach out to Republicans and independents more effectively than any other candidate that...
RUSSERT: What arguments do you want to put behind you?
OBAMA: Well, look, when we think about, let's say, foreign policy, we have had a tendency to, to argue along the spectrum of you're either a hawk or a dove. Either you're willing to engage in military action and oftentimes think military action first and diplomacy second, or you're a dove, you've got post-Vietnam syndrome, you're suspicious of any military action. I think that the way we have to think about it is to say that right now we live in a dangerous world. There are times where we're going to need to act militarily. We should not hesitate to act on behalf of the national interest. But we have to understand that we've got more power than just the military at our, our disposal, and that's something, obviously, the Bush administration has forgotten.
Having the ability to focus on getting the job done, as opposed to getting embroiled in ideological arguments, which have become so common in Washington, I think, is going to be important for the next president, and that's what I intend to do as president.
RUSSERT: You had an exchange with The New York Times. It says here, "In an interview, Obama said Hillary Clinton was deliberately obscuring her positions for political gain. Asked if she had been fully truthful with voters about what she should do as president, Mr. Obama replied, 'No.'" On which issues has Hillary Clinton not been truthful?
OBAMA: Well, I think that what Senator Clinton's been doing is running what's considered a textbook Washington campaign, and what that says is that you don't answer directly tough questions. You don't present tough choices directly to the American people for fear that your answers might not be popular, you might make yourself a target for Republicans in the general election. So on Social Security, for example, she has maintained, it appears, that if we just get our fiscal house in order that we can solve the problem of Social Security. Now, we've got 78 million baby boomers that are going to be retiring, and every expert that looks at this problem says "There's going to be a gap, and we're going to have more money going out than we have coming in unless we make some adjustments now." Now, I think that Social Security is the single most important social program that we have in this country, and I want to make sure that it's there not just for this generation, but for next generations. So that means that we're going to have to make some decisions, and it's not sufficient for us to just finesse the issue because we're worried that, well, we might be attacked for the various options we present.
RUSSERT: But, Senator, you said last year–earlier this year that everything should be on the table for Social Security, including looking at raising retirement age, indexing benefits, and then suddenly you said, "No, no. Those aren't off–on the table; I'm taking them off the table."
OBAMA: Tim, that's not–that's not what I said. What I said was that I will convene a meeting as president where we discuss all of the options that are available. That doesn't mean that as president I will not have strong opinions on how we should move forward. And when you look at how we should approach Social Security, I believe that cutting retire–cutting benefits is not the right answer. I meet too many seniors all across the country who are struggling with the limited Social Security benefits that they have. That raising the retirement age is not the best option, particularly when we've got people who ware still in manufacturing. By the time they're 67, their bodies, oftentimes...
RUSSERT: But in May you said they would be on the table.
OBAMA: Well, when I–I am going to be listening to any ideas that are presented, but I think that the best way to approach this is to adjust the cap on the payroll tax so that people like myself are paying a little bit more and the people who are in need are protected. That is the option that I will be pushing forward. But, look, even as president I'm not going to be able to get this done by myself, and that means that I'm going to be listening to any other ideas out there. It doesn't mean, though, that I'm not going to have a strong position on it.
RUSSERT: But they would be on the table?
OBAMA: Well, I will listen to all arguments and the best options, finding out what is it going to take to close that gap. But what I'm going to continue to insist on is that the reason we need to fix it now is precisely to protect our senior citizens and maintain not only Social Security as a social insurance program, but also make sure that the benefits are sufficient so that we don't have seniors in need.
RUSSERT: When you say "raise the cap," right now you pay payroll tax on the first $97,500. If you increase that for people to pay Social Security tax on their full income, about 10 million people, some could pay as much as $5,000 a year more. How is that going to play in November?
OBAMA: Well, it–you know, I have not specified exactly how we would structure it. Conceivably, you might have the equivalent of a doughnut hole, although this one would be a good one, as opposed to the bad doughnut hole that Bush set up for, for prescription drugs where you have a gap between people who are of middle income and very wealthy people. But, look, I've, I've got a friend, Warren Buffett, you may know, the guy made $46 million last year. This is public information because he's concerned that he is paying a lower tax rate than anybody else in his office. And, you know, he has said, and I think a lot of us who have been fortunate are willing to pay a little bit more to make sure that a senior citizen who is struggling to deal with rising property taxes or rising heating bills, that they've got the coverage that they need.
RUSSERT: So you would not be afraid to say, "We have a problem with Social Security, and I'm willing to raise taxes on some to help address the?to fix it."
OBAMA: I, I, I believe that it is important for us to look at all the options, but I think that the best option would be to make sure that those who are in the best position to help solve this problem are willing to do so.
RUSSERT: A tax increase for some?
OBAMA: Well, tax increase for people like myself, probably.
RUSSERT: When you say that Hillary Clinton hasn't been truthful, her campaign–and others–will say, "What happened to the politics of hope?" You said that you didn't want to make each other look bad, that you didn't want to divide the country, divide the party. Is it consistent to say Hillary Clinton's not truthful and still embrace the politics of hope?
OBAMA: Tim, you know, the politics of hope doesn't mean hoping that people aren't going to point out differences between you and, and other candidates when it comes to positions. We have been consistent in not engaging in broadsides, not distorting people's records. Look, we're running for the presidency of the United States of America, not student council president. That means that the American people have a right to know what exactly we intend to do as president. And if I believe that one of my opponents is potentially going to take the party or the country in a direction that does not meet our challenges, does not take advantage of the opportunities that are available, I'm going to point it out.
RUSSERT: Last night, the Jefferson Jackson dinner here in Iowa, you spoke, and this an–a quick quote from your speech. Let's listen.
OBAMA: I am sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking and acting and voting like George Bush Republicans.
RUSSERT: "Talking and acting and voting like George Bush Republicans." Who's that?
OBAMA: Well, look, we know that too many Democrats, I believe, went along with George Bush when it came to the war in Iraq. In fact, of all the major candidates, I'm the only one who, in 2002, opposed the war in Iraq. I am concerned about the latest moves that the administration has been making with respect to Iran. And when, for example, Senator Clinton supported the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that suggests that we should structure our forces in Iraq with an eye toward blunting the influence of Iran in that country, that is, I think, a wrong message, not only to the world but also to the region, where we should be pursuing direct diplomacy. And so, on a series of issues, what I believe is that the Democrats have not stood forcefully against George Bush, they have not been clear about what an alternative foreign policy strategy would be, and, unless we present as a party a different vision about how we would approach national security, how we'd approach battling terrorism, I think that we are going to make ourselves vulnerable in the fall, and, more importantly, we're going to be doing a disservice to the American people.
RUSSERT: You were not in the Senate in October of 2002. You did give a speech opposing the war. But Senator Clinton's campaign will say since you've been a senator there's been no difference in your record. And other critics will say that you've not been a leader against the war, and they point to this: In July of '04, Barack Obama, "I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports. What would I have done? I don't know," in terms of how you would have voted on the war. And then this: "There's not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush's position at this stage." That was July of '04. And this: "I think" there's "some room for disagreement in that initial decision to vote for authorization of the war." It doesn't seem that you are firmly wedded against the war, and that you left some wiggle room that, if you had been in the Senate, you may have voted for it.
OBAMA: Now, Tim, that first quote was made with an interview with a guy named Tim Russert on MEET THE PRESS during the convention when we had a nominee for the presidency and a vice president, both of whom had voted for the war. And so it, it probably was the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party's nominees' decisions when it came to Iraq.
Look, I was opposed to this war in 2002, 2003, four, five, six and seven. What I was very clear about, even in 2002 in my original opposition, was once we were in, we were going to have to make some decisions to see how we could stabilize the situation and act responsibly. And that's what I did through 2004, five and six, try to see can we create a workable government in Iraq? Can we make sure that we are minimizing the humanitarian costs in Iraq? Can we make sure that our troops are safe in Iraq? And that's what I have done. Finally, in 2006, 2007, we started to see that, even after an election, George Bush continued to want to pursue a course that didn't withdraw troops from Iraq but actually doubled down and initiated the surge. And at that stage, I said, very clearly, not only have we not seen improvements, but we're actually worsening, potentially, a situation there. And since that time I've been absolutely clear in terms of the approach that I would take. I would end this war, and I would have our troops out within 16 months.
RUSSERT: Some involved in the anti-movement have said that in 2004, 2005, 2006 Barack Obama voted to fund the war. Every time there was a proposal to have a fixed date withdrawal you said no, it would be a slap in the face to the American troops, it may create bloodshed and more division, that American credibility was at stake, that you were not a leader in trying to stop the war until you ran for president and got to Iowa and got to New Hampshire and had a sense of the anti-war, war fervor in the Democratic base.
RUSSERT: Where was the leadership?
OBAMA: I, I, I disagree with that. You know, throughout I was a constant critic. The first hearing that I had was with Condoleezza Rice in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This was a few months after I had been sworn in as senator. And I told her at that point, we need to wind this war down. It is true that my preference would not be to end this war simply by cutting off funding. My preference would be for the president to recognize that we needed to change course, and that was what I continually pushed for. At the point where we realized the president was not willing to change course, I put forward a very clear timetable for when we should remove our troops. And, when that was vetoed, I then suggested that the only way to get the president to the table to negotiate how we're going to move in a different direction in Iraq is by not giving him a blank check when it comes to funding.
But, look, throughout this process my views have been consistent. The question has been, given the situation on the ground, how can I be most constructive not in scoring political points, but making sure that we have the best possible outcome after what I considered to be a tragic strategic mistake in the region.
RUSSERT: But you have changed in your support now of withdrawal. You have changed now in your support of cutting off funding.
OBAMA: But I haven't changed in my opposition to the war. Look, you know, at the time when we were trying to convene a government in Iraq that would work, it was important, I think, for me and others who opposed the war to hope for the best possible outcome in Iraq. You know, I've never rooted against success in Iraq, I've just been skeptical that this was the right approach for us to take. I have also been very clear throughout about why this was such a strategic mistake. The president now is talking about the grave threat that Iran faces, and he's absolutely right that Iran is a serious threat if they develop nuclear weapons, their support of Hezbollah and Hamas. The biggest beneficiary of our invasion of Iraq has been Iran. And it gives some sense of why we've got to have a president in the Oval Office who's making decisions not based on ideology, but based on knowledge of the region, based on the players that are involved, based on what's good for our long-term national security. And that's something that I believe I can provide as president.
RUSSERT: I had asked you in one of the debates whether you'd make a commitment to have all American troops out of Iraq by the end of your first term, and you said you couldn't do that. You said you had to fight al-Qaeda, had to make sure there was not genocide, try to secure the country. How, how many troops do you envision would have to remain in Iraq for some time to come?
OBAMA: Here's what I'd do as president: We can get one to two brigades out per month safely. At that pace, we would have all our combat troops out in about 16 months from the time we initiate it. I would like to see it start now. It is not clear that that's possible, given George Bush's posture. But 16 months from the time we initiate it, we could have our combat troops out.
The only troops I would have in Iraq would have a very limited mission. Number one, to protect our embassy and our civilian, diplomatic corps. I don't want Blackwater to be providing that security; I want our U.S. military to providing–to provide that security. I'm very skeptical about the use of private contractors when it comes to our national security. The only other mission, and this is a very narrow one, would be to engage in counterterrorism activity. If al-Qaeda in Iraq is reforming bases there, we should have the capacity to strike them. That would be it. Those would be the only troops that we would deploy.
RUSSERT: How many would that be?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I'm going to leave that up to the, the commanders on the ground, because my job is to set a clear mission for them. Their job is to then tell me, "This is what we need to achieve that mission."
RUSSERT: But, but–yeah, but we have 165,000 there now. Are we talking 150,000?
OBAMA: There, there–here's what I'll say, Tim. We will have the vast majority of the troops who are there gone. This war will be over; there will be no permanent bases. So when I hear, for example, others say, "I will have all troops out," well, the fact of the matter is who's going to protect our embassy? Who's going to protect our civilian forces? Are these folks suggesting that we're just going to leave them to wander around the streets and rely on the Iraqi military to do that? Obviously not.
And in–there is a difference, though, between myself and Senator Clinton on a couple of these issues. Number one, she hasn't given a firm timetable in terms of executing the withdrawal, and I think that's a problem. I think we have to provide certainty to the Iraqi leadership, so that they know that we are serious about changing course. She's also suggested that the mission on the ground would be more expansive than the one that I've envisioned. And that includes, by the way, at least in an article that she–an interview that she gave in March, that, for example, dealing with Iran and making sure they don't have influence in Iraq would be one of the missions of our military. I think that is a mistake, and so–because what, what happens is that then presents the possibility of a mission creep, an expansion that would involve more troops than I think is necessary.
RUSSERT: I want to talk about Iran, because there's been a discussion about a vote she cast that you mentioned earlier. Back in March there was a resolution in the Senate, and here's what it said: "The Secretary of State should designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a Foreign Terrorist Organization." And you voted for that. Now, The Washington Post analyzed your position and Senator Clinton's, and this is what they editorialized: "So is there any real difference between Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton on Iran? Mr. Obama contends that one distinction lies in Ms. Clinton's acceptance of language in the September 26, '07" "resolution that 'it is'" "'critical national interest of the United States' to stop Iran from creating a Hezbollah-like force in Iraq. Mr. Obama claims that such language is 'saber-rattling' that could be used by the Bush administration to justify an attack on Iran. This is hard to fathom. Not only is there no mention of the use of U.S." forces "in the resolution, but last year Mr. Obama gave a speech in which he said it 'is in our national interest to prevent' Iran or Syrian from using Iraq as 'a staging area from which to attack Israel or other countries.'"
So if you have the same concern about using–Iran using that as a staging area, you would have a position very similar to Senator Clinton's.
OBAMA: Well, the, the previous quote was directed specifically at the issue of Israel, and I make no apologies for making sure that we are thinking about our security interests in Israel. The primary difference between myself and Senator Clinton is that she believes that our force structure inside Iraq should, in part, depend on how we can prevent Iran from having influence inside of Iraq. And I think that is a mistake, particularly at a time when we know this administration has been itching to escalate the tensions between Iran and the United States.
Look, the–there's a broader issue at stake here, and that is how do we approach Iran? I have said, unlike Senator Clinton, that I would meet directly with the leadership in Iran. I believe that we have not exhausted the diplomatic efforts that could be required to resolve some of these problems–them developing nuclear weapons, them supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. That does not mean that we take other options off the table, but it means that we move forward aggressively with a dialogue with them about not only the sticks that we're willing to apply, but also the carrots. Are there inducements that we can put on the table–joining the World Trade Organization, over time normalizing diplomatic relations–giving them some sense that if they make the right decisions, if they change their behavior, then we will be willing to work with them as we would any other nation in a way that is mutually beneficial. That has not been tried. Not only has it not been tried, but reports indicate that it has been explicitly rejected by the Bush administration. That is a policy that I intend to change as president of the United States.
RUSSERT: This is what you said on Iran. "Senator Barack Obama says he would 'engage in aggressive personal diplomacy' with Iran if elected president," "would offer economic inducements and a possible promise not to seek 'regime change' if Iran stopped meddling in Iraq and cooperated on terrorism and nuclear issues."
If Iran did not stop meddling in Iraq, did not cooperate on terrorism issues, and did not stop development of their nuclear program, would, then, regime change be on the table for you?
OBAMA: I have repeatedly said I would not take military options off the table. I don't think any president can in any circumstance. What I have said is that until we have exhausted those efforts, then we are not doing what's right for the American people. And this–look, part of the reason it's important for us to talk to countries we don't like and leaders we don't like, it's not that I think that in a conversation with somebody like Ahmadinejad that I'm going to somehow change his mind on everything, but what we do is, we send a signal to other leadership in Iran, to the Iranian people and to the world community that we are listening and that we are willing to try to resolve conflicts peacefully. That's the kind of work to repair our standing in the world that I believe the next president's going to have to engage in. We have to have a clear break with the Bush-Cheney style of diplomacy that has caused so many problems and has actually weakened our ability to deal with a very real terrorist threat.
RUSSERT: You've said this about Afghanistan and Pakistan: "I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance involving civilians. Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table." If Iran insisted on building their nuclear capability, you had your discussions, you had your negotiations, and they said, "Sorry, President Obama, we're going forward," would you then have a use of tactical nuclear weapons on the table?
OBAMA: Tim, I think it would be a mistake for me to talk about clear red lines. Here–here's what I can say, is that I will do whatever's required to keep the American people safe. That's my job as president, that's my job as commander in chief. Military tools are part of the tool kit that the president deploys. We have not been using the other tools that are available. That's what I intend to do as president of the United States. I will make certain that we are doing everything we need to do, not only to deal with Iran, but also to deal with the instability that we're seeing all across the region. And I think it's very important. I, I give Joe Biden credit in the last debate that we participated in to point out that you can't look at Iran in isolation from critical problems like Pakistan, from the problems that we're having in Afghanistan. We not–we know now that 2007 was the deadliest year for U.S. troops not just in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan. We have seen a tremendous rise in suicide bombings. We have seen that al-Qaeda has strengthened itself in the borders along Pakistan and Afghanistan. We've also seen the Taliban resurgent. And those are all issues that involve the kinds of complexity and effective diplomatic work that we just have not seen from the administration. I intend to provide it.
RUSSERT: In July, you were asked if you were willing to meet separately without pre-condition during your first year with Fidel Castro, Kim Jung Il, Hugo Chavez. You said yes. You stand by that?
OBAMA: I do. The–now, I did not say that I would be meeting with all of them. I said I'd be willing to. Obviously, there is a difference between pre-conditions and preparation. Pre-conditions, which was what the question was in that debate, means that we won't meet with people unless they've already agreed to the very things that we expect to be meeting with them about. And obviously, when we say to Iran, "We won't meet with you until you've agreed to all the terms that we've laid out," from their perspective that's not a negotiation, that's not a meeting. Preparation means that we are sitting down ahead of time, various lower-level diplomats and envoys, are sorting out what's the agenda going to be? Nuclear weapons has to be on the table. The issue of terrorism needs to be on the table. Incursions into Iraq that are affecting the safety of our troops, that needs to be on the table. Joining the World Trade Organization, that needs to be on the table. Once those items are on the table, then, yes, I would be willing to have a meeting to see if we can make progress on these fronts.
RUSSERT: You're not afraid of being used in a propaganda way?
OBAMA: You know, Tim, I–I've got to say I'm afraid of losing a propaganda war to somebody like Ahmadinejad. You know, strong countries and strong presidents speak with their adversaries. I–I always think back to J.F.K.'s saying that we should never negotiate out of fear, but we shouldn't fear to negotiate. We remain the most powerful nation, by far, on earth. Our military capacity is unequaled. We should not hesitate to go ahead and initiate the kinds of discussions that are required. Look at the progress we've made with North Korea. It's still uncertain. It still has to be verified. We shouldn't be trusting Kim Jung Il, but if you look at the kinds of progress we've made in terms of them being willing to stand down on their nuclear program through diplomacy and dialogue–and I will say, by the way, Chris Hill, the envoy from, from our side is, is one of the best diplomats out there–and you compare it to the lack of progress, in fact, the acceleration of their nuclear efforts during those years when the Bush administration was unwilling to talk to them, it's night and day. And we have to continue to apply the kind of intelligent foreign policy that, by the way, historically, has been bipartisan. I mean, this is not something unique to Democrats. You know, people like Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel in the Senate, who I think are excellent senators and really understand foreign policy, they, too, oppose the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, and, and they are the kinds of folks that I think represent a tradition where, you know, our foreign policy differences end at our borders and, and we are projecting the kind of strength, but also intelligence, that makes ultimately American more safe.
RUSSERT: We're going to take a quick break. A lot more of our conversation with Senator Barack Obama. He wants to be the Democratic nominee for president. Right after this, our 60th anniversary of MEET THE PRESS continues.
RUSSERT: More with Democratic hopeful Barack Obama live from Des Moines, Iowa, after this station break.
RUSSERT: And we're back in Des Moines, Iowa, with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Last night at the dinner you said we shouldn't be–tell people what they want to hear, but what they should hear.
RUSSERT: You've been talking a lot about lobbyists and money in politics. This is The Boston Globe in August: in eight–"Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate, from 1996 to 2004, almost two-thirds of the money he raised for his campaigns came from" political action committees, "corporate contributions," "unions, according to Illinois Board of Elections records. He tapped financial service firms, real estate developers, healthcare providers, oil companies, and many other corporate interests, the records show." You now talk about, "Well, I'm not taking any money from lobbyists." You do take money from state lobbyists. You took $1.5 million from federal lobbying–employees who work for federal lobbying firms. There seems to be a real inconsistency between the amount of money you raise and where it's coming from, and your rhetoric.
OBAMA: Well, Tim, look, I, I have said repeatedly that money is the original sin in politics and I am not sinless. I have raised money in order to bankroll my campaigns. But what I have been consistent about is fighting to reduce the influence of money in politics at every level of government. I am the only candidate in this race who has really pushed hard to reduce the influence of lobbyists. When I was in the state legislature, I passed the first campaign ethics reform legislation in 25 years. When I was in the United States Senate working with Russ Feingold, we passed the toughest ethics reform since Watergate–eliminating meals, eliminating gifts, eliminating the use of corporate jets by congressmen when they're given by lobbyists. So I've got this track record, and the way I'm conducting this campaign, I think, reflects that interest in reducing money in politics.
RUSSERT: But it's all new. You did it all this...
OBAMA: No, no, no, no, no. As I said, Tim, this interest, this support of public financing of campaigns, the support of changing the ethics rules, promoting robust disclosure when it comes to how campaigns are financed, those are all laws that I have written and I have passed. So my commitment extends beyond just not taking lobbyists' money and taking PAC money. It's absolutely true that, in the past, there have been times where I received lobbyist and PAC money. But the interest in reducing money in politics is one that has been consistent and that I have consistently fought against. And that, I think, is the kind of track record, of being willing to take on not only Republicans, but oftentimes taking on leaders in my own party who are resistant to change that I think gives me credibility to say when I am president I am actually going to take this seriously and use my political capital to deal with it.
RUSSERT: But if you say you don't take federal lobbyist but you take state lobbyist money...
OBAMA: Well, Tim...
RUSSERT: ...or you take money from people who work for federal lobbying firms, or you take $2 million from people who work on Wall Street or hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who work in pharmaceutical companies, isn't it just a word game?
OBAMA: Tim, I mean, this is the problem when you want to try to fix Washington is if you take certain steps to improve the process, then people will say, "Well, it's not perfect." Well, of course it's not perfect. That's the problem for running for president right now is you've got to raise millions of dollars in order to compete. We've got more small donors than every other candidate on the Democratic side combined. We have set out admittedly imperfect rules to try to reduce the influence of money in politics. But you are absolutely right. Most of the people that are writing $2300 checks are wealthy people, and that's one of the problems with our political system. That's something that I am intent on changing, and I've got a track record of actually bringing about change that I believe nobody else has.
RUSSERT: You talked about Senator Clinton having records released from the Clinton Library regarding her experience as first lady, and yet when you were asked about, "What about eight years in the state senate of Illinois," you said, "I don't know." Where, where are the–where are your records?
OBAMA: Tim, we did not keep those records. I...
RUSSERT: Are they gone?
OBAMA: Well, let's be clear. In the state senate, every single piece of information, every document related to state government was kept by the state of Illinois and has been disclosed and is available and has been gone through with a fine-toothed comb by news outlets in Illinois. The, the stuff that I did not keep has to do with, for example, my schedule. I didn't have a schedule. I was a state senator. I wasn't intending to have the Barack Obama State Senate Library. I didn't have 50 or 500 people to, to help me archive these issues. So...
RUSSERT: But your meetings with lobbyists and so forth, there's no record of that?
OBAMA: I did not have a scheduler, but, as I said, every document related to my interactions with government is available right now. And, as I said, news outlets have already looked at them.
RUSSERT: Is your schedule available anywhere? Are–the records exist?
OBAMA: I–Tim, I kept my own schedule. I didn't have a scheduler.
RUSSERT: Senator Durbin, your colleague, publishes his schedule each day. Would you do that?
OBAMA: Well, you know, these days I have a public presidential schedule that I think everybody has access to.
RUSSERT: Tony Rezko, who is he?
OBAMA: He is a developer in Illinois. He was a friend of mine for, for over 10 years. He was, he was a supporter of Democrats and Republicans back in Illinois. He was indicted recently for issues completely unrelated to me, but obviously it's a source of concern because he's not only a friend but also a supporter of my campaign.
RUSSERT: It appears that he raised or contributed about $168,000 for you over the course of your career...
OBAMA: Over the course of my political career. Correct.
RUSSERT: ...and that he was always there to be very helpful to you at certain times. And when you bought property adjacent to each other, you bought land from him to expand your backyard.
RUSSERT: This was all after he had been–it had been reported he was under federal investigation.
RUSSERT: Why were you associating with such a person?
OBAMA: The, the purchase of the land was after he–it was reported that he was under federal investigation. The support that he gave to my campaign prior to that, at that point any problems that came up had not surfaced. I've already acknowledged this was a mistake. Not only should I not have been involved in any business transaction with him, in particular, but with contributors generally. But keep in mind, Tim, that there was no evidence of wrongdoing. This was a above-the-board market-based transaction. Everybody who's looked at has acknowledged as such. But there's no doubt that it was a mistake on my part.
RUSSERT: Is he still your friend?
OBAMA: You know, I have not talked to him since he got into trouble with the law.
OBAMA: Never had a conversation with him.
RUSSERT: Let me ask you about the issue of gay marriage. John Lewis, who you called a living saint, said this: "I've heard reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distortions and they stink of the same fear, hatred and intolerance I've known in racism and in bigotry.
"Some say let's choose another route and give gay folks some legal rights, but call it something other than marriage. We've been down that road before in this country. Separate is not equal. The rights of liberty and happiness belong to each of us and on the same terms without regard to either skin color or sexual orientation." You agree?
OBAMA: Well, look, here's what I believe. John Lewis is–his sentiments are exactly right that we have to provide equal rights for gays and lesbians in this country, and I have consistently fought for that. I was a co-sponsor of the human rights ordinance in Illinois that eliminated discrimination on the job, in housing and other areas for gays and lesbians in Illinois. I have championed every single piece of legislation that would expand the same rights to gays and lesbians. I have not said that I was a supporter of gay marriage, but I am a strong supporter of civil unions, and I would, as president, make absolutely certain that all federal laws pertaining to married couples–benefits pertaining to married couples are conferred to people who–same sex couples who have civil unions as well.
RUSSERT: And yet you had a group of supporters on a Bible tour in South Carolina headed by a singer called Donnie McClurkin...
RUSSERT: ...who said that homosexuality was a curse and that he had been cured by prayer. Do you believe homosexuality's a curse?
RUSSERT: Do you believe that it is something that you are born gay and that–or that you can change your behavior?
OBAMA: I do not believe being gay or lesbian is a choice. And so I disagree with Reverend McClurkin. But understand, Tim, part of what I hope to offer as president is the ability to reach to people that I don't agree with, and the evangelical community is one where the Democratic Party, I think, we have generally seen as hostile. We haven't been reaching out to them, and I think that if we're going to makes significant progress on critical issues that we face, whether it's education or healthcare or energy or our foreign policy in this country, we've got to be able to get beyond our comfort zones and just talk to people we don't like. And–or just talk to people we like, or people that we agree with on every single issue. And so when I–one of the things that I've tried to do is to reach out to the evangelical community and tell them very clearly where I disagree. I've talked to African-American ministers. There's a problem of homophobia in the African-American community. I will go into churches, I will go into meetings with ministers and say, "I disagree with you on these issues. This is not how I interpret my faith." But the fact that we're having a conversation, I think, allows the possibly that I will change their minds, make them more tolerant of these issues. They may not agree with me on this, but ultimately, it allows me to bridge some of the cultural divisions that have, I think, prevented us from making progress in this country for so long.
RUSSERT: We are here in Iowa. Your wife, Michelle Obama, has spent a lot of time campaigning here. And this is what she said. "Iowa will make the difference. If Barack doesn't win Iowa, it's just a dream." This is must-win.
OBAMA: Well, we want to–we have to do well in Iowa. Now, keep in mind when Michelle goes to New Hampshire or South Carolina, I think she says–you know, she probably says the same thing there. The early states are critical to us because, you know, I am not as well-known as Senator Clinton and some of the other candidates in this race. And my biography is not known, what I stand for is not known as well. What theses early states allow me to do is to not only present what my agenda is for change in this country, but also it allows me to listen and learn from the American people, and it has been a powerful journey traveling around places like Iowa, where, you know, you go to small rural towns, they've got the values that are–that, that have built this country, and yet they feel entirely forgotten. You know, they're working harder for less, they are having more trouble saving and retiring...
RUSSERT: But, Senator, it's must–it's must-win.
OBAMA: Oh, well, there–look, there is no doubt that we have to do well in Iowa. If we do not do well in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina...
RUSSERT: Race is over.
OBAMA: Yeah, well, I think that's true for any of the candidates. I, I don't know a candidate out there who thinks that they can lose Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina and still be successful.
RUSSERT: Do you believe that Hillary Clinton could win a, a November election?
OBAMA: Yes. You know, I'm not somebody who believes that she can't win. I believe that it's going to be harder for her to win, because I, I think a lot of voters go in with some preconceptions about her that are going to be very over–very difficult to overcome. And I also believe, more importantly, I don't–it's not just a matter of winning, it's can you create a new working majority for change? I want to provide health insurance to every single American. We can't do that with a 50 plus one majority. I want to get serious about climate change. We can't do that with a 50 plus one majority. I believe I've got a better chance of any other, other Democratic candidates to transform the political landscape in a way that has been done in the past.
RUSSERT: We will be watching. We thank you for joining us and sharing your views.
OBAMA: Tim, it was terrific being here.
Barack Obama, Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/278216