Barack Obama photo

Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press"

May 04, 2008

RUSSERT: Senator Obama, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

OBAMA: Thank you so much for having me.

RUSSERT: On Friday you said, "It's been a rough couple of weeks." An understatement. What has the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright done to your campaign?

OBAMA: Well, obviously it's distracted us. I mean, we ended up spending a lot of time talking about Reverend Wright instead of talking about gas prices and food prices and the situation in Iraq. And so it, it's, it wasn't welcome. But, you know, I think that the American people understand that when I joined Trinity United Church of Christ, I was committing not to Pastor Wright, I was committing to a church and I was committing to Christ. And it is a wonderful church. It's a member of the United Church of Christ, a denomination that dates back to the battles around abolition. It has lived out, I think the, the social gospel by dealing with poverty and providing shelter to the homeless and, and working on critical issues that make me very proud. And, as a consequence, when Reverend Wright, who married me and baptized our, our children, when he made those statements, or I learned of those statements that I found so objectionable, I, I felt that they didn't define him. And so I spoke in Philadelphia about these issues and tried to construct, you know, a, a conversation about issues of race. But when I saw, this week, him come out and speak in a way that was just as divisive, that didn't explain or apologize, but rather worsened some of the comments that he had made previously, I felt it was very important to make clear that that's not who I am, that's not who I stand for. I don't think it represented well the church or the African-American church. And I had to make a clear statement. Hopefully we've been able to put it behind us.

RUSSERT: You're still a member of the church?

OBAMA: I am.

RUSSERT: Why do you think he re-emerged?

OBAMA: You know, you'd have to ask him. I, I, I think that it's possible, as a consequence of him retiring, that having the spotlight was something attractive to him. It may--obviously, he felt that he had been attacked, and, and that's an understandable human emotion. But what I think he didn't recognize was that, that the very things that our church has advocated for--social justice, dealing effectively with issues like poverty--that those are the issues that are stake--at stake right now. And the only way we're going to solve them is to bring the country together. What he said did not bring the country together; it divided the country. It fed into all of the racial antagonisms and divisions that have haunted this country for so long, and, you know, I did not want to give a platform for that. I didn't want my presidential campaign to be associated with that, and that's what we tried to make clear this week.

RUSSERT: What is confusing to some people is why it took so long. This is what you said back in March in Philadelphia. Let's watch.


OBAMA: As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthens my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: And yet, less than five weeks later, you have said something much different. Let's watch that.


OBAMA: I am outraged by the comments that were made, and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.

They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans, and they should be denounced. And that's what I'm doing very clearly and unequivocally here today.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: What happened in those five weeks? Because you already knew, prior to the March speech, that he had suggested the U.S. government created the AIDS virus; you knew he went to Libya with Louis Farrakhan; you knew about his hate speech on September 11th, about the chickens coming home to roost and other things. What did you learn in those five weeks that you didn't know in March?

OBAMA: Well, you know, previously, there were a bunch of sermons that had been spliced from a collection of sermons for 30 years. And that's not who I thought he was. That's not what I thought defined him. He's somebody who's a Marine, he's somebody who has served on city colleges boards, somebody who was a respected pillar in the community. And so I thought it was important to--for him to explain or at least provide some context for some of the things that he had said previously. But when he came out at the press conference of the National Press Club, not only did he amplify some of those comments and defend them vigorously, but he added to it. He put gasoline on the fire. And what that told me was not only was he interested in using this platform to continue to make statements that I fundamentally disagree with and that offend me, but also that he didn't have much regard for the moment that we're in right now here in the United States where we can't be distracted or engaged in this divisive, hateful language. Instead, we've got to bring the country together to solve problems. And, so in that sense, what became apparent to me was he didn't know me as well as I thought he did, and I certainly didn't know him as well as I thought I did. And, and that, you know, was disappointing, but something that I had to clearly speak out about.

RUSSERT: The critics have said he can attack the United States of America, he can do all sorts of things that divide the country, but only when he made it politically uncomfortable for you did you finally separate himself from him.

OBAMA: Oh, I think it, back several weeks ago, it was already pretty politically comfortable, you know, when his statements were being looped on cable stations 24 hours a day for about five straight days. That was already politically uncomfortable, and--but, you know, I did what I thought was right, which was to denounce the words, not denounce the man.

You know, what, what really changed was a sense that he was going to double down on the statements that he had made before, and, and to me that told, that, that indicated to me that he was not--that he did not share my fundamental belief and my fundamental values in terms of bringing the country together and moving forward, and the pride that I've got for this country. And, you know, one thing that I want to make absolutely clear is that what's best about this country, what, what leads me to run for president is that we've been a force for good in the world. We have obviously made mistakes--and I spoke about this in Philadelphia--we have a tragic history when it comes to race. But that doesn't define us, and it certainly doesn't define me. And I don't want his words to somehow distract from what I think are the opportunities for us to move this country forward in, in ways that continue on the progress that we've made in the past.

RUSSERT: When you announced your candidacy back in February of '07 in Springfield...

OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...the same place Abraham Lincoln announced his candidacy--and we're showing it there on the screen--Reverend Wright was going to give the invocation, he was disinvited. He told The New York Times that you said to him, "You get kind of rough in the sermons, so we decided it's best for you not to be out there in public." And you cited a Rolling Stone interview...

OBAMA: Right.

RUSSERT: ...where he said that one of the essential facts about the U.S. is, "We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God." Now, that is so contrary to a speech I heard you gave yesterday about one nation, one people.

OBAMA: Right.

RUSSERT: So you knew in '07...

OBAMA: Right.

RUSSERT: ..."This guy's a problem. I have to keep him out of the spotlight involving my campaign."

OBAMA: Right. Sure.

RUSSERT: Why didn't you just say then, "You know, Reverend, we're going on different paths because this country does not believe in white supremacy and black inferiority."

OBAMA: Right. Well, my commitment, as I said, Tim, is to the church, not to a pastor. And I think that's shared by millions of people who are going to church this morning. You, you join a church community, and Reverend Wright helped build a wonderful church community, one that has been a pillar of good works in Chicago, and, you know, I feel a great loyalty to that church. Reverend Wright was going to be retiring in a year, and I thought it was important for me to maintain my commitment to that church.

RUSSERT: He said in a letter to The New York Times, he suggested that you apologized for not letting him do the invocation. Is that true?

OBAMA: Well, what happened was is that, you know, I was sorry that he felt, that he felt hurt by that decision. And, you know, that is--that may be a fault of mine that I own up to, which is, is that I'm concerned about how other people feel, particularly somebody who I've known for quite some time. But, but that doesn't detract from, you know, my belief that, ultimately, what he has represent--what he has been saying about the United States over the last several months and over the last several years, particularly some of the statements that I had not heard before, are contrary to who I am and what I stand for. And, look, I think it's important to, to put this in context, Tim. You know, I'm somebody who is born to a white mother and a, and an African father. It's in my DNA to believe that we can bring this country together and that the people are the same under the skin. And that's what I've been fighting for all my life, and, you know, the--to, to a large degree, everything that I've done as a community organizer, everything that I've done as a state legislator and a United States senator embodies those ideals that we can get people who look differently or speak differently or come from different experiences to recognize what they have in common. That is a set of principles that I think Reverend Wright was dismissing and diminishing, and that's why, ultimately, you know, I had to forcefully state how wrong I thought he was.

RUSSERT: You're new to the national political scene. Is it fair for people to raise questions about your judgment for misjudging Reverend Wright?

OBAMA: Well, I, I think it's fair for people to look at this episode along with all the other things that I've done over the last 20 years. You know, when you're running for president, your life's an open book, and I think that people have a right to flip the hood and kick the tires, and, and this is one element of a much larger track record that has led me to not only run for president, but to help build a movement all across the country to bring about change. I ultimately trust the American people that they'll put this in context and they'll say, "You know what? This is not who Barack Obama is. It's not what he stood for. It's not what he's said. It's not what he's written." And so I think a lot of people understand that, you know, you have people in your lives over periods of time. They change sometimes, they may go off in a different direction. Sometimes the rupture in relationships may be painful, but they're necessary. And, and that's what's happened here.

RUSSERT: You're done with him? If you're elected president, you won't seek his counsel?

OBAMA: Absolutely not. Now, I think it's important to keep in mind, Tim, that I never sought his counsel when it came to politics. And I--you know, some, some of the reporting that implies that somehow he's my spiritual advisor or mentor, as he himself said, overstated things. He was my pastor, and he built a terrific church. I'm proud of that church. We've got a wonderful young pastor who's there who's doing--continuing the terrific work that the church does. And that's my commitment. My commitments are to the values of that church, my commitment is to Christ; it's not to Reverend Wright.

RUSSERT: Could you have handled this better, differently, by severing your ties earlier? And what's the most important thing you've learned from this?

OBAMA: Well, when you're in national politics, it's always good to pull the Band-Aid off quick, and I think that's what, you know, the, the, the political consultants will tell you. But life's messy sometimes, and, you know, it's not always neat, and things don't proceed in textbook Political 101 fashion. And so, you know, when I reflect back, you know, what I'm proud of is that, in the speech in Philadelphia, I think I made a contribution to the overall dialogue about how we deal with race in America. And I think that me denouncing his words without denouncing him was, at the time, the right thing to do. You know, I'm, I'm sorry that he didn't see an opportunity for him to reflect on the justifiable anger and pain that he had caused and to maybe, you know, suggest to the American people that's not, that's not what he believed. But, clearly, you know, one of the things when you're running for president is that you don't have--all this stuff is happening under a spotlight, and you've got to deal with it quickly.

RUSSERT: You were in North Carolina on Tuesday, on Tuesday and talked about the tone of the campaign over the last few weeks. Let's listen.


OBAMA: The other candidates aren't talking about their ideas, they're talking about me. So they're talking about, they're, they're, they're talking about what, what--who, who is he? And do we know his values, and he's not wearing a flag pin right now and, you know, his former pastor said some crazy stuff.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: You basically are outlining the kind of ads that you anticipate being run against you. In 2004, John Kerry was swiftboated.


RUSSERT: People challenged his patriotism, challenged his record in the U.S. military. When independent groups, so-called, come after you in the fall...

OBAMA: Right.

RUSSERT: ...if you're the nominee...

OBAMA: Right.

RUSSERT: ...and they talk about the flag pin and about your wife Michelle's comment about being proud for the first time in her adult life as an American, and talk about Reverend Wright saying, "God damn America," and talk about standing at the national anthem at the steak fry and not putting your hand over your heart, all those things, challenging your patriotism...

OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...many superdelegates, undecided ones, have said to me, "Is he tough enough?"

OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: "How is he going to respond? How is he going to defend or define his patriotism?"

OBAMA: Right.

RUSSERT: What's the answer?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, you know, I have never challenged other people's patriotism. I haven't challenged Hillary Clinton's or John McCain's, and I will not stand by and allow somebody else to challenge mine. The fact that I'm running for president right now is an indication of how much I love this country, because it has given everything to me. This country has been a great source of good. I've lived overseas and seen the difference between America and what it stands for and what other countries oftentimes stand for and where they fall short. I've, I've said before, my story's not possible in any other country on earth. You know, when I think about this country, I think about my grandfather fighting in World War II in Patton's army; I think about my grandmother staying home--staying back and, and working on a bomber assembly line while she was raising a kid in--as, as they're coming out of a depression. And, and so this country is the--it defines, for me, what's possible for not just me, but for so many people who see this as a beacon of good, including my father, who originally came here seeking an education in this country. So I love this country. It is what I have been fighting for, a--that America lives up to its values and its ideals. And that's what I think the people of Indiana and that's what the people of North Carolina are looking for right now. What, what--they love this country as well, but what they've believe is that the values that have built this country, the belief in--that hard work is rewarded, that you can raise a family and have health care, and buy a home and retire with dignity and respect, that those things feel like they're slipping away. And what this campaign's about, what I think this moment is about in America is whether or not we are going to fight for those ideals that make this country great, and, and if we miss that opportunity, then I think we will be doing a disservice to future generations. So I'm happy to have a debate, an argument with the Republican Party or any of my opponents about what this country means, what makes it great. And what makes it great, ultimately, is its people and how the American people are able to live out their American dream. And right now, all too often Washington is failing in helping them to live out that American dream, and I--that's what I think this election's going to be about in November.

RUSSERT: The National Journal says that in 26 of the 29 contests you've been involved in you have lost white voters who do not have college degrees. How do you connect with them? What's wrong?

OBAMA: Well, you know, first of all, I think we got to give Senator Clinton some credit. I mean, she's a pretty formidable candidate, and she possesses the best brand name in Democratic politics. And her and her husband have been campaigning actively. People have fond memories of some of the work that they did in the '90s. And so the fact that she has won some of those contests in some demographic groups shouldn't be surprising. I mean, I'm the underdog. I, I came into this thing with everybody anticipating that we would be blown away. And if I was worrying about polls and, you know, some of this, some of this analysis, I probably wouldn't have gotten into the race in the first place. What's remarkable is how well we've done.

Now, what I do believe is that it is important for the American people to understand my story and how it connects to theirs. I think it's important for people to understand not only that I was raised by a single mom and, and my grandparents, and the values of hard work and decency and honesty that they've passed on to me, that those are values that are rooted in the heartland of America and small-town America. My, my wife, Michelle, you mentioned earlier, you know, when I think about her father, who worked as a shift worker for the city of Chicago, despite having MS, got up every single day and went to work, was able to raise a family and send his two kids to college and, and support a family of four on a single salary. I think about your father and the fact that, that your dad, Tim, looked nothing like Michelle's dad, but they lived that same American dream and, and they had those same core values. And those are the values of millions of people all across the country. And my job in this campaign is to communicate the fact that not only are those values at the core of what this country's about, not only are those values what make me patriotic, but those are the values that have to be fought for because that American dream is slipping away.

Those same individuals who are like Michelle's dad, who are like my grandparents, who are like your dad, they can't make it now doing the same things that they used to do. No matter how hard they work, they're falling behind. No matter how hard they work, they're at risk of losing their home or losing their pension. That's what this campaign's about, and that's what we've been fighting for, and, and that's why, ultimately, I'm confident not only are we going to win this nomination, but I also believe that we're going to win this general election because that is what the American people understand. Unless we are able to create the kinds of opportunities for ordinary Americans that have been slipping away over the last seven years, with wages and incomes actually going down even during an economic expansion, then, you know, we're not going to pass on the kind of America to our children that we want to.

RUSSERT: One issue that has really defined the two campaigns here in Indiana is this debate over gasoline...

OBAMA: Right.

RUSSERT: ...the price of it and whether there should be a tax holiday...

OBAMA: Right.

RUSSERT: ...from the federal taxes. This is Hillary Clinton's ad talking about you. Let's watch.

(Videotape of political ad)

Narrator: Now gas prices are skyrocketing, and she's ready to act again. Hillary's plan, use the windfall profits of the oil companies to pay to suspend the gas tax this summer. Barack Obama says no, again.

People are hurting, it's time for a president who's ready to take action now.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: Why are you against giving taxpayers in Indiana, North Carolina, a relief from federal gasoline tax this summer?

OBAMA: You're right, Tim, this defines, I think, the difference between myself and Senator Clinton. This gas tax, which was first proposed by John McCain and then quickly adopted by Senator Clinton, is a classic Washington gimmick. It, it is a political response to a serious problem that we have neglected for decades. Now, here's, here's the upshot. You're looking at suspending a gas tax for three months. The average driver would save 30 cents per day for a grand total of $28. That's assuming that the oil companies don't step in and raise prices by the same amount that the tax has been reduced. And, by the way, I have some experience on this because in Illinois we tried this when I was in the state legislature, and that's exactly what happened. The oil companies, the retailers were the ones who ended up benefiting.

RUSSERT: You voted for it, too.

OBAMA: I did. Exactly. And that...

RUSSERT: When gas was only $2 a gallon.

OBAMA: And, and that's my point. I voted for it, and then six months later we took a look, and consumers had not benefited at all, but we had lost revenue.

RUSSERT: So you learned from a wrong vote.

OBAMA: Yeah, I learned from a mistake. And, in addition, what happens is, is that this would come out of the Federal Highway Fund that we use to rebuild our roads and our bridges. And if we don't have that fund, then we're looking at thousands of jobs being lost in Indiana and in North Carolina.

Now, Senator Clinton says that she's going to use the windfall profits tax to fill it. First of all, she's already said that she's going to use the windfall profits tax for something else, as I have, and, and that is to invest in clean energy and, and other important measures. So that money, she's already spending twice. More importantly, nobody thinks that George Bush is actually going to spend--or is actually going to sign a law for windfall profits taxes, so that's not going to happen this summer.

So what this is, is a strategy to get through the next election. And Senator Clinton's own staff told The Washington Post, "We don't think this is really going to go anywhere. We don't think it's going to work, but we think it's a good issue to use in a campaign." And that's what Washington does. We, we, we don't deal with the serious issues that are in front of us, we try to figure out what's going to poll well and what can we do to get through the next election.

And what I've said is, look, people do need serious relief. They are, are getting hammered. I mean, people who--can't go on job searches because they can't fill up their gas tank. And so what I've said is, let's accelerate a--the second half of a tax stimulus proposal that I had put forward that would put, immediately, hundreds of dollars into people's pockets to get through the summer; let's pass a permanent middle-class tax cut, $1,000 per family, to offset the payroll tax to deal not just with rising costs of gas, but also rising costs of food, rising costs of prescription drugs; and, most importantly, let's invest in alternative fuels, raising fuel efficiency standards on cars, and let's get serious about reducing consumption of oil, which is the only way that, over the long term, we're going to reduce, we're going to reduce gas prices.

And, you know, I have to say that if Senator Clinton or John McCain had stood up in previous years for increases in fuel efficiency standards, in getting serious about a--an energy policy that is freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil, then we would not be in this same situation in the first place. And I don't want, 20 years from now, to have a bunch of politicians proposing a suspension of the gas tax holiday when gas is $8 or $10 a gallon because we failed to act now. Now is the time for us to act, and I think the people of Indiana and North Carolina understand that.

RUSSERT: It's a pander?


RUSSERT: Ethanol, very important to your state, very important to, to Iowa. Here's the reports on that. "Across the country, ethanol plants are swallowing more and more of the nation's corn crop. This year, about a quarter of U.S. corn will go to feeding ethanol plants instead of poultry or livestock. That has helped farmers ... but it's boosted demand--and prices--for corn at the same time global grain demand is growing. ...

"Legislation providing for ethanol subsidies is being criticized for making food more expensive while gasoline prices continue to climb. Rick Perry," the governor of Texas, "has asked the EPA to waive half of the 'misguided' ethanol requirements because of rising food costs."

OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: Would you be willing to change ethanol subsidies or suspend some of these requirements so that people are not using corn for ethanol, but using corn for food and lowering food prices.

OBAMA: Well, look, we, we've got a serious food problem around the world. We, we've got rising food prices here in the United States. In other countries we're seeing riots because of, because of the lack of food supplies. So this is something that we're going to have to deal with. There are a number of factors that go into this. Changes in climate are contributing. The, the fact that in a lot of countries, you know, we've had problems getting food supplies to poor countries because the wealthier countries have reduced their stockpiles in, in serious ways. And so there're a whole host of reasons why we're seeing problems with food supply. There's no doubt that biofuels may be contributing to it. And what I've said is, my top priority is making sure that people are able to get enough to eat. And if it turns out that we've got to make changes in our ethanol policy to help people get something to eat, then that's got to be the step we take.

But I also believe that ethanol has been a important transitional tool for us to start dealing with our long-term energy crisis ultimately. Over time we're going to shift to cellulosic ethanol, where we're not using food stocks but we're using wood chips, we're using, you know, prairie grass, we're using...

RUSSERT: How long...

OBAMA: ...other stuff for this.

RUSSERT: How long before our automobiles are off of gasoline oil and, and using something like an alternative fuel?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I, I think that if we decided right now that we were going to make the kind of investment I've proposed--$150 billion over 10 years--then I think at the end of the decade we could have a auto industry that has significantly reduced our consumption of oil by as much as 35, 40 percent. And the technologies exist right now for plug-in hybrids. You know, we should continue to investigate the possibilities of electric cars. The problem is is that we have not been serious about it, and Detroit ended up making investments in SUVs and large trucks because that's where they perceived a competitive advantage and that's where they felt they could make the most profit. I think it was a mistake for them not to plan earlier. Now we're seeing a huge growth in fuel-efficient cars that is benefitting the Japanese automakers, and Detroit is getting pounded some more. And I think that we can make those cars here in the United States. By the way, that's going to be our expert market over the future. China already has higher fuel efficiency standards than we do. If we want to compete for those markets, then we're going to have to invest in technology. The government can help, but the automakers have to make some changes. And I didn't say that just in front of environmental groups, I went to Detroit and said it in front of the automakers. That's the kind of truth telling we need from the next president.

RUSSERT: In terms of climate change, global warming, you've talked about wind and solar and biofuels.

OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: What about nuclear? All--in all realistic assessment, don't we need more nuclear power in order to wean ourselves off of those same fuels that are contaminating the world?

OBAMA: I think we do have to look at nuclear, and what we've got to figure out is can we store the material properly? Can we make sure that they're secure? Can we deal with the expense? Because the problem is, is that a lot of our nuclear industry, it reinvents the wheel. Each nuclear power plant that is proposed has a new design, has--it, it has all kinds of changes, there are all sorts of cost overruns. So it has not been an effective option. That doesn't mean that it can't be an effective option, but we're going to have to figure out storage and safety issues. And my attitude when it comes to energy is there's no silver bullet. We've got to be--we've, we've got to look at every possible option.

You know, I've said the same thing about coal. I have a aggressive goal of reducing carbon emissions, and coal is a dirty fuel right now. But if we can figure out how to sequester carbon and burn clean coal, we're the Saudi Arabia of coal, and I don't think that we can dismiss out of hand the use of coal as part of our energy mix. What we are going to have to understand, though, is, is that global warming is real, it is serious and that whatever options we come up with, if they are not addressing the fact that the planet is getting warmer, then we are failing not just this generation, but future generations.

RUSSERT: We're going to take a quick break and come back and talk about some foreign and defense policy issues. More of our conversation with Barack Obama, Democratic candidate for president. We're live from Indianapolis, Indiana, the site of Tuesday's primary.


RUSSERT: More from Senator Barack Obama, live from Indianapolis, right after this brief station break.


RUSSERT: And we are back. We're in Indiana. Why? Because that's the primary on Tuesday. We're in Indianapolis talking to Barack Obama, Democratic candidate for president.

Iraq and Iran, the administration, we have reported at NBC, are drawing up some plans for potential airstrikes in Iran at different missile weapons factories or special force compounds because we have indications, evidence that the Iranians are helping some of their supporters within Iraq to kill U.S. troops.

OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: If it could be demonstrated that was a fact, would you be in support of such limited attacks in Iran?

OBAMA: Well, let, let me not speculate yet. I want to, I want to take a, take a look at the kind of evidence that the administration is putting forward, what these plans are exactly. I've always said that, you know, as commander in chief, I don't take military options off the table and I think it's appropriate for us to plan for a whole host of contingencies. But let's look at the larger picture. Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of our invasion of Iraq, they are stronger because of our decision to go in; and what we have to do is figure out how are we going to recalibrate our strategic position in the region. I think that starts with pulling our combat troops out of Iraq. We have placed them in harm's way, we have fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment, we are distracted from what's the real battle front that we need to focus on, which is Afghanistan and, and rooting out al-Qaeda. And if we put forward a plan where we are not going to be a permanent occupier in Iraq and we force the Iraqis to stand up and negotiate and come to a compromise that includes, by the way, a regional discussion with Iran, with Syria, as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and other regional powers, then I think we are going to be in a better posture to deal with the long-term threat of Iran and particularly its development of nuclear weapons. That's something that this administration has failed to do. I have consistently said that we've got to talk directly to Iran, send them a clear message that they have to stop, not only with their potential funding of militias inside of Iraq, but they also have to stop funding Hamas, they have to stop funding Hezbollah, they've got to stand down on their nuclear weapons. There will be continued consequences for those kinds of actions, but that here are also some carrots and possible benefits if they change behavior. Those kinds of direct talks have not taken place. That's the kind of change in foreign policy that I plan to put in place when I'm president of the United States.

RUSSERT: The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said that a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq could result in genocide. Would you factor that in? And if that began to emerge as an issue, would you stop the withdrawal?

OBAMA: Tim, I would--of course I would factor in the possibilities of genocide, and I factored it in when I said that I would begin a phased withdrawal. What we've talked about is a very deliberate and, and prudent approach to the withdrawal, one to two brigades per month. At that pace it would take about 16 months. Assuming that George Bush is not going to lower troop levels before the next president takes office, we're talking about potentially two years away. At that point we will have been in Iraq seven years. If we cannot get the Iraqis to stand up in seven years, we're not going to get them to stand up in 14 or 28 or 56 years. And the danger we've got is that, with our military overstretched, with acknowledgement by our own Army officials that we don't have a strategic reserve right now to deal with other problems, we can't get more troops into Afghanistan, we're having trouble leveraging NATO to send in more troops in Afghanistan to deal with a growing Taliban and al-Qaeda threat, that unless we change postures in a deliberate fashion, our overall strategic posture in the region is going to be weaker.

Now, I, I have said that even as we're withdrawing, we are going to continue to partner with the Iraqi government, to train their military. We're going to continue to partner with them on, on humanitarian issues. I think we can get the United Nations and the international community to be part of a process of monitoring that ensures that we're not seeing ethnic cleansing and genocide as we pull out. But what we can't do is sustain a long-term occupation in Iraq and expect to be able to deal with the other threats that exist in that neighborhood.

RUSSERT: Hillary Clinton was asked about if Iran launched a nuclear attack against Israel, and this is the answer she gave. Let's listen.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): (From "Good Morning America") Well, the question was, "If Iran were to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, what would our response be?" And I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran. And I want them to understand that.

We would be able to totally obliterate them.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: "Obliterate them."

OBAMA: Yeah.

RUSSERT: What do you think of that language?

OBAMA: Well, it's not the language that we need right now, and I think it's language that's reflective of George Bush. We have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber-rattling and tough talk, and, in the meantime, we make a series of strategic decisions that actually strengthen Iran. So--and, you know, the irony is, of course, Senator Clinton, during the course of this campaign, has at times said, "We shouldn't speculate about Iran." You know, "We've got to be cautious when we're running for president." She scolded me on a couple of occasions about this issue, and yet, a few days before an election, she's willing to use that language. But in terms of... terms of...

RUSSERT: But would you...

OBAMA: terms of...

RUSSERT: Would you respond against Iran?

OBAMA: It--Israel is a ally of ours. It is the most important ally we have in the region, and there's no doubt that we would act forcefully and appropriately on any attack against Iran, nuclear or otherwise. So--but it is important that we use language that sends a signal to the world community that we're shifting from the sort of cowboy diplomacy, or lack of diplomacy, that we've seen out of George Bush. And this kind of language is not helpful. When Iran is able to go to the United Nations complaining about the statements made and get some sympathy, that's a sign that we are taking the wrong approach.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton also called for an umbrella of deterrence in the Middle East, defending not only Israel, but she said "other countries in the region," suggesting that perhaps Saudi Arabia, Jordan, other places in that region. Should the U.S. have an umbrella of deterrence to protect Arab nations?

OBAMA: Well, it--look, this is presupposing something that I'm unwilling to presuppose, and that is that Iran's going to get nuclear weapons. My intention is to make sure they don't. And the way we do that is, as I indicated before, to rally the international community, to engage direct talks with Iran, to send a clear signal about the consequences of continuing to develop nuclear weapons, but also to send a signal that if they are willing to stand down, that we can provide them with the kind of assistance that they need in order to help their people. So my central goal is to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons.

I, I'm troubled by the idea that, as a throwaway line in the debate, you start expanding the U.S. nuclear umbrella potentially to a whole host of other countries without any clear idea of what these criteria are, who might be involved and so forth. I think there's no doubt that we need to think about what our strategic posture is with respect to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other ally--other friends in the region. But, you know, right now we don't have a formal alliance with many of these other countries. And if we are to develop that, we should do it prudently, cautiously, in consultation with Congress.

RUSSERT: Do you think the American people would want to send American men and women to Saudi Arabia to defend them against Iran?

OBAMA: Well, that's, I think, part of the debate that should be taking place. Obviously, we've got national security interests in oil supplies in the region. And as president, that's something that I would factor in. But I am not willing, at this point, to suggest that somehow we are going to extend our nuclear umbrella or that we have the same sorts of alliance with Saudi Arabia that we do with NATO countries or that we do with Israel.

RUSSERT: Afghanistan. The situation, according to some, is deteriorating as the Taliban continues to reconstitute itself. Would you, as president, be willing to have a military surge in Afghanistan in order to, once and for all, eliminate the Taliban?

OBAMA: Yes. I think that's what we need. I think we need more troops there, I think we need to do a better job of reconstruction there. I think we have to be focused on Afghanistan. It is one of the reasons that I was opposed to the war in Iraq in the first place. We now know that al-Qaeda is stronger than any time since 2001. We've just received additional intelligence reports from our agencies, showing that they are growing in capability. That is something that we've got to address.

And we're also going to have to address the situation in Pakistan, where we now have, in the federated areas, al-Qaeda and the Taliban setting up bases there. We now have a new government in Pakistan. We have an opportunity to initiate a new relationship. We've got to send a signal to them that we are interested in national security, but we also recognize they're interested in figuring out how do they feed their people and how do they prosper economically? And instead of just focusing on our issues, we've got to focus on some of theirs, so that we can get better cooperation to hunt down al-Qaeda and make sure that that does not become a safe haven for them.

RUSSERT: In the remaining minutes, let me talk to--about some politics. You said, "Indiana may end up being the tiebreaker." Right? That's where we are. So if Hillary Clinton wins here, she wins?

OBAMA: No. I...

RUSSERT: She wins the nomination?

OBAMA: No. I--what I, what I said was is that--this was in the context of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana, the three largest states that are remaining--I said clearly Senator Clinton was favored in Pennsylvania, I was slightly favored in North Carolina, Indiana was one that was a toss-up. So, between those three states, that would be the one that was hardest to gauge in terms of where the voters might go. But we've got more contests remaining, and I'm confident that Senator Clinton's going to stay in until, until the very end, and then we're going to have a decision about who's going to be the nominee. And, and my argument to, to the American people, and my argument to the voters, and my argument to the superdelegates is that this is a time where we can't just settle for business as usual, that we've got to have a different kind of politics, we've got to push back the special interests in Washington, we've got to engage in some truth telling, and that's why this gas tax debate has been so important. And I think we have to unify to country to solve problems.

You know, you asked earlier in the interview about, you know, issues of my patriotism and being attacked by Republicans. One thing I'm absolutely confident about, Tim, the more I travel around the country, people don't think of themselves first as Republicans or Democrats, they don't think of themselves first as black or white; they think of themselves as Americans. And if we can tap into that spirit and that core decency and generosity, then we can solve health care, we can solve energy. If we don't, if we're continued to be distracted by the kind of games that we see typically out of Washington, then we're going to have missed our, missed our opportunity.

RUSSERT: So if you win Indiana and North Carolina, you don't think the race is over?

OBAMA: Well, I don't think the race is over until Senator Clinton decides that she's getting out or until all the primaries and caucuses have taken place. And we know that's all--you know, that's only a month away.

RUSSERT: But if you lose Indiana and North Carolina, are you on your heels?

OBAMA: No. I--you know, we are going to keep on going, and we feel confident that, ultimately, I'm going to be the Democratic nominee.

RUSSERT: Here's the latest elected delegate count. These are the elected delegates: Obama, 1492; Clinton, 1338; an advantage of 154. The superdelegates: 274 declared for Clinton, 253 for Obama, 268 are uncommitted, which gives you an overall lead of about 133 if you combine those two numbers. This is what you said in New Albany, Indiana, the other day.


OBAMA: If we've won the most delegates from the voters, seems to me that it might be a good idea to make me the nominee.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: It's doesn't appear mathematically possible that Senator Clinton can overcome your lead of elected delegates.


RUSSERT: If the superdelegates got together, the undecided superdelegates and said, "You know, Senator Obama, we think that Hillary Clinton is a stronger candidate against John McCain. Here are the latest polls in the swing states, the overall national polls. You've run a wonderful race, but we're going to go with Senator Clinton as our nominee," what would you do?

OBAMA: I don't think that's going to happen. I--let, let me say at the outset, I want a Democrat to win in November, so even if Senator Clinton were the nominee instead of me, I would still be campaigning for Democrats because we haven't talked much about John McCain today, and the one thing I'm clear about is he wanted--wants to continue George Bush's foreign policy, he wants to continue George Bush's economic policies. He said George Bush had, had made great progress economically. And his proposals, which are essentially $300 billion worth of corporate tax cuts that aren't paid for that would add to our deficit and increase the imbalance in our tax code, I think is the exact wrong prescription for America. So, so, so...

RUSSERT: The Republicans suggest your plans don't add up either, but that's a whole different discussion.

OBAMA: So, so, so...

RUSSERT: But do the superdelegates have the right to override, in effect, the decision of the elected delegates?

OBAMA: I, I think the superdelegates, by rule, can make their own decision. I think the superdelegates are going to take a look not at momentary snapshot polls, but they're going to take a look at who's run the campaign that can bring about change in American and can actually govern after the election. And the number of new people that we've brought in, the organizations that we've set up in all 50 states, the enthusiasm, the energy that our campaign has displayed indicates to me and should indicate to the superdelegates that the American people are ready to move in a new direction, and that's what we're offering. And I'm confident that, if I am the nominee, that I offer Democrats the best chance of winning in November.

RUSSERT: And if the superdelegates decide otherwise, you will abide by it.

OBAMA: Well, you know, as, as I said, I'm committed to making sure Democrats win in November.

RUSSERT: Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, we thank you for joining us for the full hour right here on MEET THE PRESS.

OBAMA: Thank you so much.

Barack Obama, Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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