Barack Obama photo

Interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN's "The Situation Room"

May 08, 2008

BLITZER: Barack Obama hasn't clinched the Democratic presidential nomination yet, but look at this, the cover of "TIME" magazine declaring him the winner after the latest round of primaries. How is he marking this important moment in this campaign?

Well, Senator Barack Obama is right here in "The Situation Room," the very first interview he's given since Tuesday's contests in North Carolina and Indiana.

Senator, welcome.

OBAMA: Good to see you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Here is the cover, "And the Winner Is..." That's a picture of you. What do you think?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think -- I don't want to be jinxed. We've still got some work to do.

BLITZER: It's almost like you got the cover of "Sports Illustrated." Is that what you're -- you're nervous about that?

OBAMA: Exactly. Exactly right.

We've got six more contests left. And then we've got a lot of work to do to bring the party together, but, obviously, we felt very good about our win in North Carolina on Tuesday. I think we ran a terrific campaign in Indiana. And it was a virtual tie. And, if you look at where the race is at this point, I think we have seen voters across the country say they are ready for change. They are feeling real anxiety about the economy.

And they have come to recognize that, unless we change how Washington is done. It's going to be very hard to deliver on a smarter energy policy. It's going to be hard to -- to provide health care for people who need it or make college more affordable. And I think our campaign has benefited from it. And, so, I'm looking forward to bringing this party together and going after John McCain in the fall, and -- and, hopefully, getting this country on the right track.

BLITZER: It's been intense in the primaries. But you realize it's going to be much more intense in the next chapter, in the next phase, given the differences between you and John McCain. Are you ready for this next phase?

OBAMA: I'm actually looking forward to it, if we're successful. I don't want to get ahead of myself here. Senator Clinton is a very formidable candidate. She is very heavily favored to win West Virginia. She will win that by a big margin.

She's favored in Kentucky. We'll probably split the remaining contests. And, so, she's -- she's going to be actively campaigning.

If I'm fortunate enough to be the nominee, then I am looking forward to the general election precisely because there is such a big, stark contrast...


BLITZER: There are major differences between you and John McCain...

OBAMA: Exactly.

BLITZER: ... on a whole host of domestic issues...

OBAMA: Exactly.

BLITZER: .. and foreign policy issues. And I want to go through those right now.

OBAMA: Sure.

BLITZER: Already, some of his surrogates, some of his supporters, are suggesting you're not ready to be commander in chief, president of the United States.

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said this. Listen to this.


MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR: He has not accomplished anything during his life, in terms of legislation, or leading an enterprise, or making a business work or a city work or a state work. He really has very little experience. And the presidency of the United States is not an internship.


BLITZER: Wow. That's a strong statement.


Well, the contest didn't work out so well for Mitt Romney. I think he was making those same arguments against John McCain, suggesting that John McCain, as a senator, hadn't done what Mitt Romney had done. And, yet, here we are, and there Mitt Romney is.

Look, when it comes to national security, I think that what people are looking for is good judgment. They're looking for somebody who is going to be able to assess the very real risks that are out there and deploy our forces, not just military, but diplomatic, political, economic, cultural, in a way that makes the American people safe.

And whether it's my judgment on Iraq and recognizing that that was going to be a strategic blunder, to my insistence that we need to talk not just to countries we like, but countries we don't, to my assessment in terms of how we had over-invested in the Musharraf government in Pakistan, and that was going to be setting us up for failure later on, I think I have consistently displayed the kind of judgment that the American people are looking for in the next president.

BLITZER: I want -- I want to get to all of those national security, foreign policy issues in a moment. But let's talk about some domestic issues.

You know they're going to paint you, the McCain camp, Republicans, as a classic tax-and-spend liberal Democrat, that you're going to raise the taxes for the American people and just spend money like there is no tomorrow when it comes to federal government programs.

Are you ready to handle that kind of assault?

OBAMA: Absolutely.

But -- because think about what I am going to be running against: the failed policies of the Bush administration, which John McCain wants to continue. I don't think there is anybody in this country who thinks that, right now, we have got a government that's managed our domestic policies well.

And, so, we can talk about the slogans of tax and spend or fiscal conservatism, but the fact of the matter is, this -- we have had an administration that's been profligate, that has raised our national debt to a record level. We have seen a lack of shared prosperity. So, you've got CEOs making more in a day than ordinary workers are making in a year, and it's the CEO that's getting the tax break, instead of the workers.

BLITZER: He's going to say you're going to raise their taxes. What are you going to say?

OBAMA: I will raise CEO taxes. There is no doubt about it. If you are...

BLITZER: What about the average American...


OBAMA: If you are a CEO in this country, you will probably pay more taxes. They won't be prohibitively high. They're -- you're going to be paying roughly what you paid in the '90s, when CEOs were doing just fine.

BLITZER: So, you want to just eliminate the Bush tax cuts?

OBAMA: I want to eliminate the Bush tax cuts.

And what I have said is, I will institute a middle-class tax cut. So, if you're making $75,000, if you're making $50,000 a year, you will see an extra $1,000 a year offsetting on your payroll tax.

BLITZER: Define middle class.

OBAMA: Well, look, I think that the definitions are always a little bit rough, but let's -- let's just take it this way.

If you're making $100,000 a year or less, then you're pretty solidly middle class, and you deserve relief right now, as opposed to paying higher taxes. On the other hand, if you're making more than $100,000, and certainly if you're making more than $200,000 to $250,000, then you're doing pretty well.

And it's the people who are making over $200,000, $250,000, who have benefited the most and have actually seen -- have actually seen more and more of economic growth in this country go in your direction.

And all -- all we're looking for here is a sense of balance, because it's my belief that this country has always grown when it grows from the bottom up, when the average worker who is putting in his time and trying to live out the American dream, when a nurse or a teacher, she's able to support her family, then they spend money, businesses do well, and we generate tax revenues that can pay for the common investments that we need.

And that's what's been lacking, a sense of shared sacrifice, as well as shared benefits from the economy.

BLITZER: Because they're arguing already that you want to increase capital gains taxes, for example, on investments, and stocks, and things like that.


BLITZER: A lot of middle-class people have those kinds of accounts. If they're...

OBAMA: If they have, -- Wolf, if they have a 401(k), then they are going to see those taxes deferred, and they're going to pay ordinary income when they finally cash out. So, that's a phony argument. And this is something that you have seen the Republicans consistently do, is they try to make this broad- based argument about, he's going to raise your taxes as a cover for them eliminating taxes for people like myself and you, who can afford to pay a little bit more in order to assure that we have got roads and bridges that are rebuilt, in order to assure that Social Security is solvent, in order to make sure that kids who are struggling for their American dream can actually go to college, in order to make sure that people aren't going bankrupt just because somebody in their family gets sick.

You know, what -- as I travel around the country, what I'm actually convinced of is that people recognize that if only 1 percent of the population is doing well, when we have got wages and incomes for the average worker actually going down during a period of economic expansion, much less economic recession, that something's being mismanaged. And they want a difference -- a different approach. And that's what we're going to be offering them.

And John McCain is essentially offering four more years of the same policies that got us into this rut that we're in right now.

BLITZER: You used to teach constitutional law.


BLITZER: You know a lot about the Supreme Court. And the next president of the United States will have an opportunity to nominate justices for the Supreme Court.

He gave a speech, McCain, this week saying he wants justices like Samuel Alito and John Roberts. And he defined the kind of criteria he wants.

So, what would be your criteria?

OBAMA: Well, I think that my first criteria is to make sure that these are people who are capable and competent, and that they are interpreting the law. And, 95 percent of the time, the law is so clear, that it's just a matter of applying the law. I'm not somebody who believes in a bunch of judicial lawmaking. I think...

BLITZER: Are there members, justices right now upon who you would model, you would look at? Who do you like?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think actually Justice Breyer, Justice Ginsburg are very sensible judges.

I think that Justice Souter, who was a Republican appointee, is a sensible judge. What you're looking for is somebody who is going to apply the law where it's clear. Now, there's going to be those 5 percent of cases or 1 percent of cases where the law isn't clear. And the judge then has to bring in his or her own perspectives, his ethics, his or her moral bearings.

And, in those circumstances, what I do want is a judge who's sympathetic enough to those who are on the outside, those who are vulnerable, those who are powerless, those who can't have access to political power, and, as a consequence, can't protect themselves from being -- from being dealt with sometimes unfairly, that the courts become a refuge for judges.

That's been its historic role. That was its role in Brown vs. Board of Education. I think a judge who is unsympathetic to the fact that, in some cases, we have got to make sure that civil rights are protected, that we have got to make sure that civil liberties are protected, because, oftentimes, there's pressures that are placed on politicians to want to set civil liberties aside, especially at a time when we have had terrorist attacks, making sure that we maintain our separation of powers, so that we don't have a president who is taking over more and more power.

I think those are all criteria by which I would judge whether or not this is a good appointee.


BLITZER: We're going to have much more of my extensive one-on- one interview Senator Barack Obama. At one point, he actually gets angry about something John McCain said about him.


OBAMA: This is offensive.

And I think it's disappointing, because John McCain always says, well, I'm not going to run that kind of politics. And then to engage in that kind of smear...


BLITZER: So, what exactly did McCain do or say to spark that kind of reaction? Senator Obama will explain.

And he also talks to me about Israel, as Israel celebrates 60 years of independence. I'll ask Senator Obama what Israel means to him.

Stay with us. You're in "The Situation Room."


BLITZER: Now back to Senator Barack Obama right here in "The Situation Room" in his first interview since Tuesday's pivotal round of primaries.


BLITZER: Let's go through a couple foreign policy issues. McCain says, if you had your way, the U.S. would surrender in Iraq; he wants victory.

OBAMA: If I had my way, we would not have gone into Iraq in the first place.

BLITZER: But what about now?

OBAMA: I think it was a huge strategic blunder.

And I think the American people are smart enough to understand that a phased withdrawal, where we're as careful getting out as we were careless getting in, that puts pressure on the Iraqis to stand up and take seriously their obligations to arrive at a political accommodation at the same time as we are doubling down on diplomacy in the surrounding region, and not just Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan, but also in Syria and Iraq, then we are also investing in humanitarian aid for the people who have been displaced in Iraq, that that's not surrendering.

That's a sensible policy that will allow us then to deal with our biggest strategic problem, which is al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan reconstituting themselves. And that's something that we have been distracted from and something that I intend to focus on when I'm president of the United States.

BLITZER: This is going to be a huge difference, the war in Iraq, the fallout, between you and McCain.

OBAMA: Right.

BLITZER: He also is going after you now, today, the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence. He says you're not necessarily endorsing policies that would be good for Israel.

He says this, for example: "I think it's very clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States. I think that people should understand that I will be Hamas' worst nightmare. Senator Obama is favored by Hamas. I think people can make judgments accordingly."

OBAMA: Yes, this -- this is offensive.

And I think it's disappointing, because John McCain always says, well, I'm not going to run that kind of politics. And then to engage in that kind of smear, I think, is unfortunate, particularly since my policy towards Hamas has been no different than his.

I have said that they are a terrorist organization, that we should not negotiate with them unless they recognize Israel, renounce violence and unless they're willing to abide by previous accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And, so, for him to toss out comments like that, I think, is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination.

We don't need name-calling in this debate. What we're going to need is to have a serious conversation about, how do we keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranian regime, how do we broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians that allows both sides to benefit, Israel assuring its security and its status as a Jewish state, the Palestinians able to have a contiguous, functioning state, where their people can prosper?

And, if we end up continuing to be locked up in these ideological arguments, playing politics of the sort that we have seen John McCain doing recently, then I think, frankly, we're going to miss an opportunity to really move this country in a better direction and to reset our foreign policy in a way that I think the world is anxious for.

The world wants to see the United States lead. They have been disappointed and disillusioned over the last seven, eight years. But I think there is still a sense everywhere I go that, you know, if the United States regains its -- its sense of who it is and our values and our ideals, that we will continue to set the tone for creating a more peaceful and more prosperous world.

BLITZER: I want to move on, but, on this 60th anniversary of Israel, what -- what does Israel mean to you?

OBAMA: Israel is not only our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but there is a special connection between America and Israel, one that, when I traveled to Israel, was evident.

Not only do we share so much in terms of common culture. Not only is it the site of so much of our -- of my religious faith and the site of so much of our understanding of the world around us, but what I love about Israel is, is that it is a robust democracy, and that they are committed to principles like rule of law and civil rights and civil liberties. And so it is critical that we send a message around the world we will stand with Israel, we want them around not just for 60 years, but for 600 years. And when I am president of the United States they will have an unwavering ally in me.


BLITZER: Much more of the interview coming up. You're also going to get a chance to ask Senator Obama some questions. One of you wanted to know this regarding Hillary Clinton...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have some strengths, she has some strengths. So bring the strengths together and become a formidable so-called "dream ticket."


BLITZER: You're going to hear Senator Obama's response, one of several answers he has for the questions that you asked, our iReporters.

Plus, Senator Obama does something we rarely see. He speaks very emotionally about his mother ahead of Mother's Day. You're going to want to hear that and his message to all mothers.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Barack Obama emerging from the latest round of primaries, looking even more likely to be the Democratic presidential nominee.

Let's get back to my interview now with the senator, his first since those critical contests in North Carolina and Indiana.


BLITZER: We asked our viewers to send us in some questions, and we got thousands of responses, as you can only imagine. I've got a couple. I just want you to watch one of those and get your reaction. A lot of people asked this basic question.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It appears that you do not have enough support among blue collar workers as Senator Clinton did. Would you consider just on that basis alone considering her on a joint ticket as vice president?


OBAMA: Well, you know, as I said before, "TIME" magazine notwithstanding, we haven't wrapped this thing up yet. At the point where I'm the nominee, I'll start going through the process of figuring out what -- you know, what my running mate -- who my running mate might be.

Senator Clinton has shown herself to be an extraordinary candidate. She is tireless, she is smart, she is capable. And so obviously she'd on anybody's short list to be a potential vice presidential candidate.

But it would be presumptuous of me at this point, when she is still actively running, when she is highly favored to win the next -- two of the next three contests, for me to somehow suggest that she should be running mate. At this point I think we have to just resolve this process and then we can figure it out.

BLITZER: There will be plenty of time down the road for that.

OBAMA: There will be, yes.

BLITZER: All right. Here is a question. Listen to this one.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I strongly believe that us human beings are defined by what we've done in our lifetimes. What is the one thing that a President Barack Obama, what will he be remembered for achieving during his presidency or during his lifetime?


OBAMA: Well, we've got a lot of jobs before us, but the most important thing I think I could achieve, you know, if I am looking back eight years from now and I am fortunate enough to be the president, is that we were able to navigate our way through this situation in Iraq and the threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan in a way that makes us more secure, stronger, but also enhances our influence around the world, which I think has been diminishing.

I think the way we have run this war in Iraq has lessened our ability to move our allies. It has led us to ignore the critical needs for us to focus on a sound energy policy in this country. It has left us unable to lead on critical global issues like global warming. And it has led us to neglect what ultimately is the most important thing to keeping America safe, and that is having an economy that is the envy of the world and that gives us the resources and the power to project ourselves around the world.

If China ends up becoming the economic powerhouse of this century, then their military will ultimately match up with that economic power. So part of resetting our foreign policy has to include understanding that there are Americans out there who are struggling.

They want to succeed, they want to get a college education. They want to be scientists. They want to be, you know, on the cutting edge of clean energy. They want to be on the cutting edge of biotech. But we're going to have to make some investments and ensure that the dynamism and the innovation of the American people is released.

It's very hard for us to do that when we're spending close to $200 billion a year in other countries, rebuilding those countries instead of focusing on making ourselves strong.

BLITZER: We're out of time, but a quick question on this Mother's Day weekend. Your mother raised you. She was on food stamps at one point. A single mother.

If she were alive today and she saw where you have reached, the point that you have reached right now, what would she say to you?

OBAMA: She'd say, don't let it get to your head, just keep on working hard. But I think she'd be pretty proud. Everything that I am I owe to her. She was the kindest, most generous person I ever met. And her values and her integrity still guide me.

She is somebody who when I am confronted with difficult choices, I have to ask myself, you know, what would she -- what would she expect of me? And I think that's usually a good guidepost.

Now, I've got to say that the mother that counts most in my life at the moment is Michelle, who through a very difficult process continues to raise two of the best daughters that anybody would ever want. And she's out on the campaign trail at the same time and keeping me straight. So happy Mother's Day to her as well.

BLITZER: And happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: OK. Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

OBAMA: Thank you, Wolf. I enjoyed it.


BLITZER: Barack Obama in his first interview since the Indiana and North Carolina primaries.

Barack Obama, Interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN's "The Situation Room" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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