Barack Obama photo

Remarks at a Question and Answer Session with Minority Journalists at the Unity '08 Convention in Chicago

July 27, 2008

MODERATORS:

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN

Romesh Ratnesar, Time Magazine

RATNESAR: Senator, it's good to see you. OBAMA: Thank you.

RATNESAR: Welcome home.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Senator. Thank you.

OBAMA: Thank you. Hello.

MALVEAUX: Hello. Did you get much sleep?

OBAMA: Hello, everybody.

AUDIENCE: Hello!

OBAMA: Not enough sleep.

(LAUGHTER)

I'm going back to take a nap after this.

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: If you'd like to start and just give us your impressions and some of the things that -- the highlights you took away from your trip?

OBAMA: Well, a couple of things that I think are worth mentioning. Number one, our troops are doing extraordinary work. And they do it day in, day out.

We were in Afghanistan. We were in Iraq. Many of these young men and women have been on two, three, in some cases four or five tours of duty, but morale remains high. They are proud of the work that they're doing. They're carrying out their duties with excellence and determination.

And so that was very encouraging. I think the violence is down in Iraq, and the work of our troops has greatly contributed to consolidating some of those gains.

There's no doubt that we've seen Al Qaida marginalized in the Sunni regions in Iraq. That has made a big contribution toward quelling the violence.

And the Shia militias have stood down. I think that President -- Prime Minister Maliki -- his willingness to take more responsibility and set a time frame, or a time line, for withdrawing our troops is a very positive step.

In Afghanistan, though, things are worsening. And we visited there just a week or so after a raid on a U.S. outpost that had resulted in nine of our soldiers being killed.

And what you get a sense of is that a combination of drug trafficking in Afghanistan, a government that is -- an Afghan government that is still not getting enough services out to the people, combined with the ability of the Taliban and Al Qaida to engage in raids and then cross over into the Pakistani-held territories, so that they've got safe havens there that U.S. troops can't follow -- that is a huge problem.

We're going to need more troops in Afghanistan. But we're also going to need more effective cooperation from the Pakistani government in rooting out these safe havens.

So there's some good news on the war front, but there's also some bad news.

And one of the most important things for the next president is to work with the commanders on the ground, to find the right strategy to go after the central front on terror, go after Al Qaida, go after the Taliban, while maintaining some of the gains that have been made in Iraq.

The other impression that I had was that the world is waiting for the United States to reengage.

In the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians want to see us active and involved. And they're pleased that the Bush administration has now participated in getting this Annapolis -- these Annapolis talks off the ground. I think that Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas are making some progress on that front.

But what we need is sustained American engagement. Without that American engagement, it's very hard to make progress.

When I was traveling through Europe, obviously, we had a big event in Berlin that was a testimony, I think, to how hungry Europeans are for American leadership that's not a matter of unilateral action, but a matter of engaging countries and peoples all around the world around our common challenges, but also our common opportunities.

When you think about the big problems that we face here at home, they are connected to the problems we face abroad. If we can get more support for actions in Afghanistan, those are fewer troops in the United States that we have to send, or it's less money that we have to invest in those efforts, which frees up money for us to invest in keeping folks in their homes here in the United States, or making sure that we're providing college scholarships for young people and make higher education affordable.

There's a direct link between the energy problems that we're experiencing here at home and a lack of a coordinated policy in thinking about energy and climate change abroad. So one of the key insights that I come away with is it is very difficult for us to meet these 21st century challenges unless we've got more effective partnerships with our allies and other countries overseas.

And I think they are ready for it. And it offers the next president an enormous opportunity, but we're going to have to take action now. The last point I'd make is, while I was traveling, obviously, I was monitoring carefully the situation back here in the United States. I'm glad that we finally passed the housing bill, that the president has decided he will sign after all.

And that housing bill, I think, is a good start in trying to create a floor beneath which the housing market will not sink.

We've got to prevent people from losing their homes. We've got to start shoring up home values all across the country. It's having a huge impact in terms of people's security and their bottom lines.

We're going to have to do more, though. I think that the economy has worsened enough that we need a second round of stimulus.

And tomorrow I'm going to actually be calling some of my top economic advisers together, Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett, Bob Rubin, a range of economists and experts on the financial markets, to start thinking about, how do we take some short-term steps to shore up the economy, but also how do we take those long-term steps, structurally, to start dealing with big problems like our dependence on foreign oil?

So it was a great trip. I missed my kids. I missed Michelle.

They came to greet me at the airport, which never happens. Usually, Michelle's like...

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: See you at home?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: See you at home.

Usually, I have to beg just to make sure that they're not asleep when I get home. But they surprised me at the airport, which was wonderful.

MALVEAUX: Well, let's talk a little bit about this. Because, just 3 1/2 years ago, you were a state senator who represented a district just a couple miles from where we are.

Since then, you have met with world leaders; you've travelled the globe. But clearly, eight days overseas doesn't make anybody a foreign policy expert.

What more do you need to learn?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I don't think that you ever stop learning. But I think it's pretty clear, Suzanne, if you talk to the people I met with, they feel confident that I know what I'm talking about and what I'm doing. And the...

(APPLAUSE) So, one of the things that I think is important, though, for whoever the next president is, is to make certain that we project ourselves on the world stage with a sense of humility, a sense that we are listening to others, because one of the problems with our foreign policy is the sense that we are very clear about our own interests, but not so clear about other people's interests.

OBAMA: And that makes us less effective, in terms of advancing our security and the issues that are important to us.

MALVEAUX: Is there an area that is a priority for you?

OBAMA: Well, we've got to get Afghanistan right. If you've got Al Qaida, you've got the Taliban in training camps and safe havens just a few miles inside the Pakistan border that can act with impunity, then it is going to be hard for us to stabilize Afghanistan. And those folks are in a position then to plot how to kill Americans. We've got to get the Pakistani government involved in a much more significant way than they are right now.

The other thing that we have to do is get the entire world united around the need for both big carrots and big sticks to present to the Iranians so that they stand down on nuclear weapons.

We cannot afford a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, as volatile as that is -- that place is. We cannot have Iran getting a nuclear weapon, which then triggers a decision by other countries in the gulf to get nuclear weapons.

That would not only affect our ability to operate in that theater, but that offers the prospect of terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. And there's no more important security agenda for us to address than the possibilities of nuclear proliferation, including into non-state actors.

RATNESAR: Senator, I want to ask you about a subject you've had to address repeatedly on this trip, which is the situation in Iraq and the question of whether the surge has helped improve conditions there.

During the primaries, you criticized Senator Clinton for failing to say that her vote authorizing the war was a mistake. Now we have commanders on the ground pretty much saying that the surge has succeeded, and yet you've said that, if you had to do it all over again, you still would have voted against the surge. We're not going to ask you whether to -- you know, to change your position here.

OBAMA: You're not going to ask me, but go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

RATNESAR: But I would like to know whether you feel that, after the last five years, haven't we learned that a commander-in-chief needs to be willing to acknowledge mistakes or errors in judgment when circumstances change?

OBAMA: You know, I mean, I have to say, it is fascinating to me to hear you guys re-emphasize this over and over again. I have not heard yet somebody ask John McCain whether his vote to go into Iraq was a mistake. I haven't, during the entire week that we were having this conversation.

(APPLAUSE)

And so the question is: What are the strategic judgments that have to be made in order to make America safe?

I strongly believe that going into Iraq was a disaster, strategically. It distracted us from finishing the job in Afghanistan. I have acknowledged repeatedly, in every one of these interviews, that the fact that we put more troops in there helped to quell the violence. I've been -- I've been saying that all week.

The question is whether or not my position, in suggesting that we need to begin a phased withdrawal, we should have begun it earlier, whether that position that I took was a mistake. And I do not believe it was, because I continue to believe that the only way for us to stabilize the situation in Iraq -- I believed it then, and I believe it now -- is for the parties to arrive at a set of political accommodations.

Now, any time you put 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops anywhere in the world, they are going to perform brilliantly and that is going to contribute to keeping the lid on violence. The question is whether or not that military action alone is sufficient to solve the problems.

And had there been a continuation of a civil war in Iraq in which Sunnis and Shias were going at each other full bore, in which Sunnis were still aligned with Al Qaida, using military solutions to that problem would not have been sufficient, in my estimation.

Now, we don't know what would have happened had we followed my plan to begin a phased withdrawal to put pressure on the Maliki government to start negotiating more effectively with some of these other parties. But that in no way takes away from the great work that our troops did and the terrific tactical work that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have engaged in.

The key now is: How do we move forward? And I think that people believe that, at this point, we are in a position to start drawing down our troops, partly because we've got to get some troops into Afghanistan and there's no other place for us to get them.

RATNESAR: So based on what you saw on your trip, you feel that the timetable that you've set out for redeployment still makes sense?

OBAMA: I think it's realistic. I think that, obviously, General Petraeus wants as much flexibility as possible. And as I said during my trip, if I were in his shoes, I'd want as much flexibility, as well. But when you've got the prime minister of Iraq, the people of Iraq saying they are ready to take more responsibility, when we're seeing more Iraqi forces take the lead in actions, we need to take advantage of that opportunity, particularly because we've got to deal with Afghanistan, and we can't keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq at a time when we've got enormous pressing needs here in the United States of America, including, by the way, taking care of veterans who are coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder, disabilities, and they are still not getting a lot of the services that they need.

MALVEAUX: Senator, I want to use a word that you love to use, "audacity." A lot of people looked at the trip and they saw the palaces, the world leaders, the 200,000 that were gathered in Berlin, and they said, "The audacity of this trip, it looks like he is running for president of the world."

And a lot of people looked and they want to know, what out of this trip did you take away that you feel makes you a stronger candidate to be a leader here?

OBAMA: Well, let me make a couple points. First of all, I basically met with the same folks that John McCain met with after he won the nomination. He met with all these leaders. He also added a trip to Mexico, a trip to Canada, a trip to Colombia, and nobody suggested that that was "audacious."

I think people assumed that what he was doing was...

(APPLAUSE)

... talk to world leaders who we may have deal with should we become president. That's part of the job that I'm applying for.

(LAUGHTER)

And so -- so I was puzzled by this notion that somehow what we were doing was in any way different from what Senator McCain or a lot of presidential candidates have done in the past. Now, I admit we did it really well.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

But that shouldn't be a strike against me. You know, if I was bumbling and fumbling through this thing, I would have been criticized for that. And so -- so that's point number one.

I don't know the political effect of this when I come back. You know, I think people are worried about gas prices; they're worried about job security; they're worried about their retirement fund, as the stock market goes down.

So probably a week of me focusing on international issues doesn't necessarily translate into higher poll numbers here in the United States, because people are understandably concerned about the immediate effects of the economy. And that's what we will be talking about for the duration.

I do think that, in terms of me governing, being an effective president, that that trip was helpful, because I think I've established relationships and a certain bond of trust with key leaders around the world who have taken measure of my positions and how I operate and I think can come away with some confidence that this is somebody I can deal with.

We're now going to open the floor to a few questions from journalists to Senator Obama. Let's start off with our first questioner.

BRIAN BULL, WISCONSIN PUBLIC RADIO, NATIVE AMERICAN JOURNALISTS ASSOCIATION: Senator, I'm Brian Bull from Wisconsin Public Radio and the Native American Journalists Association.

Last February, the Australian prime minister apologized for the past treatment of its indigenous people. Last month, the Canadian prime minister also issued an apology for its treatment of its indigenous population. Would your administration issue an apology to Native Americans for the atrocities they've endured for the past 500 years?

OBAMA: You know, I personally would want to see our tragic history or the tragic elements of our history acknowledged. And I think that there's no doubt that, when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans, as well as other persons of color in this country, that we've got some -- some very sad and difficult things to account for.

You know, what an official apology would look like, how it would be shaped, that's something that I would want to consult with Native American tribes and councils to talk about, and -- because, obviously, as sovereign nations, they also have a whole host of other issues that they're concerned about and that they've prioritized.

One of the things that I've said to tribal leaders is, I want to set up a annual meeting with them and make sure that a whole range of these issues are addressed.

But I've consistently believed, when it comes -- whether it's Native American issues, whether it's African-American issues and reparations, that the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just to offer words, but offer deeds.

And when you look at the situation on tribal lands, the fact that, by every socioeconomic indicator, Native Americans are doing worse than any other population on health, on education, on substance abuse -- their housing situations are deplorable, unemployment is skyrocketing -- you know, I have to confess that I'm more concerned about delivering a better life and creating a better relationship with the Native American peoples than anything else. And that's what I want to engage tribal leaders in making sure happens.

MALVEAUX: When it comes to reparations, would you take it a step further, in terms of apologizing for slavery or offering reparations to various groups?

OBAMA: You know, I have said in the past -- and I'll repeat again -- that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.

And, you know, I think that strategies that invest in lifting people out of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but that have broad applicability and allow us to build coalitions to actually get these things done, that, I think, is the best strategy.

You know, the fact is, is that dealing with some of the -- some of the legacy of discrimination is going to cost billions of dollars. And we're not going to be able to have that kind of resource allocation unless all Americans feel that they are invested in making this stuff happen.

And so, you know, I'm much more interested in talking about, how do we get every child to learn? How do we get every person health care? How do we make sure that everybody has a job? How do we make sure that every senior citizen can retire with dignity and respect?

And if we have a program, for example, of universal health care, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because they're disproportionately uninsured. If we've got an agenda that says every child in America should get -- should be able to go to college, regardless of income, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because it's oftentimes our children who can't afford to go to college.

MALVEAUX: Can we hear from the next questioner?

DIANNE SOLIS, DALLAS MORNING NEWS/NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF HISPANIC JOURNALISTS: Hi, I'm Dianne Solis. I'm from the Dallas Morning News and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

And my question is about immigration. Percentage-wise, the U.S. has nearly as many immigrants as it did at its last historic high about a century ago. So should we have more immigration or less immigration? And where should people come from, particularly given that the biggest backlogs are out of Latin America and Asia for legal entry?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that we are a nation of immigrants and we are a nation of laws. And the problem that I see is not the number of immigrants that are coming in -- because we actually are advantaged in the United States by the number of immigrants coming in. The Europeans, they've got the opposite problem. Because they don't have a history of assimilating immigrants, they're actually losing population rapidly. And that could present a huge problem for them, in terms of their economy over the long term. Same thing is true with Japan.

So the fact that we're getting people who still want to come to this country and live out the American dream, that's all good.

The problem is when we've got a legal immigration system running parallel with an illegal immigration system. And I have said that I'm strongly in favor of a comprehensive immigration approach.

And that means cracking down on employers who are hiring undocumented workers so that they don't have to pay them minimum wage, don't have to pay them overtime. It means having serious border security.

It means, also, providing a pathway to citizenship for those undocumented workers who are here, who have put down roots, getting them out of the shadows. They'll have to pay a fine, and they'll have to learn English, and go to the back of the line, but giving them an avenue to become fully part of the American -- American society, I think that's very important.

But part of comprehensive immigration reform is also looking at the legal system to make sure that we've got a realistic approach. You know, if you've got 10-year waiting lists for family reunification, that's pushing people into the illegal system, because it's very hard to see your spouse or your children outside of a country for 10 years as they wait to go through this process.

OBAMA: Part of comprehensive reform would also involve examining where are various immigrants coming from, because, frankly, we are probably underrepresented when it comes to immigrants from certain parts of the world.

The fact that it is much harder for Haitians to immigrate than it is from persons from other countries, in some cases, despite relative similarities in need, that's something that we should examine.

So -- and one last point I'd want to make on the legal immigration system. We keep on jacking up the costs of immigration, and that skews things so that it is harder for ambitious, hard- working, well-qualified poor folks from coming into this country and makes it much easier for Mick Jagger to immigrate. And I'm not sure that that's the kind of system that is fair and reflective of American values.

MALVEAUX: Let's go to our next questioner, please.

LEONARD PITTS, MIAMI HERALD/NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BLACK JOURNALISTS: Good morning, Senator. Leonard Pitts, Jr., columnist with the Miami Herald and member of the National Association of Black Journalists.

You have repeatedly denounced false rumors that you are a Muslim. My question and what I'm wondering is whether or not you feel that you have gone too far, whether or not, in answering these questions without challenging the implicit assumption that there's something wrong with being a Muslim, you have actually done harm to the cause of Muslims.

You have visited churches and synagogues. When will you -- or is it in the plans for you to visit a mosque?

OBAMA: Well, Leonard, I have to say, this is a classic example of a no-win situation, right? So I try to correct something that is false and then people say, "Well, why are you correcting this thing in a way that isn't sufficiently" -- well, let me put it this way.

First of all, I have repeatedly on various occasions said I am not a Muslim, but this whole strategy of suggesting that I am is indicative of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have to -- that we have to fight against. So maybe you haven't seen those quotes, but they're out there. And I've said them on more than one occasion. And I've said them on television; I've said them in print. I just don't like the idea of somebody falsely identifying my religion. I suspect that you wouldn't appreciate that, either. If you were a Muslim and somebody consistently said you were a Christian, I suspect that you would want to have that corrected, because that's offensive to -- to your faith.

You know, I think my credentials on supporting Muslim-Americans are very strong. Keep in mind, I'm the person who talked about discrimination against Arab-Americans in my convention speech in 2004, something that I hadn't heard too many other politicians talk about in the height of the scare after 9/11.

I have visited mosques here in my community, repeatedly, on -- and met with Muslim leaders on a wide range of occasions.

So, you know, what I would ask is that I am treated like other candidates in terms of expectations and that people look at my entire record. When it comes to anti-Muslim bias, when it comes to discrimination against Muslims or Arab-Americans, I have been at the forefront of those fights and will continue to be when I'm president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

RATNESAR: Senator, let me ask you a no-win follow-up.

(LAUGHTER)

Do you think you could have come this far if you were a Muslim?

OBAMA: You know, that's a -- that's a hypothetical that I don't know how to answer. I will tell you this, that the American people are more tolerant and more open-minded than I think a lot of the pundits give them credit for.

And I think right now what they're interested in is, who's going to help them get a job? Who's going to make sure that they are able to send their kid to college? Who can deliver for them?

And if they have confidence that I am going to be able to make their lives better or work with them to open up opportunities for them to achieve the American dream, I think I'll have their support.

And if I -- and if, on the other hand, they think I'm not going to help them do that, then it doesn't matter what my religion is or what my skin color is, I probably won't get their support.

MALVEAUX: One more question from the audience.

JOHN YANG, NBC NEWS/ASIAN AMERICAN JOURNALISTS ASSOCIATION: Thank you, Senator. I'm John Yang, NBC News White House correspondent and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association.

I'd like to ask you about affirmative action. Just this morning, Senator McCain endorsed an Arizona ballot initiative that would end preferences based on race and gender in that state. The author of that initiative, Ward Connerly, says your very success undercuts the argument for affirmative action.

If the United States were to have a president of color, would there still be a need for affirmative action?

OBAMA: Well, look, I am a strong supporter of affirmative action when properly structured so that it is not just a quota, but it is acknowledging and taking into account some of the hardships and difficulties that communities of color may have experienced, continue to experience, and it also speaks to the value of diversity in all walks of American life. We are becoming a more diverse culture, and it's something that has to be acknowledged.

I've also said that affirmative action is not going to be the long-term solution to the problems of race in America, because, frankly, if you've got 50 percent of African-American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn't really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action. Those kids are not getting into college.

And, you know, there have been times where I think affirmative action has been viewed as a shortcut to solving some of these broader, long-term structural problems.

I also think that we have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren't getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who's struggled more. That has to be taken into account.

So I think that, whether it's in terms -- particularly, when it comes to college admissions, what I'm interested in is programs that take a wide range of issues into account.

They -- I think a university or a college should be able to take into account race, but they should also be able to take into account class, and hardship, and difficulty in making assessments about whether or not a young person is deserving of -- of opportunity. I am disappointed, though, that John McCain flipped and changed his position. I think in the past he had been opposed to these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives as divisive. And I think he's right. You know, the truth of the matter is, these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they're all too often designed to drive a wedge between people.

And one thing that I'm absolutely convinced about, after having traveled all across the world over the last -- last week, is that one of our greatest strengths is the fact that we come from so many different places, and yet we are all Americans.

The Iraqis and the Afghans, when we talked -- when they talked to me about our military, not only were they impressed with how effective our military was, but they were also impressed with the fact that we had people from all walks of life who looked different all joining together as Americans.

They were impressed with the fact that our main commanding officer now in Iraq is an African-American. That, I think, is what makes America special. And we shouldn't lose that -- we shouldn't either lose that or see that as a source of division. It should be a source of pride. And when properly structured, affirmative action, I think, can be a part of that.

MALVEAUX: And, Senator, if I could just follow with this one point, it was about a year ago you were with many of us in this audience, and you were asked about whether or not you were black enough. Obviously, that question has gone by the wayside. You have 90 percent approval rating from the African-American community.

OBAMA: Now I'm too black.

MALVEAUX: Too black, he said.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: I'm -- I'm...

(APPLAUSE)

MALVEAUX: I didn't say that.

OBAMA: No, I'm -- I'm just teasing.

OBAMA: But it does point -- I mean, and this is what I was getting to Leonard's question -- I mean, I do think that there is this sense of going back and forth, depending on the time of day, in terms of making assessments about my candidacy. And I think that what we're trying to do is simply work as hard as we can around the values and ideals that led me into this race, and that I think are what are needed right now in order for to us move this country forward.

MALVEAUX: Thank you very much, Senator, for sharing your impressions of your trip and taking our questions this afternoon.

OBAMA: Thank you, I enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

Barack Obama, Remarks at a Question and Answer Session with Minority Journalists at the Unity '08 Convention in Chicago Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/278279

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