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Rose: Sen. Obama, give me your assessment of what’s happened in the Congress with the testimony of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, and do you accept their judgment about what is going on on the ground in Iraq?
Obama: Well, after hearing two days of testimony, let’s be clear on exactly what they said. That after putting an additional 30,000 troops in, far longer and more troops than the president had initially said, we have gone from a horrendous situation of violence in Iraq to the same intolerable levels of violence that we had back in June of 2006. So, essentially, after all this we’re back where we were 15 months ago. And what has not happened is any movement with respect to the sort of political accommodations among the various factions, the Shia, the Sunni, and Kurds that were the rationale for surge and that ultimately is going to be what stabilizes Iraq. So, I think it is fair to say that the president has simply tried to gain another six months to continue on the same course that he’s been on for several years now. It is a course that will not succeed. It is a course that is exacting an enormous toll on the American people, enormous toll on our troops who have performed brilliantly and done everything that’s been asked of them and is not making us more safe because it continues to put strains on our military and prevents us from tackling al-Qaida in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rose: Understanding that Gen. Petraeus is recommending that the surge not end or the additional 30,000 not go home or be redeployed until July of 2008, my understanding of your proposal in your campaign has been that you would have all of American troops out by spring of 2008?
Obama: Well, that was the original proposal I put in in January that called for a phased, orderly redeployment starting in May of this year—starting in May of this year, and we would have had them out by March 30th of next year, at least our combat troops. Obviously we are not going to be able to make that timetable. And part of the reason I’m delivering a speech today on Iraq is to maintain the position that we have to begin a phased redeployment. We can get one to two brigades out every month, but we have to couple it with the kind of diplomatic efforts that we have not seen out of this administration both inside Iraq and with regional powers including Iran and Syria. We’re going to have to combine it with the kind of aggressive humanitarian effort that has not been forthcoming from this administration to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced inside Iraq as well as who are now exiles in neighboring countries like Jordan. And we’ve got to unify the American people, getting them to come together around a long-term national security strategy in which stabilizing Iraq is only a part. It also has to include going aggressively after al-Qaida and has to include restoring or standing in the world and particularly among Muslims all around the world.
Rose: Realistically, how many American troops do you think we will see—American troops—in Iraq when the next president takes office in January of 2008?
Obama: Well, obviously, it depends on what Congress does in the next several weeks. I know that based on conversations I’ve had with my Republican colleagues that we may not have enough votes to set up a firm timetable for withdrawal. There are other approaches, though, that are being explored. For example, some of my colleagues and myself have been talking about if we can get 60 votes in the Senate for legislation that would restrict the use of our troops to the regular schedules and the regular tours that the army itself had established, then that would essentially place a ceiling on how many troops could be there. But realistically speaking, unless we get movement from our Republican colleagues, we’re still going to have numerous brigades in Iraq when the next president takes office. And obviously, the biggest cost is borne by the troops who have performed valiantly. But I also think it defers and delays further the kinds of bold statement we need to make to the Iraqi leaders that they’ve got to get their act together. And we are putting off the inevitable, which is that it’s going to have to be a political accommodation that actually stabilizes the situation.
Rose: Did you approve or what did you think of the Moveon.org advertisement about Gen. Petraeus?
Obama: Well, I’ll be honest with you. My general view listening to Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker is that they are able, competent people who are performing an impossible task. That they have been provided an assignment, a mission by the president that basically involves continuing the same course that we’ve been on for the last several years. And my view is that the person who is ultimately accountable for these critical national security decisions is the president. And I am less interested in the motives or what Gen. Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker are responsible for than I am for what the president is responsible for, and that is the mission that has been assigned to those people. I think the mission is the failure.
Rose: All right. Let me turn to health care. I have a hard time understanding all the differences between the Democratic candidates. You favor universal coverage for everyone without exception?
Obama: That’s correct. And I—the truth is part of the reason that you’re confused about the differences is because the differences probably matter less than the commonalties. Most of the major candidates—in fact, if not all of the major Democratic candidates are advocating some form of universal health care. The question is, how do we get there? My proposal says is we will set up a government program similar to the one that I utilize as a member of Congress, that anybody who wants to can buy into, that we will subsidize those who can’t afford it. People who are currently uninsured who don’t get health insurance from their job, who aren’t covered by Medicaid or their children are not covered by the children’s health-insurance program. That we will pay for those subsidies by imposing a set of cost-saving measures that will actually improve quality at the same time that they lower costs. So, critical examples would be putting more money into prevention so that we have people getting regular checkups as opposed to going to the emergency room for treatable illnesses like asthma. Using health IT, information technologies, not just for billing but for maintaining medical records, for communicating between doctors and nurses and pharmacists. To reduce errors and reduce bureaucracy. Managing the chronically ill. About 20 percent of the patients in our health-care system account for 80 percent of the costs. And if we manage them better with teams, then collectively all these savings we expect to be able to obtain, maybe $100 to $150 billion worth of savings each and every year. And we can use that money not only to provide health insurance for those who don’t have it, but also to provide some relief on rising premiums for people who already have health insurance. We think that with a catastrophic insurance component we can provide a $2,500 reduction in premiums for the average family every year.
Rose: Do you accept money, campaign contributions, from insurance executives?
Obama: You know, I don’t accept money from federal registered lobbyists and from federal PACs. Now, I’m sure that we’ve received money from people who work at insurance companies or work at drug companies, because we’re getting contributions of $5, $10, $100 from all sorts of people. And the main thing that we’re trying to communicate, though, is that we don’t want to finance our campaign by people whose professional job it is to influence legislation in Washington. The drug companies, the insurance companies spent a billion dollars over the last 10 years blocking reform. That’s how we ended up with a prescription drug bill that is better for drug companies than it is for our seniors. And so it is an imperfect system. As you know, Charlie, money is the original sin of politics, and when you’re running for president, you’re going to do some sinning when it comes to raising money because otherwise you can’t compete. But the critical component for us is making sure that the American people understand it’s less important what your health-care plan is than are you able to unify the country and overcome the special-interest-driven agendas in order to actually get something done? And I think that is where I’ve got the biggest advantage, because I’ve got a track record of bringing people together and fighting special interests on a whole host of issues.
Rose: I’m a little over on health care, but this is a question I’ve asked of everyone. Do we need to rethink, and if so how, we look at health care in America? Go ahead.
Obama: Yeah. We spend $2 trillion a year on health care every single year. We spend twice as much per capita as any nation on earth, and that means that we are wasting an awful lot of money. Some of that is wasted in profits. For example, on my government plan, insurance companies who participate will not be able to discriminate on the basis of pre-existing conditions. We will impose a series of regulatory measures to make sure they’re not spending more money denying claims than actually granting claims. Drug companies will have to negotiate for the cheapest available price. All of those things are important, but I think the most important thing is the shift in attitude where we’re actually having a health-care system as opposed to a diseased-care system. And that involves spending a lot more money on prevention. And particularly targeting our young people so that they are leading healthier lives.
Rose: As you know, Sen. Brown of Ohio has vowed not to accept the free government health care coming to him as a member of Congress. We frequently speak to this idea the members get better health care than most Americans. And he vows not to accept until every American has health care. Are you at one with him on that?
Obama: Well, I think the sentiment is exactly right. I want to make sure that they have some health insurance. So, I need to talk to his wife Connie and find out what kind of coverage she’s got. Because we don’t want him in a tough bind. What I know is I travel around Iowa. I am meeting people every day who are either bankrupt because they got sick or are in financial trouble because they got sick, have been denied coverage, have children who are not covered because the insurance companies have decided they have a pre-existing condition. It’s an extraordinarily difficult burden on behalf of the American people, and it’s one we can solve if we build the political movement to do it.
Rose: But would it help if you made a pledge as he has not to accept free government health care until it was available to all Americans?
Obama: Well as I said, Charlie, I would probably able to get covered under Michelle’s health-care plan. So, I think that for most of us in the Senate, you know, we are folks who can afford to get health care. What we need to do is just overcome the resistance of the lobbies and maybe sure that go ahead and get something passed.
Rose: Let me move to education. How would you assess the American education system, how well is it doing from K to high school?
Obama: Well, I think it’s doing very well for some. But it’s not doing very well for all. So, No Child Left Behind has been false advertising. And there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency about improving the education system. It is a sense of urgency that we’ve got to restore if we’re going to be able to remain competitive in this new global economy. So, a couple of steps that I think we have to take. Across the board we’re going to have to recruit a generation of new teachers. We’re going to lose a million teachers as the baby boom generation retires over the next decade. That’s both a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. Because the single most important ingredient in K through 12 education is the quality of the teacher at the front of the classroom. That means we’re going to have to pay our teachers more, we going to have to give them more professional development, and we’re also going to have to work with them rather than against them to improve standards. And it also means, I think, that we’ve got to provide bonuses for certain areas like math and science instruction where we just don’t have enough teachers out as well as bonuses for teachers who are willing to teach in tough settings. Inner-city schools, rural schools. We’ve got to improve early childhood education, because that’s the area where we can probably most effectively achieve the achievement gap that exists right now. We know that half our work force fairly soon is going to be black and brown, and those are the kids that are being failed most drastically by the school system. We’ve to step up, and the biggest thing we can do in addition to improving their teachers is also to make sure they’ve got the kinds of resources they need before they get to school so they’re actually prepared.
Rose: You make the valid point there, in fact, how well we educate, that people who are at the core of American productivity is crucial to our future. And Don Oral, a user question from Bayside, N.Y., says how would you change the system to make American students competitive on the world scene?
Obama: Well, as I said, I think it starts early. And so the more we invest in universal early childhood education, which by the way, for at-risk students means starting the moment they’re born and working with at-risk parents to give them the kinds, the decent start that they need to be prepared. On K through 12 across the board we’ve got improved math and science instruction. And that means focusing on recruiting more math and science teachers, emphasizing math and science instruction, finding innovative ways to make it interesting for students. And I have to say this is an area where the president has the power to use the bully pulpit and to make math and science interesting and vibrant again. One of the things that I’m always struck by when I talk to engineers and scientists who are in their 50s and 60s is how many say they were inspired by JFK and the space program for going into science and math. And one area where I think we could actually do that is to really make a huge effort around energy independence. And if a president is talking about the importance of us engaging in research and development, doubling the amount of research dollars that are being put into basic science and basic research, all that can help lift up the importance of these areas of study for young people who basically take their cues from the larger culture. And right now what they’re told is if you want to succeed, you’ve got to go into investment banking or run a hedge fund or heaven forbid, become a lawyer like me. Which we probably don’t need more lawyers. We need more engineers.
Rose: As one who went to law school, I would agree with that. Let me finally conclude with our wild-card question. It comes to us from Bill Maher, who’s in Los Angeles. You can hear it on videotape now. And roll tape.
Bill Maher: Sen. Obama, we’ve heard a lot of talk about Democrats courting the Christian evangelical vote. You yourself are running as a candidate of faith, and you’ve said many times that progressives must take the views of religious right seriously. If the Ten Commandments constitute our greatest source of morality, why is it there no commandments saying do not rape, do not torture, or do not commit incest, yet there are commandments against swearing, working on Sunday, and making statues to other gods?
Rose: Go ahead. Your answer.
Obama: Well, you know, I love Bill Maher, and he—I think rightly he points out some of the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of people who mix religion and politics sometimes. I have said it’s important for Democrats to reach out to the faith community, and the reason is because 90 percent of Americans believe in God. It’s a source of values. It’s a source of their moral compass. And I know it’s a source of strength for me and my family. And the way to do it, though, is to understand that, No. 1, people who are religious don’t have a monopoly on morality, so they’ve got to be careful about being sanctimonious. No. 2 is that whatever values may be religiously motivated, if you’re in the public square, if you’re involved in politics, I think you have to translate those moral precepts into something universal that people of different faiths or no faith at all can debate and argue and hopefully at some point come to a consensus. I think the mistake that’s been made with respect to the religious right is a literalism that is so rigid that it does not allow for the possibility of somebody of a different faith or nonbeliever to engage in a dialogue. And on the other hand, I think it’s important for us not to presume that faith has no part in the public square. Look, Martin Luther King, the abolitionists, the suffragettes. We have a long history of reform movements being grounded in that sense often religiously expressed that we have to extend beyond ourselves and our individual immediate self-interests to think about something larger.
Rose: And how is faith most influenced you as a human being?
Obama: Oh, you know, I think that I came to Christianity relatively late in life when I was already an adult. So, I wasn’t steeped in organized religion when I was a child. What I found was that the values that had been taught to me by my mother and grandparents, the values I held most dear were expressed powerfully in the church and particularly the African-American church that I joined. But the faith that I have, that’s, I think is most important is a basic optimism about people. That there’s a core decency, what Lincoln called “better angels of our nature,” that we can appeal to and that we can’t perfect ourselves, and we can’t perfect the world, but we can continually strive to improve the world and treat each other with kindness and empathy. Even in the absence of perfection, and that is what helped to guide me into politics and that’s what sustains me when I make mistakes or when I see some of those tough things that are going on around the world.
Rose: Sen. Obama, thank you very much for joining us on this matter. I appreciate your time and hope we get you here at the table to talk more.
Obama: I had a great time, Charlie, as always. Thanks.
Rose: Back in a moment. Stay with us.