Transcript: Gibson Interviews Rahm Emanuel

The following is an excerpted transcript of ABC News' Charles Gibson's interview with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on President Obama's first 100 days in office, for "World News With Charles Gibson," April 29, 2009.

CHARLES GIBSON: Rahm, what would you point to after 100 days that might give us the greatest indication of how this president will be judged after four years?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, first of all, Charlie, that's a good question. I think something on substance and something on style, if I could.


VIDEO: Rahm Emanuel speaks to Charles Gibson

EMANUEL: On substance, I think that people will see that he had -- you know, affected the economy in its kind of worst moment since the Great Depression and began to put the foundation down to altering it fundamentally in the sense of a way in which we finally started facing -- go face off with the challenges that have basically hurt and hindered this economy. And what I mean by that is challenging the health care system and the costs. Everybody knows we cannot have a health care system that is running three to four times inflation on an annual basis, and it's going to consume more and more of our GDP.

And then on energy, you could not continue to export $700 billion of our wealth overseas and basically debilitate the economy's ability to create new jobs, new industries, and use that as a venue to finally do something different, that we could no longer realize an energy policy on cheap oil. And that the advantage America had after World War II on the most educated work force, it had lost that advantage, and we put the building blocks from K through 12 to college to once again put America on the lead on its education and its students who -- and workers, who are the best educated, best trained in the country. That foundation.

So I think you can see that in both the Recovery Act and the budget just literally got passed [in] the House today, just before we started this interview. And it will be taken up by the Senate. But that -- the fundamentals, the building blocks for an economy that was based on a philosophy of save and invest, versus one of borrow and spend, had been altered.

And then on -- if I could, let me say something about, I think, style. And two points.

If you looked at successful presidents and transformative presidents, two points. And I don't mean to go back on this, but if you look at Kennedy, you look at Roosevelt, you look at Reagan -- you can even go back if you wanted to on Jefferson -- they follow failed presidents who were not -- I mean, basically the philosophy is the presidency didn't succeed. They were good communicators, and they came at a point of crisis in the country.

And the test is still -- we won't know for a long time for the president. But that kind of chemistry of those three things exist here, and a philosophy that's based and de-legitimized by the predecessor. It's a moment of crisis and a successful communicator.

And I don't think anybody's had any trouble -- and if you look at other presidencies, kind of when there's a dissonance between the public's acceptance of them as president, they see him -- the public sees President Obama immediately in the role in a natural way as president. And his openness and his accessibility, that he is trying to basically hit these problems head on, be honest with the American people, talk to them in an honest way, and help them understand that the challenges we have, that we face as a country, and what the solutions are.

So, substantively, putting in place the foundation, to fundamentally take the economy in a direction that he meets his challenges so it can be a competitive economy in the future. And then stylistically, I would also say one in which the American people who see a president who is open, honest with them, and meeting the challenges that we have, and they have a stake in what we're doing. And that conversation with the American people is an ongoing conversation.

GIBSON: But Rahm, you make the point he ran to be a transitional president, a transformational president.

EMANUEL: No, I don't...

GIBSON: I take back the word transitional..

EMANUEL: He didn't run for that. The moment in time is here. He ran to change Washington because it has been postponing, Charlie, in viewing with the challenges. And that because of the culture here in Washington, the problems for America kept mounting without us seriously dealing with them.

GIBSON: Well, but I make the point, to be a transformational president, it has been obvious in these first 100 days, by the agenda you just laid out, he intends to be or wants to be transformational.

EMANUEL: Has to -- And somewhat also has to be because the scope and scale of the challenges require a set of solutions that meet the size and scope of the problem.

GIBSON: But fair to say, though, that he ran for one job and got another given the condition of the economy as he takes office?


GIBSON: And does that not divert you from all the other problems that you faced and talked about, like education, like energy, like health care reform?

EMANUEL: I'm missing the point of the question. Say that again.

GIBSON: I'm simply saying, given the fact that he runs, or that he sets out an agenda that essentially can be transformational...


GIBSON: ... did he essentially run for one job and get another, given the scope of the economic problems that land on his desk as soon as he takes office?

EMANUEL: I think I can reflect that the president's view is, you know, we inherited [this] set of problems. That's not to point fingers, but the fact that that's the set of problems, and that's basically the hand he's been dealt with. And that, therefore, we have to have a set of solutions that is as significant and as deep and as serious as the set of problems.

And, you know, we didn't want to handle the H1N1 flu, but here it is. And we're going to make sure we're doing what we're supposed to do.

The irony of that is, as you know, as a senator, the president, at that point a senator, had actually -- one of the first pieces of legislation he passed was to deal with, in fact, a flu epidemic and to have the resources. You know, part of a presidency, those are the challenges that you -- you know, you run with an agenda to deal with the problems that are facing the country, or the opportunities, and then things happen while you're a president that will also give it definition.

GIBSON: But it comes to the question that you see so many historians -- you went back to the old presidencies. It comes back to the question you see so many historians asking on this 100-day milestone, if it is that, and that is, he ran on change, but is he trying to change too much, too soon?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, you know, that's -- I'm going to leave that to the historians. The question is -- I suppose it gets back to your first question, and that is the question about these 100 days that are illustrative or could be is, are we going to make sure that in the next 100 days, that they're as productive, as we think they are, they need to be for the American people.

Did we solve their problems in dealing with credit cards? Did we deal with waste throughout the government and start to attack it? Did we start laying the foundation to control costs in health care?

And that's every 100 days, or whether it's every 200 days. We've got to take that measure. And are we making progress for the American people?

I think what we can extract from the first 100 days is that this is a president who is not afraid to meet the challenges. I've always said that the best kind of metaphor is the president has a very open hand, but a firm handshake. And I think people realize that he wants his goals, he'll set goals, he'll take different roads to solving that problem, but he won't give up on the fact that we've got to solve those problems.

GIBSON: You're as close to this presidency as anyone. His feeling of greatest satisfaction so far? His feeling of greatest frustration so far?

EMANUEL: Well, I don't -- first of all, that's for him to say. I mean, we've had conversations about different moments and, you know, Charlie, here's -- in a day, you have an up, and in a day you have it down. That's also true within this frame that we're looking at in 100 days.

There were ups, there were downs. There are peaks, there are going to be valleys. There are going to be more of them.

I think he takes stock of the fact that I think anybody -- I mean, I haven't worked here before -- that we work at a unique place. We have a unique responsibility that the American people have entrusted us.

The president knows that this is a moment in time, kind of a moment of truth, a make-or-break moment for the American people. And I think there are good points in a day, bad points, good points in 100 days.

Are we doing what we need to do? He knows there will be good days ahead and there will be bad moments ahead. But the fact is, you let those peaks and valleys roll.

Did you learn something? Did you make an improvement in what we need to do? And do we ever take our eye off the ball of where we have to go, what we have to get done for the American people?

GIBSON: He campaigned saying that he wanted to bring about a sort of post-partisanship in Washington...


GIBSON: ... ending the bitter divisiveness of the city. How's that working for you?

EMANUEL: Well, I think that, look, the president, early on, met with Republican leaders. This week, had in bipartisan leadership, House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, and is going to continue to reach out to members of the Republican Party to bring forth their ideas.

Look, just take energy, health care or education. Those challenges are big enough to find solutions in both parties to those challenges. That's his attitude. Now, I don't want to sit here and go through the bills, whether they be the Historic National Service bill or children's health care.

GIBSON: But certainly, you've got to say you're not getting cooperation from the other side of the aisle.

EMANUEL: You know what? I mean, the cheap thing, Charlie, would be to say we're not getting cooperation. The fact is, on certain things, as I was about to say, on children's health care, and on national service, we have. On the budget just passed, no. On the Recovery Act, it's been well documented, we had three Republican senators.

That doesn't stop the president's view or what he's asked me to do as the chief of staff from continuing to try. We're always going to try and reach out to members of the other party in both the House and Senate, mayors and governors, to find solutions. They'll always have an open door and a welcome sign or a welcome mat that, if they have ideas on how to solve problems, we're interested. It doesn't mean we're always going to agree, but we're always open to listening.

GIBSON: Some quicker questions, Rahm, because I'm limited on time.

EMANUEL: I got it.

GIBSON: The economy -- we're now getting a better sense of how the banks are faring after the government made massive infusions of capital into their coffers. Do you get the sense that some banks are going to need more money?

EMANUEL: Well, I think, first of all, as you know, that report, it's going to come out next week. Let me take one step back and remember what the stress test was for.

Over the last year, the entire credit market and banking market system was seized up by a sense of fear and a sense of -- a cloud that had hung over in the sense that nobody could trust anybody and, therefore, wasn't lending. And that fear pervaded the system, and so the economy ground to a halt.

The attempt of the stress test was to basically remove that confusion and that fear and replace it with a sense of clarity and confidence. Those that are healthy will know who they are, they're able to handle a more dire economic situation. And we know who they are because they have enough capital on hand.

Others, there will be a different sense. Some will need some more capital. Some will need, you know, different levels of capital. And that we have the resources, the private -- out in the public markets, there's other places to raise resources. That the capacity to deal with that is there.

And so I think that's the one thing I think I would take away, is that we will know after the stress tests who is in what position, and each bank will know based on the information. And then if there's resources needed from the government, we're there as a backstop, but there's other ways to also raise the kind of key capital that is needed.

GIBSON: Would we accept conversion of funds in those banks to equity positions? And wouldn't that constitute reform of nationalization?

EMANUEL: Well, Charlie, as you know, that has happened in other situations. It doesn't mean that's how it's going to happen in this situation. And these are all good questions that you're going to have to wait until the results come out in the stress tests next week.

GIBSON: Are we going to get a Chrysler/Fiat deal by tomorrow? And is it still necessary?

EMANUEL: Well, number one, the president said about the auto industry that it is important that we have viable, independent auto companies on a going-forward basis that can adjust to the new market, so to say. That is the objective, but not at all costs. And he said that early on.

And these are very sensitive -- and specifically on Chrysler -- very sensitive negotiations. About 48 hours to go, or maybe even less.

And I think it would be proper and prudent -- I didn't say anything because I don't want anybody to use what I said as leverage in the final hours of the negotiation. I've been in negotiations legislatively, and I've been in negotiations in the business transactions. And I don't want to say anything in these final hours that kind of tilt the scale, because anybody in the parties would use it, because nothing's done until everything is done.

GIBSON: But it is the president's position still that that deal is necessary?

EMANUEL: I think, Charlie, you saw his comments in the past. Necessary? I think what he said was what is an independent, viable industry in the United States and what it's going to take. And that means all the parties -- suppliers, management, labor, creditors -- all are going to have to play a role in creating that. And the United States government won't just be there if you're not going to make the choices that are necessary yourselves to do that.

GIBSON: Is there a growing sense that GM may have to go into bankruptcy?

EMANUEL: All good questions, Charlie. As you know, I'm not going to prejudge that. And it would be inappropriate and imprudent for me to do that.

GIBSON: Let me turn to terrorist interrogation techniques.

EMANUEL: We banned those, Charlie.

GIBSON: You told George Stephanopoulos that the president did not believe those who devised the interrogation policy should be prosecuted. A day later, the president opened the door to that. What happened?

EMANUEL: I think that what was said is -- and I think it's clear.

First of all, I can't strongly advocate enough that folks look at what the president said Thursday night -- Thursday day in his statement as it related to those techniques, his view of why he let those documents out, and his view that on an ongoing basis, where we need to focus our time and energy.

One, it's important for the American people to know that we banned those techniques. Within, I think, the second or third day, he made that clear.

Second, that a lot of this information has already been public. So therefore, it was appropriate to let it out. Let me just get to the point.

Third, is that he operated within the four corners of what clearly the law, and with the intent to follow what was then the legal guidance. There would be no sense that you would be prosecuted.

This building, the president, or anybody here, doesn't make any of the other decisions. That's for the Department of Justice. And that's the line that was drawn.

GIBSON: But George asked you specifically about whether or not those people who devised the techniques would be prosecuted.

EMANUEL: No, he asked me -- he said about the policy guidance, and that was the answer I gave to the policy guidance.

GIBSON: And he then followed up and asked specifically about those who devised the policies. And you said the president wants to go forward and...

EMANUEL: And that's what I'm saying here, Charlie.

GIBSON: And yet -- all right. I'll drop it, because I'm not going to get anywhere with it.

EMANUEL: Keen insight there.

GIBSON: Let me go back -- I mean, I can quote the exchange, but I don't have the time. Let me give you a final question.

Looking back on 100 days, is there one significant adjustment or tweak that you and the administration will make in the way you approach governing?

EMANUEL: Well, I think in the way we approach, you know, it is -- first of all, you learn something every day. That's what's interesting. And the goal here is to always be open and not just get set in your patterns, but be open to learning, because you're going to -- there's things that happen every day. No one day is the same.

But, you know, the president came -- when we were first here, we spent a lot of time in Washington. And as you remember, in the Recovery Act, we went to Indiana, went to Florida. And today, as you and I are talking, the president's in Missouri.

And of all those instances he held a town hall. So Washington remembered that the conversation we're having is not between this end of Pennsylvania Avenue and that end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It's that Washington remembered the most important conversation is between us and the American people, and that their wishes, their challenges, their needs are met.

And it's not for us to just go out of the beltway so we can get out there, and the president of the United States will meet with the American people. That is important, but it's also so that Washington remembers that the conversation is not between two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The most important dialogue we have is that Washington understands what's happening in the country matters to the decisions they make here. And I think it's constantly -- we remember here, and always make sure that that conversation between what happens in the Oval Office, what happens around the kitchen table, is a direct dialogue so they know that there's somebody here watching their back and making sure that the decisions made have their interest at heart.

GIBSON: That's a tweak you made in the 100 days. You've changed the way you approach this. Stop dealing with Congress so directly. Went out, went over their heads, in effect.

EMANUEL: Well, I think what we did -- and I don't want to reduce it to a tactic, because there was a philosophy. There's an approach; it's not a tactic.

It was a sense -- it is easy -- look, I've been in the White House, I've been in Congress, I've also been in the private sector. It's very easy to make -- to think that this is a conversation between Congress and the White House. It is not.

There's a third party. And that third party's the most important party. And make sure that that -- their interests and their ability to speak up and be heard in that conversation is why we're here.

GIBSON: Rahm, appreciate it. Thanks very much.

EMANUEL: Thanks a lot. Yes.

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