I covered a lot of ground with the president in Cleveland yesterday: His decision to make John Boehner the midterm punching bag. Will he veto a sanction of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy? Is Rahm his candidate for mayor of Chicago? What’s gone wrong heading into the midterms? Can Michelle turn it around? And how do Sasha and Malia handle all this tough talk on the campaign trail? All that plus the president’s first passionate comments on the Koran burning controversy.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thank you for doing this.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you so much, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So, it seemed like you were out there to make– Congressman Boehner the most famous Republican in America today. (LAUGH)
OBAMA: Well, you know Congressman Boehner is saying that Republicans have a good chance of winning the…House.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I talked to him this morning. He seemed pretty confident.
OBAMA: And he thinks he may be Speaker. And I think it's very important that the American People understand what the Republicans are offering, which is essentially more of the same. I mean, we have seen what their policies have done. And the recession that we've gone through and the financial crisis we've gone through is a direct culmination of a series of decisions they made over the course of several years in which they were in charge. And we have now spent two very difficult years trying to pull the economy out of the ditch. And I just want the American People to understand exactly what the choice is in November.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, as I was speaking with him this morning, as I said. And he said he was open to the ideas on tax cuts that you talked about, today. But he had two of his own. And I want to know if you're open to those. He said, "Freeze spending at the 2008 levels and extend all of the Bush tax cuts for two years." I know you're against any permanent extension, but what about two years?
OBAMA: But keep in mind that they said back in 2001 and they said back in 2003 that these tax cuts for the rich would stop at 2010. That's why we're in the predicament that we're in now. And when you ask them why not just go ahead and give 97 percent of Americans a tax break, which is what we're prepared to do tomorrow? They say no. And the reason is they're holding– all those middle class folks who need tax relief hostage right now in order to provide tax breaks for the top two percent wealthiest Americans, who don't need a tax break, aren't asking for a tax break. And you know, if we could afford it, it'd be one thing. But we know that's gonna cost $700 billion over ten years. And so, that is not a smart thing to do for the economy, given where it's–
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's not just Republicans–
OBAMA: –at right now.
STEPHANOPOULOS: — are calling for this. You know, your own budget director up until a month ago, Peter Orszag wrote in the New York Times yesterday that it was a good compromise.
OBAMA: No, what … Peter Orszag said was he'd like to eliminate all these tax cuts, but that politically the best you may be able to do is to get the Republicans to agree to only extend them for two years.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But he said it was a good compromise. He said it made sense.
OBAMA: But what … we know is this. We're prepared to give the middle class, who haven't seen a wage increase, haven't seen incomes increased, who are most likely to spend any tax cut and recirculate in the economy to help grow the economy. We're prepared to do that right now. And what they are saying is that we're going to borrow $700 billion, despite the fact that they say they're concerned about the deficit, in order to provide a tax break to folks who don't need it. That's something we can't afford.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So, no compromise.
OBAMA: We've got to–
STEPHANOPOULOS: No short term extension?
OBAMA: We've got to make some decisions now that are gonna have huge ramifications over the long term. Now, if Mr. Boehner and the Republicans want to help small businesses right now, which is the rationale that they've provided for trying to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, if they want to help them right now, we've got a small jobs bill. Bipartisan bill — written by Democrats and Republicans that provides tax cuts to small businesses. It eliminates capital gains for small businesses. Provides loan assistance to small businesses. And we could vote on that immediately. The reason it's been held up is because we haven't seen compromise from the other side. And so, the– the broader point here– is this, George. It– we've gone through the– the worst– recession since the Great Depression. We are now making progress. The economy is growing, although it's growing too slowly. We're adding private sector jobs, although not as quickly as we need to … make up for the eight million jobs that were lost. When you look at what the Republicans are offering, it is exactly the same as what landed us in this mess in the first place.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It's not just Republicans, though, Mark Zandi independent economist says that right now the economy, the recovery is just too fragile to take any risk. Don't have any tax increases at all.
OBAMA: But what it, what every economist that I've talked to has said is that if you're gonna spend, say $95 billion, even just for two years for these tax cuts, probably the least efficient way of actually giving the economy a boost is to provide that $95 billion to millionaires and billionaires. I mean, if Warren Buffet gets a tax break, that's not gonna change his spending patterns. If those families that I were talking to out in, out here in Cleveland or across the country get a tax break, that may mean a new computer for their kid. It may mean that they're able to make their mortgage payments. It may mean that they can buy a new coat for winter. And that's where our money should be going.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How deep is your commitment to this fight? Are you saying that if Congress passes a short term extension of all the tax cuts, you're gonna veto it?
OBAMA: George, here's what … I'm saying is that we've got a fundamental choice about this economy. You can't have Republicans running on fiscal discipline that we're gonna reduce our deficit, that the debt's out of control, and then borrow tens, hundreds of billions of dollars to give tax cuts to people who don't need them. (crosstalk)
STEPHANOPOULOS: –everyone else, though. You don't propose a way to pay for those.
OBAMA: Look, the reason is because those folks, as I said over the last decade, at the time when the Republicans were in charge, didn't see a wage increase. Did not see their incomes go up at a time when their costs for health care, for college tuition, for everything else was going up. So, they are just barely keeping their heads above water. The one group that actually saw their incomes increase substantially when … Republicans were in charge, were the top two percent of Americans. The folks who saw the biggest jump were the top one tenth of one percent of Americans.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that mean you will veto an extension of tax cuts to the wealthy?
OBAMA: What I am saying is that if we are going to add to our deficit by $35 billion, $95 billion, $100 billion, $700 billion, if that's the Republican agenda, then I've got a whole bunch of better ways to spend that money.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you're not saying you're gonna veto it.
OBAMA: I, there are a whole bunch better ways to spend the money.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How come you don't want to say veto?
OBAMA: There are a whole bunch better ways to spend the money.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay, but no veto yet. No veto threat yet. Let's take a broader look, heading into the Midterms. Our you just, you might have seen the, the latest ABC News poll, showing Republicans have a big advantage going into the election. And I'm just wondering when you look at what it says about your personal attributes, as well. More Americans seeing you as liberal. And when you ask questions like, "Does he share my values?" It's gone like this since you became President. What's your analysis of what that's about?
OBAMA: My analysis is that we came in with great excitement and people hoping that we could turn the corner really quickly. And we couldn't. This is a hard set of problems that we're facing. And so, folks have now seen a year and a half of unemployment above nine percent. And long term unemployment at record levels. And so, people are hurtin' out there. And they're anxious and they're fearful.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And they don't think you get it.
OBAMA: Well I … I think that what people feel is, "Gosh, we should be able to do something faster to solve these problems." And I desperately wish that we could. I mean, these are the folks that I ran for office for. These are … folks in my family and Michelle's family. And this, this is…the middleclass folks who are out there are the very reason I got into politics. And so, it is frustrating and breaks my heart when I'm reading letters at night and people are saying, "I'm about to lose my house. I've been sending out a job, inquiries for, you know, months, a year, and I'm not getting anybody responding back. And so, understandably… they're angry and frustrated. And I happen to be the President of the United States. And they expect us to be able to do something.
STEPHANOPOULOS:So, just existentially, you don't think there's anything that maybe that you did that contributed to those feelings?
OBAMA: Well, look. If you're asking are there mistakes that we made during the course of the last 19 months, I'm sure I make a mistake once a day. If you're asking have we made the decisions that are the right decisions to move this country forward after a very devastating recession, then the answer is absolutely. (crosstalk)
OBAMA: — and I also think that as people in these last 50-some days are making up their minds about who to vote for in their various Congressional districts, what I want them to examine is, do they actually have confidence that the other side has ideas that can move the country forward. And the fact of the matter is, George, I have not seen a single new idea out of the Republicans. I have not seen a single proposal that any credible economist would say, boy, this is really going to jumpstart the economy. This is going to encourage innovation. This is going to make us more competitive.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It …
OBAMA: You know, when the chairman of the congressional committee was asked, what do you plan to do if you guys retake Congress, he said, we're going to go back to the exact same policies that were in place before Obama came into office. Well, we lost 4 million jobs in the six months before I came into office.
STEPHANOPOULOS:So, you know, we've talked about this a couple times in the last year. And so, you have conceded you could have found better ways to communicate. But it sounds like you're still saying no fundamental rethinking of your approach to the country's challenges.
OBAMA: Well our options are limited. I mean, the fact… of the matter is that when we came in, the day I was sworn in, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. The next month, 600,000. The month after that, 600,000. And across the political spectrum, what people said we had to do was make sure we don't have a complete financial meltdown, and make sure that we prevent this economy from going into a deep depression. We succeeded in doing that. The economy is now growing. And for eight consecutive months, we've added jobs. Now I am somebody who tends to not have a lot of pride of authorship. If people out there had a whole host of ideas that would allow us to accelerate this job growth faster, and put more people to work faster, I would be happy to steal ideas from anybody. Republican, Independent or Democrat. Part of the challenge we've got is that we are working through a very difficult time. And … are there ways that I potentially could have explained the circumstances of our situation better? Communicated those more effectively? I'm sure that there are. And, you know, I'm going to keep on working at it till I get it right. And but right now, the key question for the country is when, when you think about what gives us the most opportunity to grow our middle class, to make sure that people are getting the skills and training they need to succeed in a technologically complex society, what gives us the most chance to expand our exports, to make sure that we are investing in clean energy, and we're going to win that race in the 21st century. When you ask those questions, the other side doesn't have an answer.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, what do you say to even your allies or former allies who believe that there's a deeper problem there? Ken Duberstein (PH), Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. Supported you —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Former. Yeah.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Right. Well, but he supported you in the last campaign. This is what he told the Financial Times this week: "I have to say I'm disappointed by President Obama. He promised to transcend the ideological divides, but more government appears to be his solution to almost every problem." That is out there, that feeling.
OBAMA: Yeah. Well, I think that some of this was circumstance. When we came in, we had to take a series of emergency measures that were not popular. We had to manage making sure that the banks didn't collapse. That was wildly unpopular. We had to make sure that the auto industry didn't go down. Very unpopular, despite the fact that just today, the governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, was at a Lords Town plant where 4,500 folks have seen their plant reopen. And … those jobs would've dissolved had we not taken those steps. We had to make sure that we got a financial regulatory system in place so that we don't have these kinds of crises again. On each of those issues, you know, it would've been nice if the marketplace just took care of it on its own. But the fact of the matter is that things had broken down and were not working well. So as I said in my speech today, my belief is in the free market, and the private sector generating jobs, generating growth. I think that's the dynamism of our economy. But we have had so much neglect, such lax regulation of key sectors like the financial industry, that we had to take some very difficult decisions early. And that, look, I knew at the time that that was going carry a political cost, because what it did was reinforced the…assumption people have that Democrats are more likely to spend, or they're more likely to try to meddle in the private sector. And I understood that. So, it would not, it's not sort of an approach that I would have taken, if I was working off a clean slate, and I didn't have an economy that was collapsing.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Can you save the House in the next eight weeks?
OBAMA: I think, I am very confident that if people know what the choice is, if people take a look at what Democrats stand for and what Republicans stand for, who we're fighting for, and who they're fighting for, then we will win. And so, my challenge, and the challenge of every Democratic candidate who's out there is just making sure the people understand there's a choice here.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And now you're–
OBAMA: If the election is a referendum on are people satisfied about the economy as it currently is, then we're not going to do well. Because I think everybody feels like this economy needs to do better than it's been doing.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But now you're going to have the First Lady help out on the campaign trail, we're reading.
OBAMA: Well, you know… she is far more popular than me. And rightly so. She spent most of this week making sure that the girls start off well in school. They had their first day of school on Tuesday. And I guarantee you, we get more requests for her than just about anybody else.
STEPHANOPOULOS:You've been getting an awful lot. You know … you bring up the girls. You know, and you have had the chance to have dinner at home a lot. You know, when you're going through these hard times, how much of it bleeds through to them, and how do you protect them from it?
OBAMA: You know I think they are still young enough where they don't watch the nightly news. I apologize for that, George. But–
STEPHANOPOULOS: They might get some on the Internet, right?
OBAMA: (LAUGHTER) But … you know, I , when we're sitting around the dinner table, we're talking about them, and their lives …
STEPHANOPOULOS:They're not worried? They don't, they don't hear things?
OBAMA: No, I think, well, first of all, people are very gracious to them. It's not like somebody's going up and saying, you know, I think your dad is a bum. (LAUGHS) That has not yet happened to them. I think people understand that kids are off limits on these issues. I do think that they know that we're going through a tough time. They know that we're involved in two wars. They … know that we had a big oil spill in the Gulf. And so, we talk about those issues. And what I try to explain to them is that the issues that we're dealing with are really tough. Daddy's making the best decisions that he can to help the most people in this country. Some of 'em are going to work. Some of 'em aren't going to work exactly the way we want. But what I try to describe to them and instill in them are the same values that I inherited from my mom and from my grandparents, and that Michelle inherited from hers. And that is what I talked about today. Hard work, responsibility, looking out for other people.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about Pastor Terry Jones. He gave a press conference today. Says he's going to go through with burning the Korans. Is there anything you can say to him to convince him not to?
OBAMA: If he's listening, I just hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values of Americans. That this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance. And as a very practical matter, as commander of chief of the Armed Forces of the United States I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan. We're already seeing protests against Americans just by the mere threat —
STEPHANOPOULOS: What more could happen?
OBAMA: –that he's making.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What are you worried about?
OBAMA: Well, look, the … this is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda. You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who'd be willing to blow themselves up in American cities, or European cities. You know and so you know, I just hope that, he says he's … he's someone who s motivated by his faith.
STEPHANOPOULOS:And he says he's praying on it.
OBAMA:Yeah. I hope he listens to…those better angels.
STEPHANOPOULOS:Well, let me–
OBAMA:And understands that this is a destructive act that he's engaging in.
STEPHANOPOULOS:I wonder what this must feel like from behind your desk. You're President of the United States. You have to deal with the fallout. And he's a pastor who's got 30 followers in his church. Does it make you feel helpless or angry?
OBAMA: It, well it is frustrating. Now, on the other hand, we are a government of laws. And so, we have to abide by those laws. And my understanding is that he can be cited for public burning. But that's the extent of the laws that we have available to us. You know, part of this country's history is people doing destructive or offensive or harmful things. And yet, we still have to make sure that we're following the laws. And that's part of what I love about this country.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We're just about of time. I've got to ask you about your chief of staff. With Mayor Daly saying he's not going to run again Rahm Emanuel said he's interested in running. And you're still a voter in Chicago. If he wants to run for mayor, does he do it with your blessing and your vote?
OBAMA: I think he would be an excellent mayor. He is an excellent chief of staff. I think right now, as long as he is in the White House, he is critically focused on making sure that we're creating jobs for families around the country and rebuilding our economy. And you know, the one thing I've always been impressed with about Rahm is that when he has a job to do, he focuses on the job in front of him. And so my expectation is, he'd make a decision after these midterm elections. He knows that we've got a lot of work to do. But I think he'd be a terrific mayor.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thanks very much.
OBAMA: Thank you so much.
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This transcript has been edited for clarity.