Transcript: Charles Gibson Interviews Barack Obama

The President Discusses Tax-Troubled Nominees and His Economic Stimulus Plan.

Feb. 3, 2009—

The following is an excerpted transcript of ABC News' Charles Gibson's interview with President Barack Obama. The president discusses the controversy surrounding Tom Daschle's withdrawal, his economic stimulus proposal and how his agenda is faring thus far, for "World News With Charles Gibson" in Washington, D.C., Feb. 3, 2009.

CHARLES GIBSON: Mr. President, has this been an embarrassing day for the administration?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think it has. I mean, I think that any time one of your nominees pulls out, that's an issue. And, you know, as I've said publicly, you know, ultimately, I take responsibility for the situation that we're in. But what I also think is important is to stay focused on the overarching theme of this administration, which is making sure that we get this economy back on track, that we provide health care for people who are in desperate need of it.

You know, I think Tom Daschle would have been the best person to help shepherd through a health care bill through a very difficult process in Congress. And so, you know, I regret the fact that he's not going to be serving, but we're going to move forward.

CHARLES GIBSON: But there's more of a problem than just Daschle, and you're the one, in your inaugural speech, who talked about an era of responsibility.


CHARLES GIBSON: You've now got three major appointees who, it turns out, haven't paid all their taxes. What kind of a message does that send about responsibility?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think it sends the wrong one. And that's, you know, something I take responsibility for.

I think that all of these were honest mistakes, but ultimately there's no excuse for them. And, you know, I think that Tom, as well as myself, understood that. I think he made the assessment that it was going to be too much of a distraction. And the most important thing, from my perspective, is making sure that the American people understand we don't have two sets of rules here, that everybody has responsibilities. In this situation, I take responsibility for it.

CHARLES GIBSON: If we don't have two sets of rules, is the position of your treasury secretary, though confirmed, untenable since he had the same kind of problem?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, as I said, I think everybody makes mistakes. Tim owned up to them. And I think I've been very clear of the fact that this was a bad mistake. I don't think it was purposeful, but I think it was a mistake.

But I think it's important, Charlie, to look at sort of the overarching approach that we've taken in this administration. We've set the highest standards possible in terms of dealing with lobbyists. We are filling in record time hundreds of appointments. Everybody, I think, assesses that these people are of high quality and high integrity.

We're going to have some glitches, and I understand that that's what people are going to focus on. And I'm focused on it because I don't want glitches. We can't afford glitches because, right now, what I should be spending time talking to you about is how we're going to put three to four million people back to work. And so this is a self-induced injury that I'm angry about, and we're going to make sure we get it fixed.

CHARLES GIBSON: So let's talk about it. You said from the get-go that you wanted a very big stimulus package, and you wanted it quickly.


CHARLES GIBSON: And so, within days, an $800-plus billion bill was written.


CHARLES GIBSON: Did haste make waste?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No. I actually think that if you look at the package that came out of the House, here's what we've got. We've got provisions to help states who are seeing record numbers of people unemployed, providing them unemployment insurance, food stamps, making sure that they don't lose their health care. That's the right thing to do. Not only does it stimulate the economy, but it gives families immediate relief.

We focus on making sure that in addition to creating jobs, we're laying the foundation for long-term economic growth. So we invest in infrastructure, around new green jobs and energy, making sure that we are weatherizing homes to save on our energy bills long term; making sure that we are investing in our health care IT system so that we can reduce costs and improve quality and reduce medical errors.So those are all sound investments that need to be made. And I think that the package that has been put together is one that balances the need for speed -- we've got to get this money out quickly in order to put people back to work -- and the need for us to make sure that some of this money is going to long-term investments that will make us more competitive.

CHARLES GIBSON: Which leads some people to say you tried to do too much with this bill too soon, and not enough of it is really stimulative. And as you know, there's a lot of people in the public, a lot of members of Congress, who think this is pork-stuffed, and that it really doesn't stimulate. A lot of people have said it's a spending bill and not a stimulus bill.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Charlie, if you take a look at the bill, the fact is, there are no earmarks in this bill, which, by the way, some of the critics can't claim for legislation they've voted for over the last eight years. There's no earmarks in it. We've made sure that there aren't individual pork projects in there.

The criticisms have generally been around some policy initiatives that were placed in the bill that I think are actually good policy, but some people may say is not going to actually stimulate jobs quickly enough. I think that there's legitimate room for working through those issues over the next several weeks to make sure that we get the best possible bill. But here's the thing that I think we have to understand. The economy is in desperate straits. What I won't do is adopt the same economic theories that helped land us in the worst economy since the Great Depression. What I will do is work with anybody of good faith to make sure that we can come up with the best possible package to not only create jobs and provide support to families, but also to lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth.

CHARLES GIBSON: CBO says only 25 percent of this bill would get to people within a year. Republicans now say it needs to be more stimulative, there needs to be more money on infrastructure, there needs to be more tax cuts, there needs to be more help for homeowners, maybe even guaranteeing 4, 4.5 percent mortgages.

Would you accept those things?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, for example, some want to put more infrastructure in the bill, and they're also complaining that it doesn't spin out fast enough. In some cases, there are contradictions there. I mean, we may want to spend on a whole bunch of great infrastructure, but it may take seven or eight years to do it, in which case we're vulnerable for the criticism that it's not spinning out fast enough. I think that in a package of this sort, that has to go to Congress with 535 opinions, at least, then there's going to be some give and take.

What I've said is that any good idea thrown out there to improve this legislation I'm for. But I want to be absolutely clear here that the overwhelming bulk of the package is sound, is designed to put people back to work, help states that are in desperate straits, help families who are losing jobs and health care, and it's designed to make sure that we've got green energy jobs for the future. In fact, most of the programs that have been criticized as part of this package amount to less than one percent of the overall package. And it makes for good copy, but here's the thing -- we can't afford to play the usual politics at a time when the economy continues to worsen.

CHARLES GIBSON: And talking of politics, you have said you want bipartisanship in this bill, you want Republican support. You didn't get any in the House, and the leader of the House, the speaker of the House, said, well, yes, we wrote the bill and, yes, we won the election.

Is that kind of an in-your-face trash-talking to the Republicans?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think what Speaker Pelosi also said was that she wanted to sit down with them and talk to them and, in fact, included some of their ideas in the package. I mean, keep in mind, when I first released the framework for our plan, we were complimented by the Republicans for the fact that about $300 billion of the package was in the form of tax cuts. I was criticized by members of my own party.

Now, that hasn't changed much. The only thing that's changed is the politics of it. And I'm less concerned about bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake. I'm interested in solving the problem for the American people as quickly as possible. And I think that we have an obligation to make sure this money is spent wisely. I want this thing to move through the Senate. I want the House and the Senate bills to be reconciled.

We can scrub it of any problems that are in there. But what I don't want to do is to delay creating jobs for people who are losing work, providing families some direct relief in the form of middle class tax cuts, in the form of tax breaks for small businesses, and I want to make sure that we are investing this money in a way that's going to not just put people back to work right now, but will continue to pay high dividends in the future.

CHARLES GIBSON: A couple of quick questions. There are "Buy America" provisions in this bill. A lot of people think that could set up a trade war, cost American jobs. You want them out?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I want provisions that are going to be a violation of World Trade Organization agreements or in other ways signal protectionism. *** I think that would be a mistake right now. That is a potential source of trade wars that we can't afford at a time when trade is sinking all across the globe.

***Per the White House, President Obama misspoke and meant to say, "I want provisions that are not going to be a violation of World Trade Organization agreements or in other ways signal protectionism."

CHARLES GIBSON: What's in there now? Do you think that does that? Do you want it out?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think we need to make sure that any provisions that are in there are not going to trigger a trade war.

CHARLES GIBSON: And secondly, AMT relief is in the Senate bill, alternative minimum tax, which makes it very expensive. It helps upper middle class people. Do you want that out?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think that most economists will tell you that the tax breaks that are most important for stimulating the economy are tax breaks to middle income people, working people who are going to spend them quickly, not to people like you and me, Charlie. We don't need tax breaks. We'll just put it in our bank accounts.

And so I think that my overarching approach would be to make sure that the tax cuts are targeted towards people in need.

CHARLES GIBSON: It sounds like you want it out.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: But look, this is an area where I'm happy to have conversations with the Republicans. The AMT has been a problem. I think a lot of the public doesn't know exactly what's going on there, but because it wasn't indexed inflation, you've got a tax that was originally targeted towards upper income Americans starting to hit middle class Americans. I want to protect the middle class, but I don't want that to push out important investments and tax breaks for working families.

CHARLES GIBSON: And final question. This completes two weeks in office.


CHARLES GIBSON: The job what you expected, tougher than you thought? Do you feel comfortable?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I feel surprisingly comfortable in the job. I think I've got a great staff. We've got a great team.

The challenges are big. You know, we've got an economy that I think is worse than anybody would have anticipated even two or three months ago. We've seen some progress in Iraq, but in Afghanistan we've got enormous challenges. And we've got a -- not just an immediate economic crisis, but a long-term budget issue in terms of the amount of debt that we're accumulating.

Trying to square all those circles is a challenge. But one thing that I'm absolutely convinced about is that you want to be president when you've got big problems. If things are going to smoothly, then this is just another nice home office.



CHARLES GIBSON: Nice to talk to you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Appreciate it. Thank you, Charlie.