Transcript: On the Trail With Barack Obama

Read the transcript of "Nightline's" interview with Sen. Barack Obama.

ByABC News
February 19, 2009, 8:15 AM

Nov. 26, 2007— -- Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., sat down with "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran on Nov. 24th, 2007 in Iowa. The following is a transcript of the interview.

TERRY MORAN: So let's talk about experience, which you talk about a lot. You said recently that the strongest experience you have in foreign relations is that you grew up for four years as a child in Southeast Asia.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, that's not exactly what I said. What I said was I think one of the things that sets me apart is that I spent time in other countries. And this wasn't just the four years that I was actually living in another country. My mother was a specialist in international development, and she, throughout my high school years, was traveling back and forth.

And so I was traveling all around the world at a very early age. And that had a formative influence on how I view the world. So at a very early age, I understood what deep, dire poverty meant, in a way that is hard for Americans to appreciate unless you've seen it up close, outside of this country, in the same way that I had and still have relatives who live in small villages in Africa, where they don't have electricity or running water.

And those shape and inform my judgments and, in many ways, I think give me insights into how the world thinks about America, thinks about us, that I think are unique in this field.

MORAN: And so what you learned at age 10, say, in Indonesia will really, truly make a practical difference for what you would do in the Oval Office in 2009?

OBAMA: You know, I think it's the same as the experience, the story that I tell about my mother dying of cancer, and those experiences of watching her and the health care system. It's the same experience presumably that John Edwards draws upon when he talks about growing up and seeing his father in a mill town.

You know, those kinds of experiences shape your attitudes in a way that reading books or, you know, taking seminars or taking a congressional delegation do not.

MORAN: It's different, isn't it?


MORAN: Do you think Americans are challenged by voting potentially for a presidential candidate who didn't have an American boyhood?

OBAMA: Oh, well, I think that it is both a challenge and an opportunity. I think there's no doubt that the fact that my name is Barack Obama and that my father was from Kenya and that I grew up in Hawaii that there's that whole exotic aspect to me that people, I think, have to get past. But they also, surprisingly enough, even in rural Iowa, recognize the opportunity to send a signal to the world that, you know, we are not as ingrown, as parochial as you may perceive or as the Bush administration seems to have communicated, that we are, in fact, embracing the world, we are listening, we are concerned, we want to be engaged.

We want to be safe. We want to be treated fairly. We want to make sure that, whether it's on trade relations or dealing with terrorism, that our national interests are dealt with. But we also recognize that we're part of the world community. And I think it was interesting, just here in Dunlap, you notice that some of the biggest applause was when I talked about wanting America to be respected again in the world. People understand this in a very significant way.

MORAN: Now, Hillary Clinton mocked your claim that your childhood experience would be relevant to foreign policy. She said she is a person that world leaders know, they look up to, and they're confident in, and she wouldn't need on-the-job training to be president. That's a pretty sharp jab.

OBAMA: You know, we must be doing pretty well in Iowa. She wasn't paying much attention to what I said before then.

MORAN: But she does -- her claim is that as somebody who was in the White House, lived in the White House for eight years, she's far more prepared to deal with world problems than you are.

OBAMA: Well, look, you know, if this a resume contest, then she certainly doesn't have the strongest resume of the people on the stage. I mean, I think that -- you know, if the question is longevity in Washington, then probably the top three candidates right now in the Democratic primary can't make that claim.

The question is, who's got the judgment and the vision to move the country forward? And I believe -- I wouldn't be running if I did not think that I've got the best judgment, in terms of what the country needs right now, both internationally and domestically, and if I did not believe that I can be the most effective agent for change, in terms of how we do business.

And so, you know, I've been in Washington long enough to know how it works. I've sat on Senate Foreign Relations Committees. I have traveled around the world in my capacity as a U.S. senator. I have confidence in my knowledge base to deal with the problems around the world. But what is most important, I think, is my capacity to prepare the damage that's been done around the world, and I think that I can present a new foreign policy and a new way of doing business that the world will respond to.

MORAN: I want to get to some specifics on that, but let me stick with this question of experience and the back-and-forth that you had with Senator Clinton on this. You got a little snarky there. You said, "Well, she wasn't treasury secretary."

OBAMA: Well, this is when, you know, she was making a claim about her vast economic experience, which is not evident just looking at her resume. I mean, I think the fact of the matter is that Senator Clinton is claiming basically the entire eight years of the Clinton presidency as her own, except for the stuff that didn't work out, in which case she says she has nothing to do with it.So NAFTA, for example, which was probably as significant an economic policy as ever came out of the Clinton administration, in the last debate, she suggested was a mistake. So, look, I have no problem with her making claims on behalf of her work as first lady being relevant to the presidency. That's her prerogative.

What she can't be is selective, in terms of, you know, cherry-picking and making determinations that she's now suddenly the face of foreign policy, that she shaped economic policy, except the stuff that didn't work out, in which case that was somebody else's problem or somebody else's fault.

MORAN: So you think her being first lady isn't all that, isn't as much as she's claiming?

OBAMA: Well, look, I have no doubt that she is an intelligent, capable woman. There's no doubt that Bill Clinton had faith in her and consulted with her on issues, in the same way that I would consult with Michelle, if there were issues. On the other hand, I don't think Michelle would claim that she is the best qualified person to be a United States senator by virtue of me talking to her on occasion about the work that I've done.

And I think that Senator Clinton certainly has experience that she should tout, and I don't think anybody would suggest that somehow she's not qualified to be president of the United States, in terms of the work that she's done in the United States Senate. I think she's done some good work. But I think that, you know, there is a tendency to overestimate some of the experience that is out there. In fact, our most successful presidents have been people who were successful not because of their wealth of Washington experience, but because of the life lessons and schools of hard knocks that they had gone through. And that's true whether you're talking about Lincoln, or FDR, or any of our greatest presidents.

MORAN: And you're now calling her out on that?

OBAMA: Well, I just think it's important that if we're going to talk about who can be a most effective agent for change in this contest that the issue of that particular kind of experience I think is less relevant to the American people right now than who can break down the grip of lobbyists in Washington, who is actually going to be able to deliver on promises that have been made, who is going to break out of the partisan gridlock that has prevented us from dealing with issues like health care, energy, or education? nd not only do I think that I'm best equipped to do that, but I think increasingly a lot of Americans are concluding that, as well.

MORAN: So change, let's look backwards for a moment. What does the word "Clintonian" mean to you?

OBAMA: You know, well, I wasn't sure that -- I didn't know that that was a verb or an adjective.

MORAN: You've never heard that word, that it's a "Clintonian" tactic or a "Clintonian" style of politics?

OBAMA: Well, you know, it's something that probably bounces around on the cable shows, and I don't watch them enough to know. I haven't heard it used on "Nightline" that much. Be more precise.

MORAN: All right, I'm raising an issue, I guess, of character, and that is sort of what is surfacing here around the edges of what you're saying about Senator Clinton. Is she the person that can be believed in when she says she's the agent of change? Is what she represents really what the country needs? Are you raising questions about her credibility?

OBAMA: Well, I am suggesting that she is running what Washington would consider a textbook campaign, which is you avoid answering real, tough questions, in part because you don't want to make yourself a target to Republican attack in the general election, that you shift positions when necessary in order to garner votes. This isn't unusual. I mean, this is, I think, stock and trade political practice.

And all I'm suggesting is that that's not what I think the country needs right now. I think we're at a unique time. The challenges we face are profound. Climate change is real and serious, and it's going to take a lot of work to solve. Overhauling our health care system is going to meet a lot of resistance from insurance companies, drug companies, from people who are accustomed to the status quo, even if they don't like it that much.

If we want to revamp our education system, that's going to require changing practices that date back to the agricultural age. And if we want to repair the damage that's been done around the world, we're going to have to initiate some diplomatic breakthroughs.

All of these things require, I think, a boldness that we haven't seen in a very long time, and the only way to get that boldness is to get a mandate from the American people. You can't finesse your way into taking these bold steps. You essentially have to say to the American people, "Here's what I'm going to do, and I'm banking that I can get a mandate from you to carry it out, because times are serious enough."

And so part of the debate taking place between myself and Senator Clinton and some of the other candidates really has to do with, what do you, American people, think is needed right now? If you think that we just need to tinker around the edges, if it's a matter of just sort, you know, muddling through and managing the status quo more effectively than George Bush has done, then I may not be the candidate who's the most obvious choice.

If, on the other hand, you think that we've got to do things fundamentally differently, and restore a sense of trust in our government, and have greater transparency, and that the American people have to be challenged a little bit more than they're being challenged right now, then I might be your guy.

MORAN: Policy. Iraq, there's no question at this point that there's been dramatic decreases in violence, just about across Iraq.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

MORAN: You still call for a withdrawal of combat troops. What would you say to somebody who says that is sacrificing, surrendering the progress that Americans have fought and died for?

OBAMA: Well, understand -- look, I am pleased with the reduction in deaths that have taken place. I intend to be the next president of the United States, and as such no one is rooting more than me for success in Iraq, so that I'm not inheriting this big mess. So I have no stock in failure in Iraq.

But here's the facts: 2007 was the highest -- had the highest death rate for U.S. troops of any year since this war began in Iraq. Same is true, by the way, in Afghanistan. We have reduced the levels of violence from the completely out of control, horrific levels that existed before the surge to the merely intolerable levels of violence that existed two years ago.

So we've essentially squared the block. We're back to where we started two years ago, except we've made no political progress. And my simple point is this, that the only way that we can secure a long-term stabilization of the country is if Iraqi leaders start arriving at some sort of political accommodation. They have not done so.

So the theory behind the surge, which was that we will give the breathing room for Iraqi politicians to make some better decisions about how they can live together, that has not happened. Now, the fact that fewer people are dying is terrific, but what that does not show is the kind of progress that would allow us over time to give the country back to the Iraqis.

And unless we set up a situation in which that can occur, it's never going to happen, and we could be there for 10 years, 20 years, with enormous implications, both for U.S. deaths, our standing the region, and our standing in the world, our capacity to negotiate with other countries around large problems like Iran's nuclear program or what's happening in Pakistan. Our overall national security I think is damaged the longer that we stay in Iraq.

MORAN: Let me press you on that. The surge did accomplish, in combination with some decisions that Sunni leaders made, the defeat of Al Qaida in Anbar province. If you had had your way, Al Qaida would still be in charge of that portion of Iraq.

OBAMA: Oh, not necessarily, because what I was always very clear about -- in fact, I would argue what's happened in Anbar argues for precisely why we need to start withdrawing. What changed in Anbar was the Sunni leadership making a determination, "You know what? The U.S. isn't going to be here forever, and we're starting to see, get a taste of what Taliban-style rule by Al Qaida in Iraq means for us, and it's not very attractive, so we'd better realign ourselves, start getting armed, and start getting trained so that we can make sure that we are determining our own fate."

It was a response to the recognition they had to be responsible for their own situation. And I would argue that, as we send a signal that we're going to initiate a withdrawal, but not a precipitous one -- the quickest we can get our troops out safely is one to two brigades a month. So you're looking at 16 months to get our combat troops out. If it hasn't started before I'm sworn in, you're talking about two years from now.

Now, if we cannot execute an intelligent, thoughtful exit strategy, and the Iraqi government cannot respond in an effective, positive way, over the course of the next two years to end our occupation in Iraq, then we may be looking at a decade- or two decade-long stay in Iraq. And that, I believe, would be disastrous for our long-term national security.

MORAN: Thank you. Another thing you said which got you into some trouble, you said you would negotiate…

OBAMA: Oh, so many things get me into trouble.

MORAN: You said you'd negotiate with the leaders of Iran and North Korea. So the United States, other countries believe Iran is bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon. What would you actually say to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that would persuade him to stand down?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, Ahmadinejad is not the only power in Iran. In fact, he's not the most powerful person in Iran. The clerics are in Iran.

MORAN: And you'd talk to them?

OBAMA: And I would talk to them, as well. And here's the argument that I would make. The United States reserves its military options, and we are gravely concerned about the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran. We think it destabilizes the region, portends a nuclear arms race. Sunni powers, like Saudi Arabia, may then decide they need to pursue a nuclear weapon. It threatens Israel, our staunch ally in the region.

And given the track record of Iran helping terrorist organizations, like Hamas and Hezbollah, there's the possibility that a nuclear weapon fell into the hands of terrorists. So we cannot abide by them developing a nuclear weapon.

On the other hand, we recognize that they have interests, as well, that is important for them to be part of the World Trade Organization. It is in their long-term interests if they can normalize diplomatic relations with other countries, including the United States. They're under enormous economic pressure, and they do need energy, ironically, despite being an OPEC country, because of their lack of refinery capacity.

So are there ways for us to work through a situation where the Iranians are able to meet their energy needs, their sovereignty is respected, and their economy grows? And they are able to partner with the world community to benefit their people long term. If we can work out a deal, that's something that we should be open to.

MORAN: President Obama would do a deal with Iran.

OBAMA: I think what you want is carrots and sticks. The notion that this is controversial indicates the degree to which the Bush-Cheney administration have shifted the debate in such a profoundly damaging way. I mean, think about it. We negotiated with Stalin. We negotiated with Mao, people who we knew had slaughtered millions of their own people. I mean, the notion that this country that spends 1/100th of what we spend on military equipment every single year, that somehow we are treating, elevating them to this level that we can't even talk to them makes no sense.

And the irony is, is that, of the original axis of evil countries that the Bush administration identified, the one country that was probably the most dangerous and most volatile, North Korea, is the one that we've talked to and where we're seeing the most progress in getting them to stand down on nuclear weapons. So the notion that anything I said was controversial, given the track record of the alternatives, I think indicates the degree to which we have governed by fear when it comes to our foreign policy, as opposed to thinking in tough, strategic, smart ways, ways that have historically, by the way, been bipartisan. I mean, this is not something that is uniquely Democratic or left-wing. I mean, this is standard -- should be standard, realistic, tough, thoughtful, diplomatic strategy.

MORAN: So your cousin, Dick Cheney, has got it all wrong?

OBAMA: You know, he's definitely got this one wrong, yes, yes.

MORAN: Thanks.

OBAMA: Thank you.

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