Oct. 18, 2011 -- The following is a transcript from ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper's exclusive interview with President Obama on the economy and his overall performance for "Nightline" in Jamestown, N.C.
ABC News' Jake Tapper: Well, you're in a good mood right now, but on the trail you seemed a little... there's a little edge. There's a little tone of frustration and one of your friends told me that you are deeply frustrated and worried about the economy. You know, you swim in this economic data. How concerned are you and how worried should people be that we might be that we might be heading into a double dip?
President Obama: Even if we don't go into a double dip, what I feel is what the American people feel, which is that we have now gone through not only two-and-a-half, three years of post recession blues where housing crashed. People have lost the value of their homes, they've lost their jobs, all the struggles and strains that people are going through every day, but even before the crisis the hit, for a decade, people have seen their wages flat line, their incomes flat line.
So, yes, there is an enormous sense on my part that not only do we have to solve the immediate problems that the economy faces, but we've got to get this economy on a stronger foundation. If you hear a sense of urgency in my voice, it's because these problems are solvable, but you don't get a sense that we're moving in Washington with a sense of urgency that is required.
Tapper: Are you worried?
Obama: I'm not worried in the sense that I don't think we can solve these problems. The jobs plan that I put forward, we know that it will grow the economy by as much as 2 percent. We know that it could add as many as 1.9 million jobs. We can put teachers back in the classroom. We can put construction workers back on the job rebuilding our roads, bridges and schools. We know that would work. I'm not worried about the long term prospects of this economy because we still have the best universities in the world, the best workers in the world.
We've got the best entrepreneurs and the best market system in the world, but I am concerned that right now, things in Washington are broken. It seems as if too many folks are willing to put politics ahead of what is required and making the tough choices whether that's reducing deficit, whether it's putting people back to work, whether it's making investments that are necessary for us to become competitive, you don't get a sense of people all pulling together in the same direction. And that's what's going to be required to some very significant challenges.
Tapper: You have gotten a lot passed though, much of your agenda has been passed -- the stimulus, health care, Wall Street reform -- so we're sitting in a state right now where a majority of the voters disapprove of your handling of the economy and we're going to Virginia later, where a majority of the voters do not thing you deserve to be re-elected. We're sitting in a school, what grade would you give yourself?
Obama: Well, you know I'm not going to give myself a grade.
Tapper: Not even a midterm?
Obama: Other than "incomplete" because the work that we started is not yet done, but the fact is that the American people are rightly frustrated over what they see as a system in which responsibility is not always rewarded, where people who have done the right thing all their lives still seem to be struggling, that sense that the American dream is slipping away. I think that is something that helped get me elected but it hasn't been entirely solved yet, and in some ways it's gotten tougher for folks because of the financial crisis.
And I think most people understand that we didn't get into this problem overnight and we're not going to solve it overnight, but I think that after two-and-a-half, three years of elevated unemployment, home values declining substantially, people feeling as if everything they've worked for is still leaving them vulnerable and not having the security they've counted on, it's not surprising that people are feeling frustrated and as president of the United States, even though they don't think I caused the problem, they're still going to feel a justifiable impatience in terms of why aren't we able to get this in a better place.
What I say to the American people is that we are moving in the right direction, it is going to take time to heal all the problems that exist out there, the health care bill that we passed is absolutely the right thing to do but it's going to take awhile before it's even fully implemented, much less taken full effect, and you start seeing health care inflation stabilize. When it comes to education we're doing great reforms at the elementary and secondary levels but it could take 10 years before we start seeing the full effects of education reform taking place. That's why the jobs bill is so important because even as we're doing these structural reforms that put us in a stronger position in the long terms, we still have to help people now and the most important thing we can do right now is to make sure we're putting people back to work.
Tapper: Some of the frustration that has come out in this 'Occupy Wall Street' protest, you have expressed sympathy with their position, with their feeling of powerlessness. First of all, how do you, as president of the United States, channel an energy and anger that is aimed at you in some ways, aimed at Washington? And the other question I have is it seems as though sometimes your pitch, or the White House pitch, is you're almost a victim in this. You're not responsible when you have gotten so much past. I just wonder if you think that's effective to say, "it's those mean Republicans who are blocking me," when you've really gotten a lot done?
Obama: Well what we've gotten done I'm enormously proud of and it's making a difference, and in some cases we've had a chance to actually work with the Republicans. When they show themselves willing to actually engage to try and get stuff done, then we can do a lot of good for the country.
We just signed a series of trade agreements that potentially can create tens of thousands of jobs throughout this country so that we're starting to sell cars in South Korea and not just buy cars from South Korea. We just passed a bill to reform our patent system so our entrepreneurs are able to make sure that they're rewarded for the great ideas that they have and get them to market quicker. So wherever we can find areas of common cause, I'm ready and willing to work with them right away. But I don't say that we're victimized, I say that we got too little of the kind of "let's work together" attitude in Washington that we need, and that has been true since I came into office.
And that's just a fact, that the truth of the matter is that on a series of very important measures that could make a big difference, the most prominent being right now is putting people back to work, rebuilding our infrastructure, getting teachers back in the classroom, we haven't seen that attitude of cooperation that's necessary. The fact of the matter is, in the absence of some Republican support, they are able to block proposals even if they have gotten the support of the majority of American people. Sixty-three percent of the American people support the elements of my jobs plan, they support the idea that we should have the best infrastructure in the world. They support the idea that we shouldn't be firing teachers at time when we know education is the most important thing we can do to make sure our kids can compete in this economy. And yet, even though we've gotten a majority of senators in the Senate willing to move forward on this, because of the filibuster, because of the rules that are set up in the Senate, those things are blocked.
And most prominently on the debt ceiling debacle that we just went through, everybody knows that we are going to have to get our deficit under control, but we have to do it in a way that allows us still to invest. What I've said is I'm willing to go beyond the one trillion dollars in cuts that we've already made, we can cut programs that don't make sense, curb government spending but in order to close the deficit, people like myself should also pay a little more in taxes. People who are making a million dollars or more can afford to do a little bit more, and that ideological stubbornness that's unwilling to compromise and create a balanced approach to deficit reduction is another example of why people are so frustrated.
You asked earlier about "Occupy Wall Street" and what I've said is that I understand the frustrations that are being expressed in those protests. In some ways, they're not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party, both on the left and the right. I think people feel separated from their government, that the institutions aren't looking out for them and that the most important thing we can do right now is those of us in leadership, letting people know that we understand their struggles, we are on their side and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you're supposed to do, is rewarded, and that people who are irresponsible, who are reckless, who don't feel a sense of obligation to their communities and to their companies and to their workers, that those folks aren't rewarded.
You know, I think that we're at a critical moment in this country where if we can regain some of the values that help build this country, that people I think long for, where they feel that everybody gets a fair shake but we're also asking a fair share from everybody, but if we can go back to that, then I think a lot of that anger and frustration dissipates.
Tapper: It's just over two months until the Republican Iowa caucus. There's a lot of talk about the economy. I don't know if you're watching the debates, but I'm sure you're reading about them in the paper. Herman Cain has his 9-9-9 plan. What are you hearing from the Republicans when it comes to the economy? What do you think of their proposals?
Obama: I've got to say, what I haven't heard is anything new, across the board, whether it's coming from Congress or from the Republican candidates so far.
Tapper: 9-9-9 is new. (crosstalk)
Obama: Well, essentially what it says is that we're going to make sure that the wealthiest among us pay less and we replace any revenues with a sales tax that would be a huge burden on middle class families and working families. That's not new. I remember a candidate who ran against me, Alan Keyes who was running against me in the Senate, had a similar kind of proposal. Those ideas have been have been floating around for a long time. The overall thrust seems to be if we roll back regulations, and we lower taxes on those who are doing best, oftentimes by imposing more taxes on middle class and working class families, that somehow the economy is going to get better.
One of the things I'm most surprised about is hearing both from Republican members of Congress and Republican candidates, the notion that we should return to the rules that existed on Wall Street before the financial crisis. They want to roll back all the Wall Street reforms we put into place as if they've got amnesia about how we got into this problem in the first place.
We've set up, for example, under Wall Street reform a consumer advocate, a consumer protection board that, whose sole job is to make sure people aren't being taken advantage of when it comes to their credit cards or their mortgages, making sure that in their financial dealings they're being treated fairly and transparently. And right now, the Republicans have said they're not even going to confirm a consumer advocate, a consumer watchdog that we've nominated, Rich Cordray.
Tapper: You're going to talk a lot more about this in the coming days?
Obama: Absolutely, because I think whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, if you are an ordinary guy out there who seen what's happened on Wall Street, whose seen what's happened in the financial system, one thing you at least expect is that we are going to curb some of the reckless behavior that damaged the entire economy so profoundly.
And the notion that the Senate Republicans put forward what they call a jobs plan was one of their central tenants was we're going to roll back Wall Street reform and go back to the same rules that got us in this in the first place. I don't think that's going to find a lot of sympathy from the American people.
Tapper: Your senior political advisor David Axelrod has spent a lot of time in the last month talking about Mitt Romney. Is he your biggest challenge? Would he be the toughest candidate to beat?
Obama: I genuinely am not spending a lot of time worrying about who their candidate is going to be.
Tapper: I'm not asking if you're worried about it. I'm asking if you're thinking about it.
Obama: I guess what I'm saying is I saw in my own presidential race, and I've seen enough presidential races that people are surprised that it doesn't make sense for me to prognosticate on what I think is going to happen on their side. They're going to go through a process. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs. We've already seen people who get enormous attention suddenly go by the wayside. Somebody else will be lifted up. They'll go through the process and sometime next year they'll have a nominee.
What I am certain of, though, is that there's going to be a very clear contrast between whoever they nominate and their vision of where we should take the country and where I believe we should take the country. I think that on a whole host of issues, whether it's Wall Street reform, whether it's that we're investing in education or rebuilding our infrastructure, whether it's how we approach reducing our deficit. Are we going to do it in a balanced way or are we going to do it on the backs of our seniors or the middle class or the poor? On a whole range of these issues, there's going to be a clear choice for the American people to make.
I guarantee it's going to be a close election because the economy is not where it wants to be and even though I believe all the choices we've made have been the right ones, we're still going through difficult circumstances. That means people who may be sympathetic to my point of view still kind of feel like, yeah, but it still hasn't gotten done yet. This is going to be a close election and a very important one for the American people. The thing I hope the most is that everyone is going to be paying close attention to the debate that takes place because it could determine not just what happens over the next four years, but what'll happen over the next 20 or 30 years.
Tapper: The math is tough for you: 47 percent of the country voted against you with everything going your way, pretty much. It's not difficult to think that there are four million Americans who thought well, I gave him a shot. It didn't work. Unemployment is still high. Let's give this other guy another chance.
Obama: There's no doubt about it. I think someone asked me a while back if they thought I was the underdog and I said I was in 2008 and I think will be in 2012. You know, presidential elections in America are always tough because this is a country that is diverse. We have a lot of folks who feel very strongly on one side of the ledger or the other, but the thing I'm spending most of my time thinking about right now is how can I put people to work right now and how can I improve the economy right now and stabilize it.
The election is 13 months away and as I've been saying in some of my remarks as I travel around the country, there are a lot of folks living paycheck to paycheck, living day to day. They can't afford just 13 months of politics. What they need is action. So, if we can put of these construction workers back to work rebuilding our roads and bridges and schools, if we can get teachers back in the classroom, we can provide some tax breaks to small businesses who are hiring veterans or long-term unemployed. I have no idea what that does for the politics of the presidential election, I do know that there will be an awful lot of people out here doing better and are in a stronger position to dig themselves out of this very difficult economic circumstance we've been in.
Tapper: Just to change the subject from the economy, the "Fast and Furious" controversy. Aside from some of the more wild charges out there, this is a big scandal. The Justice Department, the ATF was moving guns and some of them were tied to crime scenes. what was your response when you first heard about it?
Obama: Well I heard about it from the news reports. This is not something we were aware of in the White House and the Attorney General it turns out wasn't aware of either. Obviously Eric Holder has launched a full investigation of this, it is not acceptable for us to allow guns to go into Mexico. Our whole goal has been to interdict aggressively in the flow of weapons and cash flowing south into Mexico because the Mexican president, President Calderon, has done a heroic job of trying to take on these transnational drug cartels. So this investigation will be complete, people who have screwed up will be held accountable but our overarching goal consistently has been to say we've got a responsibility not only to stop drugs from flowing north, we've also got a responsibility to make sure we are not helping to either arm or finance these drug cartels in Mexico. So it's very upsetting to me to think that somebody showed such bad judgment that they would allow something like that to happen and we will find out who and what happened in this situation and make sure it gets corrected.
Tapper: And lastly sir, on Friday we learned that you authorized the deployment of 100 Special Forces troops to Central Africa. The Lord's Revolutionary Army that these troops will be helping to remove their leaders from the battlefield, they are known for using child soldiers, and I'm wondering the process of agreeing to deploy troops in a situation like this where you know that these special forces might have to return fire and they might be firing upon child soldiers. How difficult is that as a decision to make?
Obama: Well none of these decisions are easy, but those who are familiar with the Lord's Resistance Army and their leader, Mr. Kony, know that these are some of the most vicious killers. They terrorize villages, they take children into custody and turn them into child soldiers, they engage in rape and slaughter in villages they go through. They have been a scourge on the Uganda and that entire region, eastern Africa. So there has been strong bi-partisan support and a coalition, everything from evangelical Christians to folks on the left and human rights organizations who have said it is an international obligation for us to try to take them on and so given that bipartisan support across the board belief that we have to do something about this, what we've done is we've provided these advisors, they are not going to be in a situation where they are called upon to hunt down the Lord's Resistance Army or actively fire on them, but they will be in a position to protect themselves. What they can do is provide the logistical support that is needed, the advice, the training and the logistical support that hopefully will allow this kind of stuff to stop.