TRANSCRIPT: Charles Gibson Interviews President Barack Obama

Read Charles Gibson's full interview with President Barack Obama.

ByABC News
December 15, 2009, 4:56 PM

Dec. 16, 2009 -- The following is the full transcript of ABC News' Charles Gibson's interview with President Barack Obama for "World News" on Dec. 16, 2009 in Washington, D.C..

CHARLES GIBSON: Mr. President, a year ago today, you were in Chicago. You knew you were going to be president, but you weren't. What didn't you anticipate? What did you underestimate? What didn't you know?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think the main thing is we didn't understand the rapidity of job losses in those first three months -- January, February, March -- actually, starting in December. You saw 700,000 jobs lost or 650,000 jobs lost in each of those months. So none of the economists had anticipated that.

By the time we were in legislative session, had actually passed a Recovery Act, you had already seen over 3 million jobs lost, on top of what had been lost the previous year, and that meant that unemployment was going to go up higher, and even as we moved aggressively to start boosting economic growth, we knew at that point that job growth was going to be lagging severely and that that was going to be one of our greatest challenges.

GIBSON: You surprised me a little, because I think -- and I've heard other presidents say -- the thing that you can't anticipate is the weight of the job when it comes to you, particularly when it comes to committing young men and women to war.

OBAMA: Well, I will tell you that, unfortunately, I anticipated the difficulties involved in managing two wars at the same time. I think Iraq has actually gone better than we anticipated, or at least as well as we could have anticipated. And I've been very fortunate to have extraordinary leadership not only in the secretary of defense, Bob Gates, who understood all the ramifications of our wartime policies, but also having Ray Odierno on the ground, who's been doing outstanding work.

So Iraq, I think, we knew we could manage, and we have. Afghanistan we understood was going to be a problem.

Now, we have been disappointed, I think, in the fact that the Taliban had gained more momentum during the course of the year than was anticipated. When General McChrystal came back with his assessment, the sense of what deterioration had taken place on the ground was worse than what had been initially reported.

The weight of making decisions around sending young men and women into war is something that, frankly, I foresaw being difficult. When you're in the midst of making the decisions, though, nothing compares. And when you meet with families and you talk to soldiers who've come home disabled as a consequence of their service, the -- the -- the sheer emotional force of that I think is something that you can't anticipate. It's something that hits you like a ton of bricks.

GIBSON: I've always been fascinated by this question of -- of what it takes and what you have to go through internally to send kids off, as you said a few moments -- when you were in the Nobel speech, you said some will kill and some will be killed.

OBAMA: Right.

GIBSON: It's an enormous responsibility. And before Gulf War I, I went to Kuwait, and I talked to the commanders, Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and I asked them, what does it feel like to commit kids to war? And they all said, "We don't. The president does. It's his job. We just carry out his order."

OBAMA: Right.

GIBSON: And I thought, "Holy God, what a weight that is on your shoulders."

OBAMA: It is tough. And, you know, probably the most powerful moment of my year was when I traveled up to Dover and not only met with the families who were there in the middle of the night waiting for their loved ones to come home in caskets, but walking up the ramp of the transport plane by myself and seeing those caskets, it's -- it's -- it's indescribable, and it reminds you of the extraordinary courage and sacrifice that these young men and women are willing to make, but it also reminds you that you have the solemn obligation to make the best possible decision that you can make and that there is an element of tragedy involved in war that is inevitable, and that was the topic of what I spoke about last week. And if you don't understand that, if you think that this is all chest-beating and glory, then you're probably not making the best decision as possible.

GIBSON: As you went through that assessment in recent weeks, is there a calculus in your mind? Do you have to go through it? What is this worth in terms of human life?


GIBSON: Is this goal worth 500 lives, 1,000 lives, 1,500 lives? Does that go through your head?

OBAMA: I don't think that you make a decision trying to weigh the value of 1 or 10 or 100 lives, because every life is precious. I think you make decisions based on an assessment of America's national security, the potential for additional lives, thousands of lives potentially being lost if we're not making the right decisions that preserve that national security.

What you want to make sure of is that, in these decisions, you are not making them based on abstractions, notions of, you know, of a battalion here or a battalion there, a brigade here, a brigade there, without understanding that in each of those battalions, in each of those brigades, there are young men and women with their lives ahead of them who you are committing.

And so that is a constant ballast, I think, to making the best possible decisions. But, look, part of the decision I have to make is also what is the absolute best way for us to prevent another 9/11 from happening. What is you know, how do we make sure that we're not in a situation in which a major American city is threatened?

So all these things go into the calculus. In the end, the best you can do is make sure that you've heard every opinion, that you have evaluated and analyzed every aspect of your decision, that you have clarity about what your choices are, understanding that the choices that you have are very rarely the ideal choice versus a terrible choice, but rather a range of choices, all of which have problems with them.

GIBSON: Cost-benefit analysis is what people go through. It's one thing when there's an insurance company or whatever, but when there's human lives at stake...


GIBSON: ... it's just totally different. How did you change from the beginning of that analysis and process that you went through to the end, inside you?

OBAMA: I think that there is a sobriety that overcomes you during the course of a decision like this that -- that's hard to describe. Look, we've had to make a lot of tough decisions this year. You know, there was moments where we thought that the financial system might be on the verge of collapse. There are decisions that you've got to make about intervening in the auto industry, which you know are going to be wildly unpopular.

And so there are a series of decisions that I've made, up until the decision most recently to send additional troops into Afghanistan, in each of those decisions, I could step back a little bit and say, "All right, what's" -- in -- in a fairly calculating, analytical way, what's the best decision to make?"

With this one, you feel it viscerally. You lose sleep. You think about families. You think about history. You walk through Arlington. You're reminded of the image of a mother in the rain sitting in front of a tombstone. And so the -- the gravity of the decision is just of a different quality.