Text of President Barack Obama's interview Friday with Associated Press White House Correspondent Ben Feller, as transcribed by the White House:
Q: I wanted to start by jumping right in about the discussion about the debt. Many Americans may not know or may not care about the federal debt limit, but your administration is talking about a looming catastrophe if this borrowing limit is not increased. I'd like to get your assessment of just how bad this could be. Do you think a failure to raise the debt limit by Congress would plunge the economy into another recession?
A: Well, first of all, I'm confident we're going to raise the debt limit. We always have. We will do it again. And one of the encouraging things in meetings with both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders is they all agree that it needs to happen. And here's why. Basically, under the law, we have to raise the debt ceiling in order to sell our debt, our Treasury bills, to the public or to other countries. That's how we finance the government. If at some point you did not raise the debt ceiling, then effectively you would have trouble paying off your obligations as a government. Now, the United States government is not only important to us but the solvency and the full faith and credit of the United States is important to the entire world economy _ the dollars, the reserve economy, all around the world. So the bottom line for the public is that if for some reason we played chicken with this thing it could really destabilize world financial markets and you could potentially have a significant financial event like the one that we've just gone through, and could plunge the world economy back into recession. Now, as I said, I'm confident that we won't do that. But unlike a government shutdown where you can kind of accommodate it for a week or two without huge distortions in the economy, this is one where you don't even want to get close to the line. And that's why it's going to be so important for us to get a resolution on our overall approach to debt and deficit reduction, and we need to do that in a couple months.
Q: Well, let me follow up on your point, your confidence that this is going to get done. Obviously you need support of the House and the House Republicans to make that happen. Just yesterday House Speaker John Boehner said there's no way it's going to happen unless there's spending cuts as part of the deal. His quote was, "I'm just going to tell you right now it will not pass the people's house."
A: Well, I think he's absolutely right that it's not going to happen without some spending cuts. And that's why we just went through a process where we cut the deficit, we cut annual spending by the largest amount in history. We cut annual spending by the largest percentage since 1982 of the overall economy. So all of us are committed to making sure that we reduce the debt and we reduce the deficit. And in my speech this week I laid out a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan. There is overlap in terms of approach between Democrats and the Republicans. We both want spending cuts; we both want to make sure that we're not wasting taxpayer dollars. There are some fundamental differences in overall approach. The Republican plan that I believe may be voted on today in the House of Representatives wants to make Medicare into a voucher program. That's something that we strongly object to. I think that we can meet our commitments to seniors while making sure that we are also making the investments that we need to grow the economy and reduce the deficit. One of the differences is we think that people like myself who have been extraordinarily fortunate can afford to pay a little more in taxes to make sure that seniors have Medicare that they can rely on, to make sure that we're investing in medical research, make sure that we're able to rebuild our roads and our bridges. So there are some philosophical differences. But all of us agree that we're going to have to get control of our spending and live within our means, and I'm confident we can do that.
Q: If that's the deal, though, from the Republicans, no debt limit increase unless there are more spending cuts, would you do it?
A: I think that there's going to be a discussion when the Congress gets back from recess. I've set up a process where the Vice President is going to sit down with folks from both parties, both chambers, and we're going to have to just work through how do we put a serious plan together. We may not bridge every difference. There are going to be some areas that are left to the 2012 election debate, where we go before the American people and say, look, what kind of society do we want? And that's a good, healthy debate to have. And I'm going to argue that the kind of society we want is one in which our seniors are protected through Medicare and Medicaid. We have to make sure that we modify the program and drive down health costs overall, but I don't want to just dump all those costs onto seniors. And I'm willing as an American who now has a pretty high income to pay a little bit more to make sure that seniors are looked after, poor kids are looked after, to make sure we're making investments. The Republicans have a different approach, and I'm interested in having that debate because I think it's an important debate to have. What we can't do is let that debate get in the way of us taking care of the business right in front of us, which is making sure that the recovery continues, we're putting people back to work and that America pays its bills.
Q: Well, I understand. I guess I just don't see the path to how this happens on the debt limit vote. It sounds like you think maybe the stakes are so high that, push comes to shove, the Republicans will give in.
A: Well, no, I don't expect the Republicans to give in and I get 100 percent of my way; and I don't expect that we're going to give 100 percent of what the Republicans want. I think what we want to do is make sure that we have a smart compromise that is serious where the financial markets and the American public can say, these guys have finally gotten serious about our government living within our means, and we're doing it in a fair and balanced way so that sacrifices are shared and the burden doesn't all just fall on our seniors or on people who are vulnerable.
Q: Let me ask you about some of your language of the last few days on this front. In your speech about the long-term deficit plan, you said that the Republican alternative is deeply pessimistic. And in your political fundraisers here in Chicago last night, you said the Republicans don't think we can afford to be compassionate. As you run for re-election, is that how you see the Republican vision? Are the Republican leaders lacking compassion and they're pessimistic?
A: Well, I think that they genuinely believe and sincerely believe that the only way to get control of our deficit is to slash spending so drastically and to fundamentally change the social compact we have with seniors around Medicare that we would have a fundamentally different society than the one that we have now. And I don't think there's any disputing that. I think if you talk to Republicans, they would nod in agreement. Now, if you look at the House Republican budget that they've proposed, you would have to cut education by 25 percent; you'd have to cut transportation spending by 30 percent. It does make Medicare into a voucher program. That fundamentally changes our society. It's not compelled by the numbers; it's compelled by their insistence that people like myself, millionaires and billionaires across the country, shouldn't pay anything more in taxes, shouldn't go back to the rates that existed back in the 1990s, when wealthy people were doing well _ and, in fact, they want to give more tax breaks to those folks. Now, I think they're entirely sincere in believing that that's the kind of society that we should want. I just fundamentally disagree with it. I don't know how we have a world-class infrastructure where we have the best ports, the best roads, the best airports, the best railways _
Q: You said they might lead us to third world _
A: Well, literally, if you look at the numbers, we could not afford to repair our roads in this country under their budget. We couldn't afford to provide the kind of financial assistance that we provide to poor kids or middle-class kids to go to college. We just couldn't afford it. We could not afford under the budget that they've proposed to invest in medical research in the way that we're currently doing. So that's what I mean when I say that it is a pessimistic vision. It's one that says that America can no longer do some of the big things that made us great, that made us the envy of the world, and so we're going to leave it to China or we're going to leave it to Japan or we're going to leave it Brazil to make these big investments, to have the new discoveries. And that's not I think how most of us think America should be.
Q: One of the big forces in politics has been the tea party. We're coming up on about the two-year mark of that movement. On balance, has it been good or not for the country?
A: I think anytime the American people are actively engaged in the political process, it's good. I think it is important for people to be paying attention. I think that what the tea party movement has done is forced some questions to the surface about who we are as a people and what can we afford and what kind of government do we want. Obviously, I have very different views than many in the tea party, and certainly, they would say they have very different views from me, in terms of the proper role of government in our society. But my general view is, is that the more engaged the American people, the more focused they are, then the better off our democracy will be over the long term.
Q: I'm going to shift to defense and foreign affairs here on a few fronts. Your defense secretary, Robert Gates, is expected to leave his position this summer. Would you consider hiring Secretary Clinton to replace him?
A: Well, let me just say this. Bob Gates I think will go down as one of the finest defense secretaries in our history. If I could get him to re-up, I would. He has been outstanding not only in helping to manage the wind-down of one war, manage the transition process that we're going through in Afghanistan, but he's also initiated reforms in the Defense Department that are hugely significant _ eliminating weapons programs we don't need, sometimes over the objection of members of Congress. He has helped me think about our defense strategy in the long term in a very effective way. So he's going to be sorely missed. The only reason that he's leaving is originally he had signed on only to stay on one extra year. I convinced him to stay on another extra year. Now it's been two and a half years, and I think he just _ he will have I think served longer than just about any other defense secretary in a very long time. Secretary Clinton has been as good of a secretary of state as I could have hoped for, and I think she's happy in that job. And she is an integral part of my foreign policy team. So we're going to have to make some decisions in terms of who the next secretary of defense is.
Q: Is that a possibility, though?
A: I'm not going to comment on specific possibilities. I will say I could not be happier with the performance of both people.
Q: In Libya, the conflict is beginning to look like exactly the bloody stalemate that a lot of people, including yourself, wanted to avoid. You still have civilians being killed, despite the efforts of the international community. Are you willing to have the United States take a more active military role, perhaps a lead role again to break this deadlock between Gadhafi and rebels?
A: Well, keep in mind what I originally said and what I expected. I didn't expect that in three weeks, suddenly as a consequence of the air campaign, that Gadhafi would necessarily be gone. What I said was that under the U.N. mandate we had an obligation to protect civilians from potential atrocities. And we have succeeded in that. That's true that some civilians may be still getting killed, but we don't have wholesale slaughter in places like Benghazi, a city of 700,000, that Gadhafi said he would show no mercy on because that's a site of a lot of opposition. So what we've been able to do is to set up a no-fly zone, set up an arms embargo, keep Gadhafi's regime on its heels, make it difficult for them to resupply. And you now have a stalemate on the ground militarily, but Gadhafi is still getting squeezed in all kinds of other ways. He's running out of money. He is running out of supplies. The noose is tightening, and he is becoming more and more isolated. And my expectation is, is that if we continue to apply that pressure and continue to protect civilians, which NATO is doing very capably, then I think over the long term, Gadhafi will go and we will be successful. But again, it's only been three weeks. And I'm actually very impressed with the performance of NATO so far. And I'm very pleased that we've been able to do exactly what we said we were going to do, which is transition so that we are primarily in a support role. The last point I would make, I think it's important to understand that in the absence of boots on the ground, there's a limit to what any air campaign can accomplish, whether it's our fighter jets who are carrying out strikes, or it's British fighter jets, or it's Danish fighter jets. The fact of the matter is, is that in the absence of actual soldiers on the ground, Gadhafi's forces are still going to be able to at least defend their current positions, particularly when we're concerned about collateral damage, civilian casualties. We don't want to just indiscriminately bomb Tripoli and result in a lot of deaths of the very people that we said we were going to protect.
Q: So do you see the U.S. military role changing any time soon?
A: I don't think it's necessary at this point. At this point, we've gotten good participation from our coalition partners. They are doing exactly what they promised they would do. They are still striking at targets, Gadhafi targets, particularly those that start moving on the offensive against opposition areas. And what we're doing is we're still providing jamming capacity, intelligence, refueling. So we've still got a lot of planes in the air up there. We're just not the ones who are involved in the direct strikes on the ground for the most part.
Q: You've got a decision coming up on Afghanistan. You've promised to start bringing troops home in July. Can you give the American people a sense of will that troop withdrawal be modest? How many are we talking about?
A: I'm not going to give a number yet. Gen. (David) Petraeus is providing me with an assessment. Obviously all these things depend on conditions on the ground. We are confident, though, that we've been able to lift up an Afghan security force that is getting better, more professional, larger; a transition has begun so that they can start taking over protection against the Taliban in certain areas. I'm confident that the withdrawal will be significant. People will say _
A: Well, they will say this is a real process of transition; this is not just a token gesture. But exactly what those numbers are, how it gets spread out over the course of several months, that's something that I want Gen. Petraeus to give me a clear recommendation on.
Q: OK. I've gotten a sign that we're winding up here, so I might do one of your favorite multiparters here.
A: There you go.
Q: Guantanamo Bay prison: Will it be closed while you're President of the United States?
A: I still believe it should be closed. I still believe that it is a symbol of our past efforts that, sincere as they were, ended up cutting some corners in terms of our commitment to due process and our commitment to rule of law. I know that it's a very emotional issue for folks. But one of the things _ I was speaking to a group, and somebody from New York asked me about this issue because of Attorney General (Eric) Holder's decision to try KSM _ Mohammed _ who was the planner of 9/11. And they said, We're glad you're not doing it in New York. And I said it was important for us to make a decision to go ahead and prosecute this guy _ it's been 10 years now, the families deserve justice. But I'm _ I remain convinced we could have handled this in New York. We could have handled it in a normal court. I think it's very important for us not to elevate folks who are murderers and thugs into something special. Our criminal justice system is _ and our trial system is capable of prosecuting terrorists. We've done it before; we can do it again. And I think that we do a disservice to the cause of America's security when we elevate these guys into some special category. They're just a bunch of people who had no regard for human life and are willing to kill people, and we've got to go after them with everything we can. And we have _ which is why al Qaeda in the region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is probably as hunkered down and as embattled and as weak as it has been over the last 10 years. We have been going at them hard. But we don't have to cower down ourselves or somehow feel that they have some special powers that prevent us from trying them and going after them in a serious way.
Q: The premise of the question, though, was about closing Guantanamo while you're president. You said you would like to do it _
A: Well, look, there's no doubt that _ we're not going to do it right now. And the reason is, is that members of Congress feel very strongly that we shouldn't and there are a lot of people who are afraid of the possibilities of bringing some of these individuals to the continental United States. It's my job to give people some assurance that we can handle this effectively, and obviously I haven't been able to make the case right now, and without Congress's cooperation we can't do it. That doesn't mean I stop making the case.
Q: Last question here: You know what it takes to win the presidency. I'd like to hear you assess yourself as candidly as you can, going into a re-election bid, what's your biggest weakness?
A: Well, I think that I have learned an enormous amount over the last two and a half years as president and before that, almost two years as a candidate. My biggest strength is my confidence in the American people. And I think that when I'm out campaigning and interacting with folks, I draw an energy from them and an optimism and a confidence about the future from them that can keep me going 24/7. I think that my biggest concern when it comes to re-election is my biggest concern as president of the United States, which is, is our economy moving fast enough to give people the kind of relief that they need. We now have an economy that is growing again. We've seen almost 2 million jobs in the private sector created just over the last year, year and a half. But there's still a lot of people unemployed. The unemployment rate is still way too high. And people are still feeling pressed. When I'm in conversations with folks, the thing they're talking about is gas prices, for example, which is taking a big chunk out of family budgets. Now, the fact that we passed tax cuts in December that have put money into the pockets of every American out there will help to provide a buffer against some of these gas price shocks. But if you're driving 50 miles a day to work and you've got an old car that doesn't get very good gas mileage and you're already having trouble paying the bills, that is tough. And so what I've said is, for example, on something like gas prices, we don't have a silver bullet. We have to increase production of oil here in the United States. But any increased production we initiate now isn't going to come online for a while. We've got to make our cars more energy efficient. We've already done that, but we can do more. We've got to make sure that we're exploring every alternative energy, from natural gas to biofuels to solar to wind to electric cars. Those are all medium- to long-term efforts that can make a huge difference in freeing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil. But in the meant ime, people are having a tough time at the pump right now. And so I can provide tax cuts to them so that they've got a little more money in their pocket that can help them absorb these higher prices, and we're going to keep on trying to do everything we can. But those are the kinds of issues that are on people's minds on a day-to-day basis. And that's not a political challenge for me; that's my challenge as president that I wake up every day with, that I go to bed every night with. And that is, how can I work so that ordinary folks who are out there working really hard, looking after their family, being responsible, doing the right thing _ how can I make sure that what we're doing in Washington, what I'm doing in the White House, what our government is doing, is helping them, as opposed to hindering them, from achieving the American dream.
Q: Do you think you can win re-election in this economy?
A: I think the economy is going to continue to improve and I think I'm going to be able to make an effective case that, given the extraordinary circumstances that I inherited when I came in _ the worst recession since the Great Depression _ that not only have I been able to yank this economy out of that hole and get it back on a track to growth, but that we've been able to make changes in our economy through Wall Street reform; through a health care bill that is going to start driving down costs and provide people coverage so they don't go bankrupt when they get sick; we've been able to invest in clean energy; we've been able to make college loans more accessible and cheaper to young people; that the package of things we've been able to do is going to help us win the future, and that I am the person who is best prepared for us to finish the job so that we are on track to succeed in the 21st century. I think I can make that case. And I think that in the debates that take place over the next 18 months the American people will feel that I deserve a second term. But in the meantime, I've got this day job that I've got to worry about. And so there will be plenty of time for campaigning. Right now what I'm worried about is how I do the best possible job.