JIM LEHRER: And now to our newsmaker interview with the vice president of the United States.
I spoke with Vice President Biden this afternoon in the Secretary of War suite at the Old Executive Office Building in Washington — the first subject, the protests in Egypt.
Mr. Vice President, welcome.
U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Good to be with you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go, to stand aside?
JOE BIDEN: No, I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that — to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there.
These are — a lot of the people out there protesting are middle-class folks who are looking for a little more access and a little more opportunity.
And the two things we have been saying here, Jim, is that violence isn’t appropriate and people have a right to protest. And so — and we think that — I hope Mubarak, President Mubarak, will — is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised.
JIM LEHRER: You know President Mubarak.
JOE BIDEN: I know him fairly well.
JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to him about this?
JOE BIDEN: I haven’t talked to him in the last three days.
I — last time I — actually, I haven’t talked to him in about a month. But I speak to him fairly regularly. And I think that, you know, there’s a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into — all the way to Pakistan, actually. And there’s — a lot of these countries are beginning to sort of take stock of where they are and what they have to do.
JIM LEHRER: Some people are suggesting that we may be seeing the beginning of a kind of domino effect, similar to what happened after the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Poland came first, then Hungary, East Germany.
We have got Tunisia, as you say, maybe Egypt, who knows. Do you smell the same thing coming?
JOE BIDEN: No, I don’t.
I wouldn’t compare the two. And you and I used to talk years ago about what was going on in Eastern Europe.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
JOE BIDEN: A lot of these nations are very dissimilar. They’re similar in the sense that they’re Arab nations, dissimilar in the circumstance.
For example, Tunisia has a long history of a more progressive middle class, a different set of circumstances, a different relationship with Europe, for example. And the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt’s the largest Arab country in the world.
So, I don’t see any direct relationship, other than there seems — it might be argued that what is happening in one country sparks whatever concern there is in another country. It may not be the same concern. It may not be even similar, but the idea of speaking out in societies where, in the recent past, there hadn’t been much of that occurring.
But I don’t — I think it’s a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it’s a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.
JIM LEHRER: The word — the word to describe the leadership of Mubarak and Egypt and also in Tunisia before was dictator. Should Mubarak be seen as a dictator?
JOE BIDEN: Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.
And I think that it would be — I would not refer to him as a dictator.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vice President, should we be — should the United States be encouraging these protesters, whether they’re in Tunisia or Egypt or wherever? They want their rights. And should we encourage them to seek them, if it means going to the streets or whatever?
JOE BIDEN: I think we should encourage both those who are, to use your phrase, seeking the rights and the government to talk, to actually sit down and talk with one another, to try to resolve some of what are the — the interests that are being pursued by those who are protesting.
Now, so far, there seems to be some differences. And, historically, in the past, the concern was in some of these countries that some of the more radical elements of the society, more radicalized were the ones in the streets.
Some could argue, might argue that what’s going on in Lebanon was different than what’s going on in Egypt, in terms of who is the — who the protesting forces are. Hezbollah is not, doesn’t seem to be what is the nature of the protest that’s going on in Egypt right now.
But — so, not every one of these circumstances is the same, which was my point before.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
JOE BIDEN: We’re encouraging the protesters to, as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we’re encouraging the government to act responsibly and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out.
JIM LEHRER: Does the U.S. have any role to play in this?
JOE BIDEN: I think the role we have to play is continuing to make it clear to us that we think violence is inappropriate on the part of either party — either of the parties, the government or the protesters.
JIM LEHRER: But there was something said today. I think the president said or the president’s spokesman said the United States is not going to take sides in this dispute in Egypt.
Is that correct? Is that a correct…
JOE BIDEN: Well, look, I don’t — I wouldn’t characterize it as taking sides.
I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable accommodation — accommodation and discussion, to try to resolve peacefully and amicable the concerns and claims made by those who’ve taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to, because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.
So, it’s very much, I would argue, in the government’s interest. But it’s also in the interest of those who are seeking those rights. Again, that’s different than some protests that occur in that region of the world that are really designed to overthrow a government for the purpose of establishing an autocracy that is more regressive than anything that exists.
JIM LEHRER: New subject, Mr. Vice President.
In light of the Tucson tragedy, are you in favor of federal legislation that would ban the sale of these multiround cartridges, holders?
JOE BIDEN: Jim, you may remember, in the old days, when I had some real power…
JIM LEHRER: Oh, yes.
JOE BIDEN: I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
JOE BIDEN: I’m the guy that first passed and wrote the assault-weapons ban and — and also tried to pass legislation relative to the size of magazines, that is the — those clips that hold all the bullets that get shoved up into the rifle.
JIM LEHRER: The 31 — those 31 rounds.
JOE BIDEN: Yes. And there’s all kinds of them of various…
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.
JOE BIDEN: So — so, I, as a senator, and I, as an elected official, have been on record as supporting — and we did originally have an assault-weapons ban in place.
But here’s what’s going on right now in the administration. There are a number of proposals coming forward that are going to be looked at by the Justice Department and the president will speak to, as he takes a look at what some of the suggestions are relative to how to deal with what is deemed by most Americans as, you know, not appropriate or consistent with the Second Amendment, which we strongly support.
And — but — but the president has not made a decision on those at this point. And we’re just getting the input from the House and the Senate and others. And the Justice Department is looking at it. And the president, as his spokesman said, will be speaking to those.
JIM LEHRER: But if the president asks you, the answer is going to be, yes, ban them, right?
JOE BIDEN: Well, my advice, as you know — and you have been doing this so long — shoot, if it’s going to have any impact, it shouldn’t be delivered to him through a news program.
JIM LEHRER: Gotcha.
JOE BIDEN: It should be delivered to him by me personally.
JIM LEHRER: Why didn’t the president even mention that in his State of the Union address?
JOE BIDEN: Well, look, there’s so many things — I was asked earlier, why didn’t the president mention mental health? Why didn’t he mention — there’s a thousand things that could have legitimately been mentioned.
And had he 10 hours, or this were going to be five States of the Union, there’s a lot more that could have been mentioned. His purpose was to, number one, recognize the tragedy and the human loss and the impact it’s had on the individual families, as a consequence of what happened to Gabby Giffords’ town hall or grocery store meet-and-greet, and to recognize how — how barbaric and how sort of totally out of character with our American democratic system that kind of action is.
My guess is that, just as his, I thought, incredibly, incredibly moving talk in Tucson was, this is — he does not — did not want to get into this blame-game issue and have it divert from — the main concern right now is the empathy for those who have passed, the prayers and help of them whose have survived and trying to make it, like Congresswoman Giffords, as well as talk about the state of the union.
And the state of the union, I think, he laid out very well. He pointed out, Jim, that, relative to the rest of the world, we shouldn’t forget we are so much better positioned than any part the world. Our GDP is three times what the Chinese is. Our individual GDP is one — theirs is one-twelfth.
We are a vibrant, vibrant country — reminding people the base from which we start, but saying, if we’re going to maintain this position, the rest of the world is starting to move, and we have to invest in education, innovation and infrastructure in order to maintain our leadership in the 21st century.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vice President, we did some reports on the NewsHour last night from around the country, public media…
JOE BIDEN: Yes. Yes.
JIM LEHRER: … various public media reporters, about how the State of the Union went down, the address went down.
And many, many people said, well, that was great, talking about high-speed rail 30 years from now and whatever, but I need a job now.
JOE BIDEN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: And the president didn’t speak directly to that.
JOE BIDEN: Well…
JIM LEHRER: That — that…
JOE BIDEN: Well, I think, in fact, the president did speak directly to that by pointing out that the initiatives we have taken, as controversial as they were, are actually beginning to bear fruit, that, if you look at the surveys, a significant portion of the corporations in America are saying they’re going to be hiring beginning the middle of this year and moving on.
We — he could have used as the example the automobile industry, which has hired now back over 75,000 people, how we are beginning the confidence and the economic recovery is taking root. People are beginning to invest. The one — one dark spot for a while here is going to be housing and housing foreclosure. But almost every other indicia of growth and — and employment is moving up.
And so he — what the message was, what we have done is taking root. It’s going to increase, and it’s going to increase much more rapidly. But, in order to be able to move to a better place than we were before we went into this god-awful recession, which we inherited, we have got to begin to put in place the things that are going to sustain us and kick-start us for the next 20 years.
JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say, though, Mr. Vice President, that as a practical matter, the tools available now to the president or to the federal government generally to create jobs are few — fewer and fewer?
In other words, interest rates are already down. There are so many things that have already — no more stimulus package is politically viable.
JOE BIDEN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Most of it is dependent on it just happening through — through the natural flow of events?
JOE BIDEN: Well, there’s — there’s some truth to that.
Let me parse that a little bit.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
JOE BIDEN: First of all, the Recovery Act, which was much maligned by the opposition, still has a — billions of dollars left to spend out over the remainder of this first six months, which is acting as stimuli and actually employing people.
The second piece of this is the — the tax deal we negotiated in the lame-duck session with Republicans. Remember, it was thought it was going to be a terrible thing. And I remember coming out and pointing out that this is going to raise the GDP by somewhere one and one-and-a-half percent, increase employment and confidence.
It has. It’s just kicking in. The payroll tax is kicking in now. People are beginning to realize what, in fact, they will have, which will mean they will have at least $1,000 bucks more in their paycheck this year. It’s like a $1,000-buck tax break.
Consumer confidence is responding to the fact that we’re actually beginning to work together, and that payroll tax cut, along with the whole deal on taxes, so — and what the president’s proposing, as well, in terms of innovation, particularly in infrastructure.
Infrastructure creates jobs. Now, I know our Republican friends talk about it’s another spending program and let free enterprise do it. Name me a company that’s going to build an interchange to allow them to get in and out of their corporate headquarters. Name me a company that’s building highways or railroad beds in order to have their products be able to get to market.
Name me a country that’s — a company that’s able to invest what is needed in order to — expanding broadband across the United States of America, so that we can increase economic activity and independence.
So, the fact of the matter, infrastructure creates jobs. And the only outfits that can do it are the government. And so it has a dual effect of enhancing our ability to grow, but also immediately putting people to work.
And the president’s proposed it. We will see how — you know, that old thing. You know, it’s the president’s to propose and the Congress’ to dispose. But hopefully, they will see the wisdom in something we offered.
JIM LEHRER: But doesn’t that also just bring into stark relief the different — differing philosophies?
JOE BIDEN: It does. It does, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: You — I mean, the role of government. I mean, you and the Democrats might think one way.
JOE BIDEN: You’re absolutely right.
One of the things that I — that I was — I have lunch with the president regularly. I had — he and I have lunch alone together. We just — whatever’s on each of our minds. We had lunch today, as a matter of fact. And…
JIM LEHRER: What did you talk about?
JOE BIDEN: Well, we talked about this.
JIM LEHRER: No, I’m just…
JOE BIDEN: No, no, no, I’m serious.
JIM LEHRER: OK. OK.
JOE BIDEN: It’s not classified.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.
JOE BIDEN: We talked about economic recovery. We talked about what we had to do.
And one of the things that was pointed out is, Congressman Ryan’s response, for example — he’s a bright and totally earnest guy — but it reflects the fundamental, philosophic difference that exists about the role of government.
For example, I find it fascinating, today’s Republicans eschew what former Republican presidents have done, whether you go back, the — the government has no role. The Intercontinental Railroad would not have been built, were it not for the fact that a Republican named Lincoln decided to give $16,000 in government bonds for every mile of railroad that private enterprise would build across the country.
It would have taken another 20 to 30 years for it to happen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, we — you know, we talk about the Sputnik moment. What everybody forgets, he said, look, we have — we have got to make some big changes. And he set up this thing in the Defense Department called ARPA, which is a research arm in the defense piece.
ARPA spent $25 million to come up with a thing called ARPANET. ARPANET is the Internet. No company was prepared to invest that kind of money.
So, the idea that, somehow, investing seed money in innovative projects is somehow contrary to the free enterprise system and what is needed by government — I find it interesting. The Chamber of Commerce endorsed — the Chamber of Commerce, who spent, legitimately, millions of dollars to defeat Democratic candidates, as they — their right, endorsed our plan relative to infrastructure.
And, yet, you have Republican congresspersons up there saying, no, no, boy, this is not — this is just wasteful government spending.
It’s a philosophic difference on the role of government.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, you mentioned having lunch with the president today.
JOE BIDEN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: How would you describe the relationship you have with President Obama?
JOE BIDEN: It’s one that — I will tell you how he’s described it. He’s described it as one where we have become close, personal friends.
Literally, today, we were talking about a matter relating to foreign policy, and I said, “You know what’s made this” — this is literally a conversation, where I said: “You know what’s made” — I won’t tell you the exact subject, but I said: “You know what’s made this job so easy for me? Of all the candidates running for president when we were debating one another, the only two that didn’t have one single philosophic difference are you and I.”
And it’s literally true. If you go back and look at every disagreement all the candidates had, the only one — ours were slight, nuanced differences. But we were philosophically on the same page in everything, which also makes it easier, and makes it easier, because he can just — he can give me big chunks of responsibility, and says just do it, no checking on it: “Do Iraq, Joe. Do it. Do the — do the Recovery Act” — or whatever.
So, it’s been a really — this was an office I did not seek, and I wasn’t, as you probably heard, enthusiastic about wanting to do it to begin with.
JOE BIDEN: It’s the best decision I have made.
And he is — he says — I’m sure he’s just trying to be nice to me — he says it’s the best decision he’s made.
I think that’s how we both feel about it. The relationship is really good. But, most of all, there’s absolute trust. And he knows I will always have his back, and I know he has mine.
JIM LEHRER: Do you expect to be on the 2012 ticket with him?
JOE BIDEN: He asked me if I would do that over a year ago.
JOE BIDEN: And I told him I would, yes.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
Mr. Vice President, thank you very much.
JOE BIDEN: Thank you.