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In First Interview After Election, Obama Discusses President’s Abilities, Limits

November 17, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama's first post-election interview Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes" offered insight on his immediate plans, long-term goals and limits to his presidential power. Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker discusses the interview's revelations.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, over 24 million Americans watched Barack Obama on “60 Minutes” last night, his first television interview since winning the presidency. The president-elect spoke to CBS about national security, the struggling economy, and energy independence.

Here are three excerpts.

STEVE KROFT, correspondent, “60 Minutes”: What have you been concentrating on this week?

BARACK OBAMA, President-elect of the United States: A couple of things. Number one, I think it’s important to get a national security team in place, because transition periods are potentially times of vulnerability to a terrorist attack. We want to make sure that there is as seamless a transition on national security as possible.

Obviously, the economy, talking to top economic advisers about how we’re going to create jobs, how we get the economy back on track, and what do we do in terms of some long-term issues, like energy and health care, and how do we sequence those things in a way that we can actually get things through Congress?

STEVE KROFT: When the price of oil was at $147 a barrel, there were a lot of spirited and profitable discussions that were held on energy independence. Now you’ve got the price of oil under $60.


STEVE KROFT: Does doing something about energy — is it less important now than it was?

BARACK OBAMA: It’s more important. It may be a little harder politically, but it’s more important.


BARACK OBAMA: Well, because this has been our pattern, is we go from shock to trance. You know, oil prices go up, gas prices at the pump go up, everybody goes into a flurry of activity. And then the prices go back down, and suddenly we act like it’s not important, and we start, you know, filling up our SUVs again.

And, as a consequence, we never make any progress. That’s part of the addiction, all right, that has to be broken. Now’s the time to break it.

STEVE KROFT: There are a number of different things that you could do early pertaining to executive orders.


STEVE KROFT: One of them is to shut down Guantanamo Bay. Another is to change interrogation methods that are used by U.S. troops. Are those things that you plan to take early action on?

BARACK OBAMA: Yes. I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I’ve said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture. And I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture.

Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.

STEVE KROFT: Can you give us some sense of when you might start redeployments out of Iraq?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I’ve said during the campaign, and I’ve sticked to this commitment, that, as soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my national security apparatus, and we will start executing a plan that draws down our troops, particularly in light of the problems that we’re having in Afghanistan, which has continued to worsen. We’ve got to shore up those efforts.

GWEN IFILL: President-elect and Mrs. Obama also talked about what he’s reading, what he’s thinking, and how they’re preparing for life in the White House.

Obama sets stances on torture, Iraq

GWEN IFILL: For more on what that interview revealed, we turn to Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine.

Ryan, you have written untold inches, reams of stories about this president and this presidential campaign, this president-elect, but he's been pretty low-profile since the election. Did you get any insights? What did he reveal in this interview last night?

RYAN LIZZA, New Yorker: Yes, the ratings suggested that there is a real hunger for people to see this guy. It's almost as if he's been in the witness protection program since he was elected and there was all that excitement. Mostly we're glimpsing are shots of him, you know, in his gym clothes on the way to work out.

I thought it was very interesting, you know, besides staffing the government, the big decision he has to make is what he referred to as sequencing. What is his legislative agenda going to be? It's most likely that his first year will be his best year to get a lot of big things done.

And this was a big debate in the Clinton administration when they came to town. Some people think that, if Clinton had done welfare reform first, maybe he would have gotten health care passed. If he had done something more conservative first, he would have gotten sort of the big liberal program done after that.

So the order of the legislation he sends up to the Hill is going to be extremely important.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like he's pondering the limits or the expansiveness of presidential power when he talks about the executive orders he would sign.

RYAN LIZZA: Yes, but I also thought that, on a few issues where there might be some temptation to edge, for instance, he might want to -- on Guantanamo or torture or Iraq, he might want to have some more options than he gave himself in the campaign, but he was very clear that he's shutting down Guantanamo.

He's very clear that he's going to overturn the president's policy with respect to torture. And he was very clear that one of the first things he's going to do is have his Joint Chiefs in there and figure out a way to get out of Iraq.

Budgetary limits to promises

GWEN IFILL: Easier said than done, though.

RYAN LIZZA: Always easier said than done. I mean, shutting down Guantanamo may not be that difficult, but, look, his Iraq policy, you know, these things all fit together.

His budget is contingent on the savings that we get by pulling troops out of Iraq. His Afghanistan policy is contingent on having troops from Iraq available to sort of increase, redeploy those troops into Afghanistan, so these pieces fit together like a puzzle.

And where I got -- one of the big things I took from the interview was that he has not moved on any of his campaign promises. Now, there's a temptation to do that in this period, to reassess things, to look at things anew.

GWEN IFILL: And say, "Well, now that I have the fuller information, I want to leave open the possibility."

For instance, on energy independence, that's an expensive promise he has made there.


GWEN IFILL: And there doesn't seem to be any money.

RYAN LIZZA: Well, that's the other thing. The budget picture has completely changed from when he started to lay out his policy proposals, really, in 2007.

So I think, at the end of the day, the specific budgetary measures that he laid out, that picture is not going to be exactly the same, but the big-ticket items -- look, there's actually some low-hanging fruit for him. There's almost -- there's a 60-vote majority for some of these things. There's a majority for doing what he wants to do in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: As long as you don't mind running up the deficit, which he said he doesn't so much mind?

RYAN LIZZA: Well, that was the other line that I thought was very interesting. He said very specifically -- he used a word that you're not supposed to use as a Democrat -- he said, look, we're going to have to spend some money.

And he said that there's a bipartisan consensus now, which is true. Liberals and conservatives basically agree, under current economic conditions, the budget deficit is not the number-one problem.

Remember, when the Clinton administration got to town, that was the biggest debate they had on the first day. The guys on the Rubin wing and the guys on the Bob Reich wing said, "Do we care about the deficits or do we care about spending on infrastructure?" And that debate is not going to happen in this administration.

Assembling his cabinet

GWEN IFILL: You used the term bipartisanship. Today he met with John McCain. Yesterday -- or I guess last week, he met with Hillary Clinton, who -- that's a member of the same party, but they certainly went head to head for a while.


GWEN IFILL: Is this Obama's nature, to try to pull people in with whom he's had pretty specific disagreements?

RYAN LIZZA: And he also said that he's reading Lincoln. And of course, a lot has been said about Lincoln's team of rivals recently and how he may try to put together a similar cabinet.

Very interesting that Hillary Clinton is being considered for secretary of state. Think about the primaries. These were not -- the Democratic primary, there were not a lot of big policy debates, but one of the only big ones was on foreign policy.

GWEN IFILL: I remember the 3 a.m. ad, where she suggested, in her own advertising, that he wouldn't be ready to answer the phone.

RYAN LIZZA: Exactly. On Iraq, he was to the left of her. One of the big dust-ups in the debates was when Hillary Clinton said, "Barack Obama, you are naive if you think you can sit down with people like Ahmadinejad in Iran or Chavez in Venezuela." Well, she may be the person that he sends off to sit down with these folks or at least to prepare for a sit-down.

So the fact that he's seriously considering her suggests that he's -- you know, he's serious about having people around him that disagree with him.

GWEN IFILL: You've written about the whole arc of President-elect Obama's career. And so it makes me wonder whether this is the Obama who's the accommodationist or if this is the Obama who will co-op his enemies so that they're all, "Hold your enemies, closer," as my mother used to say.

RYAN LIZZA: That's a very good way to look at it. I mean, if you're truly cynical about this Hillary Clinton thing, you could think, "Well, if things don't go so well for the Obama presidency, you want to make sure that Hillary Clinton is not there to run against you in 2012." Maybe that's part of his thinking.

But he may genuinely believe that she's a good face for the world and knows these issues as well as anyone else. And quite frankly, I think that he was disappointed with his other options.

I think, reading some tea leaves and talking to some people, you get the sense that he and his national security advisers were not so high on Bill Richardson and John Kerry, the other names that are being bandied about, two people that still may get this job, but that may have been what led him to look for an alternative.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we saw Michelle Obama; we saw Barack Obama. Did we get any sense, watching them in this extended setting, how comfortable they are about how their lives are about to change?

RYAN LIZZA: I was struck in that second half of the interview with just the dynamic between the two of them. It's always very fascinating just anthropologically to watch the two of them interrupt each other and carry on.

You know, he actually said this at one point. He said, "I think we're two of the most normal people to sort of get this job in a long time."

Now, remember, four years ago, Barack Obama was a state senator. That's just a day job. That's not even a full-time job.

So he's made this giant leap from the State Senate with a quick detour in the U.S. Senate to president, so he's not had a chance to become a sort of, you know, the odd figure that a lot of politicians become.

GWEN IFILL: And much to his chagrin, we will be watching it all very closely. Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, thank you.

RYAN LIZZA: Thanks for having me.