MARGARET WARNER: Now to our Mitt Romney interview. It's the fourth in our series of vote 2012 conversations with the Republican presidential contenders.
The GOP front-runner unveiled his foreign policy proposals today at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
After the speech, he sat down with Judy Woodruff.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Mitt Romney, thank you very much for talking with us.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: Thanks, Judy. Good to be with you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In your speech today at the Citadel, you described the coming American century. And you say it is God's will that America not be a nation of followers.
So, my question is, are you saying that God does -- didn't intend for other countries in the world to lead, that it intended for other countries to follow the United States?
MITT ROMNEY: You know, I think throughout our history we have recognized that as a nation which has identified from its very beginning certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of the happiness, and a sense that freedom is a universal value -- that America has taken on the responsibility to provide for freedom and prosperity for ourselves, and we have shared that with the world.
America is unique and exceptional nation. And the idea that America would allow other nations to get larger and stronger and potentially balance us, that would be, in my opinion, a mistake.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You -- in your remarks, governor, you suggest that President Obama is weak. You say he's weakened the country and you talk about that.
But this is the president who's authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden, other al-Qaida leaders like Anwar al-Awlaki just this week, who restarted the war in Afghanistan. Those things don't count?
MITT ROMNEY: Of course I'm pleased with some of the actions the president's taken, and I have pointed that out. Both in the case of Mr. Awlaki and also in the case of Osama bin Laden, I was pleased that the president took those actions.
I supported also the surge in Afghanistan. I'm glad the president changed his mind about the surge. He voted against it in Iraq. He accepted it in Afghanistan.
At the same time, the president's proposals to dramatically reduce our defense spending, in my view, weakens our military and puts it at greater risk.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're critical of him on Afghanistan. You say you would listen to the generals. There is an agreement between NATO, the United States and Afghanistan that all foreign troops would be out by 2014. If you're president, would you abide by that agreement?
MITT ROMNEY: Again, I would listen to the generals, and if that continues to be the view of the -- of the commanders in the field as they assess the capabilities of the Afghan military, then of course I would pursue that course. But of -- but of -- but at the same time we have to be open to what we're hearing from the people on the ground.
I hope we can perhaps move even faster than that. We'll listen, again, to the conditions on the ground as they exist because it's important to us that the transition from our forces to the Afghan security forces, being able to maintain the sovereignty of the Afghan nation from the tyranny of the Taliban is a -- is an important consideration.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Isn't it the role of the president to make his or her own independent judgment about where American troops go? You are saying you would always defer to the generals? Is that what...
MITT ROMNEY: Did I say that? Did I say that, Judy? If I did, let me correct myself.
I said I would listen to the generals and receive the input of those who are the commanders in the field, and then I would make the -- my own decision.
But I believe that in the case of the president's decision to withdraw our surge troops in September of 2012, it was a political decision, not a decision based upon what is necessary for the effects of our effort in Afghanistan.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're pointing to what you call a political decision. The polls do show a majority of Americans now believe it's time to bring the troops back from Afghanistan. Does public opinion play any role in American foreign policy, and what the public thinks?
MITT ROMNEY: The commander in chief also has to be the educator in chief and has to communicate to the American people why he is making the decisions he's making.
This president, in an inexplicable way, has not communicated to the American people what's happening in Afghanistan, what the progress is, what the -- what the challenges are, why the timetable is being evaluated as it is. This -- in prior conflicts, presidents have spoken to the American people about the men and women who are in harm's way and the progress, or lack thereof as there might be, in war.
I think we've heard too little from the president educating the American people as to what it is we're doing in this wind-down period. Is there a wind-down? Absolutely. We will be bringing all of our troops out. And when I say all, there will probably be some limited ongoing support for the Afghan security forces. But that -- that's a process the president should be explaining to the American people.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You do focus, in your remarks today, on President Obama, no mention of your Republican opponents. And yet, Gov. Huntsman is saying today that he is the one candidate in the Republican race who is uniquely qualified to know foreign policy and to deal with this complicated world.
MITT ROMNEY: Every candidate is going to express their views about why they're the right one. And I welcome the views of all, what, nine or 10 of us. We'll each express our views. I express mine and the others will do the same.
But, they have their own calendar. I'm not running their campaigns. And I basically am following the calendar that we put together to have an opportunity to first put out a position paper on economics and how we get this economy going again. I did that a few weeks ago.
There's one candidate, I think, Gov. Perry, who still hasn't put out an economic plan -- no tax proposals, no regulatory proposals, no economic plan to get America working again. He's been in the race for several weeks. So he's following his own calendar. And it's, I think, maybe time to hear from him on an important issue like that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I do want to ask you one or two other international-related questions, direct question on the Middle East, pretty much up or down. This administration and most Western countries criticized the recent announcement by the Israelis that they were going to continue to build more apartments in Jerusalem, saying this is counterproductive.
Do you agree with that?
MITT ROMNEY: What I -- what I believe is that when you have an ally that shares your values, as does Israel, that if you disagree with them, you do so in private. You don't want to in any way encourage the adversaries of your ally to assume that perhaps they can get a better deal by going around Israel and negotiating with you directly.
Other candidates may have differing views. That happens to be my view, that in a setting of this nature, particularly one as fragile as Israel -- right now, I don't think I have seen Israel in as fragile a setting as we're seeing them today. And this is not a time for America to be -- to be dictating to Israel how they should negotiate.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You did talk today about spending more on defense. You talked about adding 100,000 troops to the Army, building up the Navy, going back to a missile defense.
The question is, the United States already spends more for defense than all the other countries of the world combined. How much bigger does the American defense budget need to get?
MITT ROMNEY: What I believe is that roughly 20 percent of our federal spending should be devoted to our military defense, 20 percent of the total -- of the total federal spending.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is it today?
MITT ROMNEY: It's higher than that today because of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When those are completed, the president would bring that down to something well below 4 percent, or roughly this 20 percent figure of the total federal spend. I would hold military spending at 4 percent of the GDP, or roughly 20 percent of the federal budget.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you believe you could get popular support for that?
MITT ROMNEY: I believe -- well, I'm running for president. And if people elect me, they will know they're electing someone who would intend to devote roughly 20 percent of federal spending to military, which equals approximately 4 percent of the total economy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: One question about the president's jobs bill.
You've made it clear you're opposed to much of it. But I'm trying to figure out if there's one area you could agree on. And that is on the payroll tax cut. Is that something that you could support, do you think, Gov. Romney?
MITT ROMNEY: Well, in a vacuum, it's difficult to make an assessment on a particular element of the plan.
The -- a temporary tax cut of that nature is not going to create a lot of permanent jobs. Having spent my life in the private sector, I know that when you hire someone, you don't just look at what the cost is this year, you look at the cost on a permanent basis. And so temporary tax cuts -- saying we're going to temporarily cut the payroll tax -- would have very limited impact on job growth.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Let me move to just a couple of political questions.
Gov. Chris Christie made it clear this week that he is not going to run for president. The -- what one is hearing is that this is your moment, this is the moment for you to consolidate your support, get Republicans behind you.
You're still running, what, about 25 percent, approximately, nationally among Republican voters. And what one hears when you talk to Republicans, there's just not excitement yet about Mitt Romney.
Is that excitement going to be essential for you to win the nomination, or not? What do you think?
MITT ROMNEY: You know, I looked at the crowd today. They were pretty excited at the Citadel.
I also can tell you, I looked back at the polls at this point four years ago, when I was running. I think I was at 9 percent, and John McCain was even less than that. And the guys that were at the top had 20, 25 percent. I don't recall a lot of stories being written about, boy, they need to consolidate their lead.
Look, at this early stage, you've got people who are trying to make up their mind because they recognize we have got to replace Barack Obama if we're going to keep America strong and get back to work. So, I expect folks are going to take a long time getting to know each of the candidates, understanding our positions. And in the final moments, when we have our nominee selected, there's going to be a lot of excitement around that nominee.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Conservatives in your party, many of them are still critical.
We hear Michele Bachmann saying, don't settle, don't settle for somebody who's not truly conservative. There's this Tea Party group that's out running "Stop Mitt Romney" ads, saying you're too liberal on issues from abortion to the economy.
Are these -- is this a part of the party that you think you have to win over to win the nomination?
MITT ROMNEY: You know, my job is to tell people what I believe.
So, if people think I'm the right guy based upon those views, terrific. If they think someone else can do a better job, that's fine, too. I'm perfectly comfortable with letting the American people make their decision.
I think, right now, with our country in economic distress, they want someone who understands the economy. With our nation facing extraordinary threats around the world, they want someone who has a very clear vision to make sure this is an American century with American leadership, and supremacy of America's economy and our military.
I think that combination is what America wants right now. If I'm right, I will become president. If not, someone else will.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And a closing thought.
The anti-Wall Street protests that have spread around the country, what do you -- any identifying with their frustration? What do you think?
MITT ROMNEY: Well, I think a lot of people recognize that there's a great deal of frustration in this country.
You've got millions and millions of Americans who can't find work. People have stopped looking for work. People have got part-time jobs and need full-time employ. Home values have gone down dramatically. People are upset and angry, for good reason.
Maybe someone will primary Barack Obama. Look, he came in with a very different set of promises. And now, three years later, things are worse than he -- than he had when he came in. I think even he's admitted things are -- people are worse off now. So, of course they're angry.
I don't know exactly whether or not there's a coalesced perspective yet from those that are -- that are protesting. I can tell you that I think the president's, if you will, divisive addresses -- his haves vs. the have-nots, the we vs. they -- that, I think, is a -- is an unfortunate and potentially dangerous course to take. America is strong if we're united.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Mitt Romney, we thank you very much for sitting down and talking with us.
MITT ROMNEY: Thanks, Judy.