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Week of 11.7.08

Transcript: How Will He Lead?

BRANCACCIO: In Chicago's Grant Park the other night, Barack Obama did not pledge to fix the country by the end of the first quarter of 2009. The president-elect said there's new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, schools to build, threats to meet, alliances to repair. In his words "we as a people will get there" but the road quote "will be long," the climb steep. That road, of course, is littered with the jagged shards of the economy, which will make governing especially tough. For some insight into how Obama will set his priorities, let's start by consulting with Professor Charles of Obama's closest advisors since his days at Harvard Law School.

Professor Ogletree, welcome.


BRANCACCIO: It has been a long campaign. And we have learned a lot about the incoming president. But are there any surprises, do you think, for him, something we don't know about him that we're about to see?

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: I think the real surprise is going to be how tough he's gonna be on national security. Because he's very concerned about protecting—America's shores. You're gonna be surprised at how much he is consultive, not just making decisions without talking to people. And surprise, that you're gonna see a cabinet that is quite diverse. I think you're gonna see not only the idea of racial diversity and ethnic diversity, but you're gonna see the role that women will play. You're gonna see the role that Independents and Republicans are gonna play.

BRANCACCIO: Republicans in that cabinet?

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Oh, you just watch and see what happens. There's no one who's excluded because of their party affiliation. The question is: Who is prepared today to do the best job imaginable to move the country forward economy, politically and socially.

BRANCACCIO: Over the past year my colleagues and I have been going from South Carolina to California, from Illinois to Alabama, talking to people about what they see the problem is. And a lot of it lumps into a key category of economic justice, social justice, a sense that something in America treats people unfairly. Let's take a look at some of these.

STEVE FUGATE: The American worker is getting shafted big time. He's working hard. He's doing his thing. He wants to live in his home. But, now, everything is going up except the pay. Matter of fact, the pay's probably getting lower.

HINOJOSA: So, people talk a lot about a recession...

CALLIE GREER: Yeah, yeah. You hear that on the news all the time. You know it's this—"America's in a recession. Wall Street and all that stuff." And my community and my people, like, "Recession? Hey, we've been in a recession all our life. We're gonna be alright."

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: We don't do half the things we used to do. You know, we don't go to the movies anymore, don't go out to eat anymore. There's—there's a lot of things. Our food purchases are different.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: When we moved here, every house was full. A lot of families, a lot of kids. And—they're all moving away. I'm not sure where everybody's going. The house right across the street—that one's been empty for about two years. And the people on the other side of us—they'll be moving any day now.

BRANCACCIO: Really. What does Barack Obama have for tools to address issues that big?

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Well, first, experience. Every one of the people you showed in those clips are the kind of people Barack Obama's seen in the last 20 months. And he's felt their pain and understands how to address it.

And what you need is somebody who will say, "You know what? I am not going to be able to do all the things I hoped I could do." And in his acceptance speech—just Tuesday night he said this may take a year or my entire term. That was an important concession that we can't—assume that the things we talked about last year, even last month, are gonna be our priorities.

And I think it's a important time for this president to do, in a sense, do what Franklin Roosevelt did: have these conversations as often as necessary, with the people, saying, "Here's what I'm gonna try to do, and I need your help. I can't do it alone." So many people are excited that he was elected. But he can't change this country without everyone from the bottom to the top, coming together and making that difference.

BRANCACCIO: The rest of the media, as the week came to a close, were talking about—choices for U.S. Treasury Secretary, given the economic crisis. And I want to talk to you about the justice department. There's a—a piece of the government that can have an effect on people's lives, and in fact, social justice. A lot in that Justice Department in-box.

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Well, let me say, this is gonna be the most important—set of appointments—President Obama makes. Because with the Justice Department comes Americans policy both domestically and foreign—and foreign policy. When you think about it, Guantanamo—think about the idea of domestic—surveillance. Think about the idea of political firings of prosecutors. Think about the whole idea of a department that was not even responsive to very basic concerns of human rights and civil liberties.

That has to change. There has to be a change of the culture. There has to be a change of attitude. And a sense that the Department of Justice is just that, is there for justice, not for injustice, not for miscarriages of justice, not for ignoring the people's rights. So I think what you'll see is that President Obama, who is a constitutional scholar, a constitutional teacher, someone who knows the law.

BRANCACCIO: A lot of people don't even know this. He taught this stuff.

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Not only did he teach it, but if you go back and look at his exams, the University of Chicago Law School, brilliant analysis of what the problems were then and what they might be in the future. And more importantly, that—at the Harvard Law School, the same thing. Professor Larry Tribe—deemed him his most brilliant student ever. And Professor Tribe has a very high standard.

But that idea that this young kid—skinny kid with the funny name, took that talent and used it to now carve out an idea of what America can be.

BRANCACCIO: You knew him as the student. I get the impression from my reading that Barack Obama is sort of heard to pin down as to exactly where he was coming from in those days.

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Well, it's interesting. He wasn't hard to pin down. He couldn't be pinned down, because he had a vast set of views. That is, that he was very much able to see what students on the right had in mind, students in the left had in mind. And he could consolidate those point of views without offending anyone. He could be—they could disagree without being disagreeable. What he brought, even as a law student, was maturity—experience—and optimism.

Remember, he came to law school having been a community organizer, which some people made a dirty term. But he was there making sure that the people at the bottom would speak at these community meetings. He was there, talked about the police interrogate someone, you have to have those tapes in the future. He was there talking about people shouldn't—I have to face the idea of can they get health care or groceries, that they had an idea that they should be able to do both.

So I think what he brings to this agenda that people are learning, here is a young, experienced, talented leader. And you know what? Michelle Obama really is the October surprise. Because she brings an extraordinary amount of power, influence intelligence and judgment to the White House. So we've got a first couple.

BRANCACCIO: She was your student, too, right?

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Absolutely. And she was also—Legal Aid student, working for poor clients when she was in law school. She promised her father she would go back—and work in south side Chicago. He was a union man. He died much too young. Barack Obama's mother died much too young. So they know they're standing on the broad shoulders of amazing people.

BRANCACCIO: But I think people need a better sense of whether or not there are boundaries that he will not cross. For instance, on this key issue of executive power during a—a time that we're fighting terrorists around the world. A while back, we did a story about domestic surveillance. The Bush administration was being criticized, but the Bush administration made the case that we have to, because of this time of terrorism. And we talked to a guy who used to work for the telephone company. His name is Mark Klein. And he discovered that the government was looking in on internet traffic.

MARK KLEIN: I don't think the government should have the right to just rake through everybody's personal communications. And the idea is that the accumulating databases on anything, everybody—we don't know what they're collecting. And that means that you have an unrestricted, without oversight, government database of virtually the entire population, which they can delve into and search whenever they want, whenever they want to target someone. Maybe they like you today, maybe they don't like you six months from now.

BRANCACCIO: Okay. So he says—you know, he's concerned about this. And so—so what the administration can do—what is their power? Can they essentially do anything, as the current administration has argued, that the president has unlimited power? Yet Barack Obama—I mean, pleased to give telephone companies immunity for—for doing this kind of stuff.

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Well, I hope President Obama will rethink that. What this tells us is that we should not have to sacrifice privacy in order to ensure security. We can have both. You can use executive power to do a lot of things, to reverse some of the executive orders of your predecessor. But you shouldn't use it—as a tool to undermine the privacy and integrity of people. This is not an ACLU issue alone. Everybody's concerned about who's looking in my bedroom, who's looking—recording my conversations, who's checking—checking my bank records.

That's not a Republican or an independent or a Democratic concern. That's an American concern. And I think a president, any president better pause very long and have very strong evidence before he or she approves domestic surveillance. That's not what America's about. That's why we have a constitution. We have a set of laws. And I hope and expect and am confident that President Obama will follow those laws going forward.

BRANCACCIO: But I'm hearing the law professor here advise Obama on this issue. I'm also curious whether or not you think there are lines that the president just won't cross, 'cause he believes so strongly in a principle. That he won't go there because—because of his commitment to how he sees the law.

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Let me give you an analogy. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison in South Africa, challenging an unjust system. He then was released and elected the first democratically elected president of South Africa. There was a constitutional court in South Africa. It ruled against his government. And he said, "I don't like this. But that's what the court is supposed to do."

And Senator Obama, when he becomes President Obama, will have the same challenge. That is, I may not like the court telling me, but a conservative court has already told us that there is checks and balances in our constitution, that it's not an open and blank check for what the executive can do or what the legislative branch can do.

I think President Obama's gonna find a lot of secrets that have been hidden for eight years. And it's gonna make him want to do a lot of things. But ultimately, as someone who understands the constitution, who praises the constitution, who's here because of the constitution—believe me, is first instinct will have to be, is this constitutional? And I hope the answer will be if it's not, we won't do it.

BRANCACCIO: Now, you never know. But there may be vacancies coming up on the U.S. Supreme Court. We'll see. You suggested that a President Obama would not be ideological in this choice of who gets on the U.S. Supreme Court, who he might nominate. What did you mean by that?

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Well, I think he's gonna find the best persons available to serve on the Supreme Court. And that means people who have integrity, who have a track record of being fair, people who have the intelligence to do this very difficult job. And people who don't—pass a litmus test.

I—I think it's very clear that you're gonna see him appointing people who might surprise some. Almost every Supreme Court justice now has been a judge, as opposed to Earl Warren, who was a governor, who came to the court. Thurgood Marshall, who was a judge, but he also was a civil rights leader as well.

You're gonna see President Obama looking at a wide range of people and making sure that the best person available to serve will be elected. And I suspect that he's not trying to change the court to the left or the right, but he's trying to protect precedent.

I mean, Roe versus Wade is something we've had since 1972. And there have been efforts to cut it back. I think he's gonna be concerned about whether or not a justice or federal court judge is gonna follow the law on the books. He's gonna be concerned about whether or not they're gonna follow it in a way of the constitution. He's gonna concerned about whether or not they can see—that there's some elements—in the constitution that's designed to protect—people on—with equal justice under the law.

So I'm very hopeful that this next president will see the Constitution as a constitutional scholar and apply it appropriately, and—and not see only political objectives—in trying to determine what's to be done going forward.

BRANCACCIO: Talking about service, what about you? What if you were called to serve in say, the justice department? Does that interest you at all?

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: I'm willing to do whatever Senator Obama, as president, wants me to do. I love my job now. I want to produce the next generation of Michelle and Barack Obamas for public service. I've received calls from people who said you're getting all these jobs. Which one are you gonna take? I said, "I'm not sure." They said, "Well, you know, could you put in a reference for me if you don't take it?"

And so, there are going to be thousands of exceptional candidates for every position. And I'm glad that this is a time where people are saying public service is important. And I'll be sending some great people—to Washington to help President Obama—carry out his mission.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Charles Ogletree, Harvard Law, and Founder and Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Thank you very much.

PROFESSOR OGLETREE: Thank you. Enjoyed it.

BRANCACCIO: Barack Obama will take office in a world where crises lie at just about every compass point. The leaders of Russia and Afghanistan are already clamoring for his attention. As president, Obama has promised to fundamentally remake America's image in the world. But - can a superpower play nice and still get what it wants? George Packer has some thoughts on that. He's a staff writer and a frequent war correspondent for the New Yorker magazine.

George, good to see you.

GEORGE PACKER: Great to see you, David.

BRANCACCIO: During the campaign, the Obama foreign policy was really sketched out, almost in light number two pencil. It was something to do with talking first, before immediately being the tough guy, but beyond that, help me understand where you think an Obama foreign policy would go.

GEORGE PACKER: Well, those were the general principles, but unlike domestic policy, foreign policy isn't really under the president's control. He's at the mercy of events. And I think, fairly quickly, as with John F. Kennedy, we're gonna find out how he acts in a crisis, what happens when there's a flash point somewhere.

It'll probably be in eastern Afghanistan or somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border, which—I mean, that area is becoming so critical that the Bush White House briefed the two campaigns, Obama's and McCain's, before the election, because they felt they had so little time that they would need to be briefed and start formulating their policy and the transition before November fourth.

BRANCACCIO: Well for example, my NOW colleague Bill Gentile was very near the Afghanistan-Pakistani border some months ago, and this is what he ran into.


GENTILE: This area now is a free-fire zone. Anyone still here is a

suspected Taliban fighter—and may become a target.

GENTILE: We meet the snipers lugging a long-range .50

caliber rifle. We make our way past fields of poppies...and

immediately take enemy fire.

SOLDIER: Is that incoming, sir?

VALLEJO: Yes it is. That's incoming

GENTILE: The Marines respond with artillery ... and with

the sniper rifle.

MILLER: Machine guns will be at that corner over there.

GENTILE: The Marines are operating in one of the richest agricultural regions of Afghanistan. The Helmand River Valley has become a key route for Taliban fighters, weapons and materiel flowing further north into Afghanistan, and for opium flowing south from this region into Pakistan.

BRANCACCIO: You have the Taliban in Pakistan itself —I'll tell you, if—if that ever becomes a failed state, Pakistan, not Afghanistan, that is—been described as a foreign policy true nightmare.

GEORGE PACKER: It's—it's the big apocalyptic one, bigger than Iraq, bigger than Afghanistan. And you know, Obama's policy, as promised, as been to pour more resources, more troops, to divert brigade —we begin to withdraw there and into Afghanistan. There are people, including rather hawkish people, who no longer are sure that more is better, in Afghanistan.

And this discussion now about negotiating with some elements of the Taliban, trying to split the movement—between those who are reconcilable and those who are irreconcilable. It's all improvisation. Whatever his transition team does, whatever he promised during the campaign, you can almost throw it out the window because foreign policy comes at the president. He doesn't control it.

BRANCACCIO: But you have to believe that some broad principles that were articulated in advance by Obama and team will have to be guiding paths.

GEORGE PACKER: Well, like—or Iran, for example, and their nuclear program. Obama has said, and it's been one of his cornerstones, "I will talk to our enemies, and I will do it without preconditions," which means, without forcing them to—you know, change their behavior before we talk. I think he's right. That is what we should do.

A lot of Republicans think he's right. But what happens when you sit down and talk, and you can't agree? And in fact, you find out that your differences are even deeper than you imagine. What's the next step? Well, maybe you try—then try to leverage that into more global isolation of Iran, but this is the area where it's gonna be least predictable, where his campaign—the campaign Obama will have the least to do with President Obama. And where events will be in the saddle. And I—I would also say that I—the night he accepted—the night he gave his victory speech on—on Tuesday.

BRANCACCIO: In Grant Park in Chicago.

GEORGE PACKER: Did you notice that he said...


OBAMA: To those who would tear this world down—we will defeat you.

GEORGE PACKER: And he was, I think, sending a signal that the talk first Obama is the principle of his foreign policy, but no one should be under any illusions that he won't—shoot if he has to. He—I think he was asserting his power as commander-in-chief with that remark.

BRANCACCIO: It's enough to make you a little bit nervous, though. A guy with something to prove on, is he tough enough for the job? I mean, John Kennedy had that issue, and there was something called the Bay of Pigs.

GEORGE PACKER: Well, and if we have a Bay of Pigs, it won't be that. But it—I think it will be something in Afghanistan, where we begin to pour more troops in there—in early 2009. And find out that the casualty rates go way up. We continue to see parts of Afghanistan falling under Taliban control. It turns out that the strategy isn't working.

BRANCACCIO: You have to check this out. Take a look at this. It's about Darfur in the Eastern Sudan.


JULIE FLINT: Everything that made life sustainable had been destroyed. There were a few huts which were still standing. What I found—of—which I'm absolutely certain is that the vast majority of these lethal attacks are done by government forces, and the so called Janjaweed forces, working together. These are no longer hit and run attacks by Arab nomads. They're systematic attacks by the government and the militia, often with air support.

BRANCACCIO: That's foreign correspondent Julie Flint, recorded over four years ago, an administration ago, and yet the problems got worse, not better.

GEORGE PACKER: And back then, Colin Powell said, "This is a genocide." And really nothing happened. And Obama, in debates, has said that he will not stand by while genocide happens, that that erodes our moral authority, that we need to assert leadership when mass atrocities are occurring.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, no problem, except you know, China, very important, big powerful China, has strategic interests, energy interests there, and are seen as standing in the way.

GEORGE PACKER: That's right. And in the next breath, Obama would say in the debate, "But we need to be prudent and careful about how we use the American military." Now, Susan Rice, who is one of his closest foreign policy advisors—

BRANCACCIO: This is a big name. Susan Rice. Tell me about her.

GEORGE PACKER: Well, she was in the Clinton administration, first at the national security counsel, under her mentor, Anthony Lake, who's also a key advisor to Obama. And then later at the state department, as assistant secretary for Africa. Now she has some black marks on her record. She was in the NSC during the Rwanda genocide. But she is a hawk on genocide intervention, partly, I think, because of that experience. So, she is actually someone who might push Obama toward intervening. I think his natural instinct is always caution, so there's a side of him that responds to sort of the moral case for intervention. But I think there's a stronger side that is very wary of getting involved in military confrontations where there's no way out.

BRANCACCIO: You got to believe that a couple years from now, the big foreign policy issue is going to be something like China, Russia. What exactly is our relationship with these still very powerful countries?

GEORGE PACKER: Right, and Russia greeted his victory with—a promise to put missiles along the—the Poland border, so Russia has not exactly, you know, rung a bell for Barack Obama's election, and basically signaled, to him and to the world, that it may not be the Cold War, but we are not friends. And they—they will—press him and test him, as his running mate Joe Biden—famously, notoriously said someone would, you know, early on his administration, rather like, I think, Khrushchev with Kennedy.

BRANCACCIO: Now, the American image abroad defined by such horrors as Abu Ghraib, and really Guantanamo prison. Yet the election of Obama has been greeted around the world as a surprise. People didn't think we had it in us to elect a black guy whose dad came from Kenya—

GEORGE PACKER: And whose middle name is Hussein.

BRANCACCIO: And whose middle name is Hussein. So there is a start toward changing the way the world looks at our country, but does just an election of Obama erase an Abu Ghraib?

GEORGE PACKER: I don't think Abu Ghraib will be the problem. I think it—what it does is it says America has turned the page on Abu Ghraib. The world will greet that with relief. There's been tremendous excitement about his election.

I mean, this is a worldwide explosion of gratitude and relief that America has bent with history in a new way and in—you know, in a way the world thinks is good. And that will last as long as our interests and their interests are reconcilable. And the moment they no longer are, Barack Obama, who, as—a candidate, said, "We should do what's in our national interest."

He is something of a realist. I mean, when asked to name his—sort of models on foreign policy, you know who he pointed to? The first George Bush, with Brent Scowcroft and James Baker and Colin Powell around him. Basically, hardcore realism, national interest realism.

And when it comes to sort of national security threats and interests, and great power struggle, he may well look more like a centrist Republican than some Democrats thought he would.

BRANCACCIO: All right, George Packer, staff writer for the New Yorker, and author of Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq, thank you very much.


BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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