Exclusive Interview: Obama discusses his first year in office

The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; 4:45 PM

SCOTT WILSON: Thank you very much for this to talk about your legislative years. I spoke with some presidential scholars yesterday -- Robert Dallek, David Kennedy and some other people I think you know well -- and got a range of opinions, putting your achievements into context. I heard health care legislation will be the most significance social piece of legislation since social security and Medicare and I heard a sense of incompleteness on some things. I heard praise for the stimulus bill and your reaction in the time of crisis and the word "Clintonesque" used to describe a variety of other legislation that you've passed from tobacco regulation to children's health care. How would you characterize what you achieved?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think it's fair to say that given what we inherited, the most important thing that we did this year was to make sure that the financial system didn't collapse and that we stabilized the economy. Now, we've got a lot of work left to do. There are a lot of people out there that are still hurting. Job growth has not caught up yet with economic growth but swift action on the part of the House and the Senate on the Recovery Act was crucial.

Embedded in that Recovery Act was also a whole host of investments in long-term growth that I think will bare fruit for years to come. People tend to forget that the recovery act was the largest investment in research and development in decades, the largest investment in education in decades, the largest investment in health research in decades, the largest infrastructure investment since Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway system, the largest investment in clean energy in decades.

So a lot of those investments will pay dividends for years to come. I think that we haven't yet seen me sign the health care bill, but it's on track. I was sent to Washington in part to solve some big problems that have been kicked down the road for years. Seven presidents and seven Congresses have failed to reform our health care system. When we get that done -- and I believe we will get that done -- it will be enormously significant for families and businesses and represent the biggest step towards deficit reduction in years. So

It's not done yet but if it gets done, I think people will be looking back and saying that was as significant a set of actions as we've ever seen.

As you point out, interspersed with those big initiatives were a lot of things that, in a normal legislative year, would be considered really big achievements. Tobacco legislation -- making sure that our kids are protected from addiction, -- very aggressive regulation of the credit card industry, housing fraud prevention, making sure that we've got a robust national service agenda, CHIP -- which gave four million kids who didn't have health insurance, health insurance, -- pay equity ¿ restoring the basic principle that there should be equal pay for equal work, -- hate crimes legislation

These are all issues that I think people had been working on for years -- had been bottled up -- and we were able to get them past it, with so little fanfare that we haven't gotten a lot of attention for it¿ but that will really make life better for ordinary Americans. We got the first Latina on the Supreme Court and in terms of our budget process, we were able to achieve some very significant wins. For example, Pentagon procurement practices that people had said was impossible to achieve, but in fact will save taxpayers billions of dollars and put us in a stronger position to pursue our national security agenda. Overall, if you had a checklist of promises made, a lot of those promises have been kept. And the work that remains undone we're still on track to get done.

So the House passed historic energy legislation and right now we've got a bipartisan energy group in the Senate, led by Lindsey Graham and John Kerry, that are working to develop a Senate version of an energy package -- we think we can get that done. We have seen financial regulatory reform pass out of the House and I think there's an opportunity in January to move that agenda through the Senate. When those things are complete, and I think they will be, we will have achieved a fundamental shift in health care, energy, education and our financial regulatory system that will put this economy into a further footing to grow over the long term.

SCOTT WILSON: You made a conscious decision when you took office to push many things through Congress at the same time, rather than Clinton did as an example. D you feel like that decision has been vindicated by what you have achieved?

PRESIDENT OBAMA; Well, in some ways we just didn't have an option. Because of the financial crisis, we had to make a series of decisions that back in 2007 -- when my presidential campaign began -- weren't at the top of our list. And what I thought was very important not to do was to further delay work on some of the big ticket items that I have been elected to achieve and that were critical for our long-term economic growth.

Let's take health care as an example. I could have made a decision at the end of the year to say in this kind of economic environment, with all the other crises that are brewing, that we should just put health care off for a few years. I think that given how difficult fighting the special interests has been on Capitol Hill, it's clear that had we not decided to make a bold step forward this year, we probably wouldn't have had the political capital to try to get it done sometime in the future. Now, there are some people who say that wouldn't have been such a bad thing -- opponents of reform. My response to them would be that would inevitably mean we would have seen further double digit inflation in health care -- more families losing their health care, more businesses dropping their workers from health care and a continued strain on our budget that is simply unsustainable. Sooner or later, we had to take that off. Even though we knew that it was going to be politically difficult, one of the promises I made to the American people when I got elected was that I wasn't going to avoid tough problems ¿ we were going to take them on directly.

SCOTT WILSON: OK, energy, for example: That will be pushed into the next year. You made progress certainly. Is that one that's going to be more difficult to do as a result?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well I think there is no doubt that energy legislation is going to be tough, but I feel very confident about making an argument to the American people that we should be a leader in clean energy technology -- that that will be one of the key engines that drives economic growth for decades to come.

We are in competition with countries like China that are already surpassing us on wind technology and solar technology. They're doing that not because they are environmentalists. They're doing it because they see huge business opportunities there and I want those jobs created right here in the United States.

I was over at Home Depot promoting the need for retrofitting homes and businesses. It turns out that window manufactures, the insulation manufacturers -- all the industries that go into greater energy efficiency -- are all located here in the United States. These are jobs that aren't going to be exported.

And why would we want to lag behind when not only do we benefit from economic growth, taking those steps, but we also end up dealing with some important environmental issues and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. I think there's opportunity to move beyond ideological debates because what I've said is, 'yes' to domestic increases in oil production, 'yes' to save nuclear power. We should be able to package together that deals with our energy needs and puts our economy on a strong footing long term.

WILSON: On compromise, you've heard criticism from both sides. Tell me your thinking about compromise -- when it's necessary, when -- just the way you've thought about it this year -- to achieved what you've achieved.

OBAMA: Nowhere has there been a bigger gap between the perceptions of compromise and the reality of compromise then in the health care bill. If you look back at the commitments I made during the campaign and the guidelines that I set forward for what I wanted to see in the health care bill, when I made my speech to the Joint Session on September 9, we got 95 percent of what we called for. We said we wanted to make sure we covered 30 million Americans who don't have coverage -- that's in both the House and the Senate bills. We said we wanted to end insurance company abuses, like people with preexisting conditions not being able to get coverage, or sky high out of pocket expenses -- those robust reforms.

Essentially, a patient's bill of rights on steroids is embodied in this bill. We said that we wanted to help small businesses provide health insurance for their workers. Those provisions are in this bill. I said that it had to be deficit neutral. It's not just deficit neutral, according to the CBO, it actually reduces the deficit over the next 20 years by over a trillion dollars. Every serious economist out there says there's not an idea about getting more bang for our health care dollars that has been followed out there that is not embodied in this bill.

So, every single criteria for reform that I put forward is in this bill. It is true that that the Senate version does not have a public option and that has become a source of ideological contention between the left and the right, but I didn't campaign on a public option. I think it is a good idea but as I said on that speech on September 9, it just one small element of a broader reform effort.

So we don't feel that the core elements to help the American people that I campaigned on ¿ and that we've been fighting for all year -- have been compromised in any significant way. Do these pieces of legislation have exactly everything that I'd want? Of course not. But they have the things that are necessary to reduce costs for businesses, families and the government. So the way I generally think about compromise has been that I start with a set of core principles about what it is we're trying to achieve. We work with House and Senate members -- and there are some red lines that can't be crossed from our perspective -- and there are other areas where there are legitimate debates about how to achieve those goals. If someone can show me a different way of getting things done that accomplishes that endpoint, I'm happy to consider those.

But when it comes to health care reform, as the major example, I'm not just grudgingly supporting that bill. I am very enthusiastic about what we've achieved and I would challenge anybody to take a look at what I campaigned on and what we started with at the beginning of the year to find any significant gap from what I said then and hat we've achieved. In fact, I am pleasantly surprised about how well the House and Senate have performed given the complexities of this issue, and the fact that the insurance industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars opposing this, that we've seen legislation that conforms as much to our core principles as I had hoped.


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