Sunday, March 22, 2009

60 Minutes Obama On AIG Anger, Recession, Challenges (Full Text Version)

Watch CBS Videos Online
Subscribe to EF Hutton via Email
"Were you surprised by the intensity of the reaction, and the hostility from the AIG bonus debacle?" 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft asked.

"I wasn't surprised by it. Our team wasn't surprised by it. The one thing that I've tried to emphasize, though, throughout this week, and will continue to try to emphasize during the course of the next several months as we dig ourselves out of this economic hole that we're in, we can't govern outta anger. We've got to try to make good decisions based on the facts in order to put people back to work, to get credit flowing again. And I'm not gonna be distracted by what's happening day to day. I've gotta stay focused on making sure that we're getting this economy moving again," President Obama replied.

The president ordered Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to use every legal means to recover the bonus money from AIG. If it is not repaid, it will be deducted from the company's next bailout payment. The House decided to extract its own revenge by passing a bill that would impose a tax of up to 90 percent on the AIG bonuses and on the bonuses of anyone making more than $250,000 a year who works for a financial institution receiving more than $5 billion in bailout funds.

"I mean you're a constitutional law professor," Kroft remarked. "You think this bill's constitutional?"

"Well, I think that as a general proposition, you don't wanna be passing laws that are just targeting a handful of individuals. You wanna pass laws that have some broad applicability. And as a general proposition, I think you certainly don't wanna use the tax code to punish people," the president replied. "I think that you've got an pretty egregious situation here that people are understandably upset about. And so let's see if there are ways of doing this that are both legal, that are constitutional, that upholds our basic principles of fairness, but don't hamper us from getting the banking system back on track."

"You've got a piece of legislation that could affect tens of thousands of people. Some of these people probably had nothing to do with the financial crisis. And some of them probably deserve the bonuses that they got," Kroft said. "I mean is that fair?"

"Well, that's why we're gonna have to take a look at this legislation carefully. Clearly, the AIG folks gettin' those bonuses didn't make sense. And one of the things that I have to do is to communicate to Wall Street that, given the current crisis that we're in, they can't expect help from taxpayers but they enjoy all the benefits that they enjoyed before the crisis happened. You get a sense that, in some institutions, that has not sunk in; that you can't go back to the old way of doing business, certainly not on the taxpayers' dime," Obama said. "Now the flip side is that Main Street has to understand, unless we get these banks moving again, then we can't get this economy to recover. And we don't wanna cut off our nose to spite our face."

"Your Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has been under a lot of pressure this week. And there have been people in Congress calling for his head. …Have there been discussions in the White House about replacing him?" Kroft asked.

"No," Obama said.

Asked if Geithner had volunteered or asked whether to step down, Obama told Kroft, "No. And he shouldn't. And if he were to come to me, I'd say, 'Sorry, Buddy. You've still got the job.' But look, he's got a lot of stuff on his plate. And he is doing a terrific job. And I take responsibility for not, I think, having given him as much help as he needs."

Obama says Geithner is not only responsible for the banks, the bailouts and the automobile industry, he also has to make sure the money is being spent wisely and report to Congress. Yet nearly a dozen high level Treasury department jobs remain unfilled and Geithner still has no deputy. Two people under consideration for the post withdrew their names after going through the vetting process.

"You know, this whole confirmation process, as I mentioned earlier has gotten pretty tough. It's been always tough. It's gotten tougher in the age of 24/7 news cycles. And a lot of people who we think are about to serve in the administration and Treasury suddenly say, 'Well, you know what? I don't wanna go through some of the scrutiny, embarrassment, in addition to taking huge cuts in pay,'" Obama explained.

"Have you offered some of these high level positions [in] the Treasury to people who would have turned them down?" Kroft asked.

"Absolutely. Yeah. And not because people didn't wanna serve. I think that people just felt that, you know, that the process has gotten very onerous," Obama said.

"Your Treasury secretary's plan, Geithner's plan, and your plan really for solving the banking crisis was met with very, very, very tepid response. A lot of people said they didn't understand it. A lot of people said it didn't have any, enough details to solve the problem. I know you're coming out with something next week on this. But these criticisms were coming from people like Warren Buffett, people who had supported you, and you had counted as being your…," Kroft said.

"And Warren still does support me. But I think that understand Warren's also a big player in the financial markets who's a major owner of Wells Fargo. And so he's got a perspective from the perspective of somebody who is part-owner of a bank. You've got members of Congress who've got a different perspective. Which is, 'We don't wanna spend any more taxpayer money.' You've got a whole host of players, all of whom may have a completely different solution. Right?" Obama said.

"And you know, one of the challenges that Tim Geithner has had is the same challenge that anybody would have in this situation. People want a lot of contradictory things. You know, the banks would love a lot of taxpayer money with no strings attached. Folks in Congress, as well as the American people, would love to fix the banks without spending any money. And so at a certain point, you know, you've got just a very difficult line to walk."

"You need the financial community…to solve this crisis," Kroft remarked. "Do you think that the people on Wall Street and the people in the financial community that you need trust you, believe in you?"

"Part of my job is to communicate to them. Look, I believe in the market. I believe in financial innovation. And I believe in success. I want them to do well. But what I also know is that the financial sector was out of balance. You look at how finance used to operate just 20 years ago, or 25 years ago. People, if you went into investment banking, you were making 20 times what a teacher made. You weren't making 200 times what a teacher made," Obama said.

"There is a perception right now, at least in New York, which is where I live and work. …People feel they thought that you were going to be supportive. And now I think there are a lot of people the say, 'Look, we're not gonna be able to keep our best people. They're not gonna stay and work here for $250,000 a year when they can go work for a hedge fund, if they can find one that's still working…and make a lot more," Kroft remarked.

"I've told them directly, 'cause I've heard some of this. They need to spend a little time outside of New York. Because you know, if you go to North Dakota, or you go to Iowa, or you go to Arkansas, where folks would be thrilled to be making $75,000 a year without a bonus, then I think they'd get a sense of why people are frustrated," Obama said.

"I think we have to understand the severity of the crisis that we're in right now. The fact is that, because of bad bets made on Wall Street, there have been enormous losses. I mean there were a whole bunch of folks who, on paper, if you looked at quarterly reports, were wildly successful, selling derivatives that turned out to be…completely worthless," he added.

And they were insuring them.

"Now you know, gosh, I don't think it's me being anti-Wall Street just to point out that the best and the brightest didn't do too well on that front, and that you know, maybe the incentive structures that have been set up have not produced the kinds of long term growth that I think everybody's looking for," Obama said.

Asked if he was surprised at the depth of the recession when he took office, Obama told Kroft, "I don't think that we anticipated how steep the decline would be, particularly in employment. I mean if you look at just, you know, hundreds of thousands - now millions - of jobs being shed over the course of two months or three months, that slope is a lot steeper than anything that we've said we've seen before."

"Now, there's a potential silver lining, which may be that things are so accelerated now, the modern economy is so intertwined and wired, that things happen really fast for ill, but things may recover faster than they have in the past," he added.

"Do you believe that there's still some systemic risk out there? That the financial system could still implode if you had a big failure at AIG or at Citicorp?" Kroft asked.

"Yes," Obama said.

"Citibank?" Kroft asked.

"I think that systemic risks are still out there. And if we did nothing you could still have some big problems. There are certain institutions that are so big that if they fail, they bring a lot of other financial institutions down with them. And if all those financial institutions fail all at the same time, then you could see an even more destructive recession and potentially depression," Obama said. "I'm optimistic about that not happening."

The president said there is a limit to the amount of money the government can spend and print to solve the crisis. Asked if the government is getting close to that limit, Obama said, "The limit is our ability to finance these expenditures through borrowing. And, you know, the United States is fortunate that it has the largest, most stable economic and political system around. And so the dollar is still strong because people are still buying Treasury Bills. They still think that's the safest investment out there."

"If we don't get a handle on this, and also start looking at our long-term deficit projections, at a certain point people will stop buying those Treasury Bills," Obama added.

"Do you have any idea when this might end? Or when things might start getting better?" Kroft asked.

"Well, we're already starting to see flickers of hope out there. Refinancings have significantly increased. Interest rates have never been lower. That promises the possibility at least of the housing market bottoming out and stabilizing. It’s not going to happen equally in every part of the country," Obama said.

On the subject of the ailing automobile industry, the president said he is still committed to helping General Motors and Chrysler avert bankruptcy, but he says they have yet to demonstrate they can remain economically viable. And there are major political obstacles.

"I just wanna say that the only thing less popular than putting money into banks is putting money into the auto industry," Obama said.

"Eighteen percent are in favor," Kroft pointed out. "Seventy-six percent against."

"It's not a high number," Obama acknowledged, with a chuckle.

"You're sitting here. And you are laughing. You are laughing about some of these problems. Are people gonna look at this and say, 'I mean, he's sitting there just making jokes about money.' How do you deal with, I mean, explain the…mood and your laughter," Kroft asked. "Are you punch drunk?"

"No, no. There's gotta be a little gallows humor to get you through the day," Obama explained. "You know, sometimes my team talks about the fact that if you had said to us a year ago that the least of my problems would be Iraq, which is still a pretty serious problem, I don't think anybody would have believed it. But we've got a lot on our plate. And a lot of difficult decisions that we're gonna have to make."

One of those difficult decisions is Afghanistan. Asked what that mission should be, Obama said, "Making sure that al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies. That's our number one priority. And in service of that priority there may be a whole host of things that we need to do. We may need to build up economic capacity in Afghanistan. We may need to improve our diplomatic efforts in Pakistan."

"We may need to bring a more regional diplomatic approach to bear. We may need to coordinate more effectively with our allies. But we can't lose sight of what our central mission is. The same mission that we had when we went in after 9/11. And that is these folks can project violence against the United States' citizens. And that is something that we cannot tolerate," Obama said. "But what we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is gonna be able to solve our problems. So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's gotta be an exit strategy. There's gotta be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."

"Afghanistan has proven to be very hard to govern. This should not come as news to anybody given its history," Kroft said. "As the graveyards of empire. And there are people now who are concerned. We need to be careful what we're getting ourselves into in Afghanistan. Because we have come to be looked upon there by people in Afghanistan, and even people now in Pakistan…as another foreign power coming in, trying to take over the region."

"I'm very mindful of that. And so is my national security team. So is the Pentagon. Afghanistan is not going to be easy in many ways. And this is not my assessment. This is the assessment of commanders on the ground," Obama explained.

"Iraq was actually easier than Afghanistan. It's easier terrain. You've got a much better educated population, infrastructure to build off of. You don't have some of the same destabilizing border issues that you have between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And so this is gonna be a tough nut to crack. But it is not acceptable for us to simply sit back and let safe havens of terrorists plan and plot," he added.

"One question about Dick Cheney and Guantanamo. I'm sure you wanna answer this," Kroft said. "A week ago Vice President Cheney said essentially that your willingness to shut down Guantanamo and to change the way prisoners are treated and interrogated was making America weaker and more vulnerable to another attack. And that the interrogation techniques that were used at Guantanamo were essential in preventing another attack against the United States."

"I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly. You know, I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests. I think he's drawing the wrong lesson from history," Obama said.

"The facts don't bear him out. I think he is, that attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world. I mean, the fact of the matter is after all these years how many convictions actually came out of Guantanamo? How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment. Which means that there is constant effective recruitment of Arab fighters and Muslim fighters against U.S. interests all around the world," he added.

"Some of it being organized by a few people who were released from Guantanamo," Kroft pointed out.

"Well, there is no doubt that we have not done a particularly effective job in sorting through who are truly dangerous individuals that we've got to make sure are not a threat to us, who are folks that we just swept up. The whole premise of Guantanamo promoted by Vice President Cheney was that somehow the American system of justice was not up to the task of dealing with these terrorists. I fundamentally disagree with that. Now, do these folks deserve Miranda rights? Do they deserve to be treated like a shoplifter down the block? Of course not," Obama said.

Asked what should be done with these people, Obama said, "Well, I think we're gonna have to figure out a mechanism to make sure that they not released and do us harm. But do so in a way that is consistent with both our traditions, sense of due process, international law. But this is the legacy that's been left behind. And, you know, I'm surprised that the vice president is eager to defend a legacy that was unsustainable. Let's assume that we didn't change these practices. How long are we gonna go? Are we gonna just keep on going until you know, the entire Muslim world and Arab world despises us? Do we think that's really gonna make us safer? I don't know a lot of thoughtful thinkers, liberal or conservative, who think that that was the right approach."

Aside from running the Harvard Law Review and directing his own presidential campaign, President Barack Obama entered the White House with no real executive experience.

Now he is grappling with the challenges of running one of the largest enterprises in the world under the most trying circumstances. How is he handling the pressure, what is an average day like and how are his wife Michelle and their young daughters adjusting? The president talked about all of that as he gave 60 Minutes a tour of the White House grounds.

Asked if he's gotten into a routine, Obama told Kroft, "I have. You know, I typically work out in the morning. Michelle's often there with me. We do our little workout, and then…after the workout, have breakfast, read the papers, read my morning security briefing. And then I come down here and talk to our National Security team. Then we talk to the economic team. After that, who knows? Anything goes. But typically, between 7:00 and 10:00 I sort of know what I'm doing."

Walking on the White House grounds, Obama pointed up at the living quarters of the executive mansion. "This is the living quarters, up on the second floor. We got a gym right over there, up on the third floor. And the second floor is, our bedroom's on this side, and we got a dining room on that side. And, yeah, pretty nice digs," the president told Kroft.

"How are you finding the job?" Kroft asked.

"It's exhilarating. It's challenging you know, I find that the governance part of it, the decision making part of it, actually comes pretty naturally. I think I've got a great team. I think we're making good decisions. The hardest thing about the job is staying focused. Because there's so many demands and decisions that are pressed upon you," Obama explained.

Asked what the hardest decisions has been that he's had to make in the last 60 days, Obama said, "Well, I would say that the decision to send more troops into Afghanistan. You know, I think it's the right thing to do. But it's a weighty decision because we actually had to make the decision prior to the completion of strategic review that we were conducting. When I make a decision to send 17,000 young Americans to Afghanistan, you can understand that intellectually - but understanding what that means for those families, for those young people when you end up sitting at your desk, signing a condolence letter to one of the family members of a fallen hero, you're reminded each and every day at every moment that the decisions you make count."

"What is the most frustrating part of the job?" Kroft asked.

"The fact that you are often confronted with bad choices that flow from less than optimal decisions made a year ago, two years ago, five years ago, when you weren't here," Obama said. "A lot of times, when things land at my desk it's a choice between bad and worse. And as somebody pointed out to me, the only things that land on my desk are tough decisions. Because, if they were easy decisions, somebody down the food chain's already made them."

The president told Kroft he has to make lots of decisions daily - too many to count.

"Every time somebody walks in your office," Kroft remarked.

"There's a decision. Otherwise, they don't get a meeting," Obama said.

For meetings and decisions, Obama said he's always briefed before it happens. "I spend a lot of time reading. People keep on asking me, 'Well, what are you reading these days?' Well, mostly briefing books. You know, you get a little time to read history or you know, policy books that are of interest. But there's a huge amount of information that has to be digested, especially right now. Because the complexities of Afghanistan are matched, maybe even dwarfed, by the complexities of the economic situation. And there are a lot of moving parts to all of that."

Asked if he ever takes a day off, Obama told Kroft, "I do. It's never a full day, but typically Saturdays and Sundays. I'll wander down to the Oval Office I will do some work, but I'll still have time for the kids.

On most days, the president says he and the first lady are able to have a family dinner with their children. And he usually sees his two daughters in the afternoon when they come home from school and pay him a visit in the West Wing. He can look out the window of the Oval Office, and watch them play on their new swing set.

"This is a pretty spectacular swing set," Obama said. "I have to say that I was not the purchaser of this. The admiral, our chief usher, Admiral Steve Rochon, took great interest when we said that we should get a swing set, and found what I assume must be the Rolls Royce of swing sets."

"You didn't have one of these when you were a kid?" Kroft asked.

"I sure did not. I thought we were gonna get like two swings. But they went all out," Obama replied with a chuckle.

The Obamas' daughters have had kids over at the White House after school. "And they've tested this out," Obama said of the swing set. "And it got a thumbs up."

Asked if they're liking it in the White House, Obama said, "You know, they are adapting remarkably in ways that I just would not have expected."

"What's interesting is actually how unimpressed they are with it," the president said. "I mean they're going to school. They are unchanged. They're the same sweet, engaging, happy unpretentious kids that they were"

"And they're having fun," Kroft said.

"They do seem to be have fun. And Michelle is thriving as well. I mean she just started a vegetable garden out here," Obama said. "All the chefs from the White House staff went down there with her. And they started diggin' ground. And they're gonna be planting stuff. And this is part of the message that she wants to send about good nutrition."

Michelle Obama had broken ground for the vegetable garden a few hours earlier on the South Lawn, with the help of some Washington school children; it's just a small patch of land on the sprawling White House grounds that cover 18 acres. As for the 55,000 square foot house, the first family is still exploring the 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms.

The president admitted he has gotten lost in the executive mansion - repeatedly.

"Harry Truman called the White House 'The Great White Jail.' Clinton said he couldn't make up his mind whether it was the finest public housing in America or the jewel of the prison system," Kroft said.

"The bubble that the White House represents is tough," Obama acknowledged. "And one of the things that I am constantly struggling with is how to break out of it. And I've taken to the practice of reading ten letters selected from the 40,000 that we get every night, just to hear from voices outside of my staff. But the inability to just go, and you know, sit at a corner coffee shop and have a chat with people, or just listen to what folks are saying at the next table, that I think, is something that, as president, you’ve gotta constantly fight against."