MyDD Interview with Barack Obama
by Jonathan Singer, Thu Feb 08, 2007 at 06:00:49 AM EST
On Friday afternoon I was able to speak over the telephone with Sen. Barack Obama, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, while he was driving from a rally to the airport to catch a flight home. This was the third in an ongoing of interviews with Democratic presidential contenders, which began with Russ Feingold back in May before he had dropped out of the race and proceeded with John Edwards. Hopefully it will eventually hit all of the candidates in the race, perhaps continuing as early as two weeks from now at the AFSCME forum in Nevada, which I am in the process of finding the funding to attend and cover.
As with my other interviews from the week of the DNC's winter meetings, which included Edwards as well as Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, many of my questions came from either this comment thread or via email. You can listen to the interview by downloading the .mp3 here (warning: very large file) or read the transcript -- which covers healthcare, Iraq, Iran and getting people more involved in politics, among other things -- below.
Jonathan Singer: Hi, how are you doing?
Barack Obama: So did Schumer tell you all his trade secrets?
Singer: He tried to give me as much as he could. He's got a lot in that mind -
Obama: He does.
Singer: - that he keeps to himself. He's got a lot of trade secrets he doesn't want to get out.
Singer: You talked today about battling against cynicism within the electorate, trying to get people more involved. We were talking yesterday briefly about one process reform we have in Oregon, vote-by-mail. I was wondering if you think that there can be process reforms to get people more involved or there needs to be a more systematic change as well?
Obama: I think all of the above. I cut my teeth on organizing, first in the community and then when I came back from law school and organized a voter registration project called Project Hope that registered about 150,000 new voters. But it was painstaking. The barriers that we still have in place for people getting involved just in exercising enfranchisement is still significant. We need to tear those down.
This week, Schumer and I introduced a bill dealing with deceptive practices, some of the nonsense that we saw in 2006, people calling up and saying that their polling place has been moved or that if you have a parking ticket you can't vote, spreading disinformation. We need to have a Justice Department that actually is prosecuting that stuff. And if it's not our bill, what it does, it allows a private right of action so the voter himself can take that to court and challenge it before it's too late for them to vote.
I personally think that we should seriously consider, on a state-by-state basis, moving away from partisan gerrymandering because I think it discourages the kind of robust debate that we need to have. If people feel like this is a 90 percent Democratic district or a 90 percent Republican district, then at a certain point folks start opting out of the process.
So those are all procedural forms that could make a difference. Now ultimately, though, elected officials and candidates themselves need to break down some of these barriers. I think the internet has been an invaluable tool to help connect candidates to potential supporters.
But I think there is still a hesitancy on the part of a lot of campaigns because they want to control the process themselves. I'm leaving George Mason University where a group called Students for Barack Obama just organized a 3,000-person rally. We had nothing to do with it. There's no way we could have given the time constraints we were under to organize something that good. But if candidates are willing to loosen the reins a little bit then that encourages people - especially young people - who will have other opportunities for public service to get involved.
And then the final aspect of it is message. I don't care how open your process is. If politics are timid, people aren't going to be excited, they're not going to get involved.
Singer: One of the things you spoke about today was getting universal healthcare - and quickly. Learning what you have over the past two plus years in the Senate as well as your time in the legislature down in Spingfield, what do you think you'll need to do as President to get that done so that people don't just think it's a candidate saying, "I'm going to do it"?
Obama: I think a new President has to... Let me put it this way: First the candidate would have to describe this commitment with some specificity, which isn't to say you've got the whole plan worked out perfectly ahead of time or that there's not going to be any compromise or modifications. But you have to run on the notion that by the end of your first term you're going to have healthcare for all.
That then would give you, should you win, a mandate. And you have to use that mandate. Quickly - in the first 100 days before the corrosive process of Washington starts setting in.
There are going to have to be compromises. There is a powerful -
[Phone cuts out]
Obama: That's my fault, Jonathan. That's probably a sign that I was talking too much.
Singer: No, no worries whatsoever. Another source, I think, of cynicism, not just within young people but among the 60 to 70 percent of people in polls and the 55 percent of people who voted Democratic in 2006, is that the President is moving in exact opposite direction on the issue of Iraq - and not just on Iraq but on Iran as well - than the majority of Americans seem to want. What can be done, both in the next two years, and what can you do as President to restore Americans' faith that the President is indeed responsive, particularly on an issue as important as the war?
Obama: This week I introduced a very specific plan in the form of a bill - legislation - that would begin a phased withdrawal with the target of having all our combat forces out of Iraq by March 31 of next year. And that is what I would do right now if I were President and it's consistent with what my position has been throughout, which is we shouldn't have gone in in the first place, once we were in we had some responsibility and a national security interest in stabilizing the situation, but that stability is only going to come about if there is significant political compromise between the various Iraqi factions. It can't be imposed militarily.
So I'm hoping to get a vote on this bill. There are other strategies that have been presented. Russ Feingold has a bill. He's been consistent as I have in our oppositions to the President's misguided policies. I think Chris Dodd has a cap, at least on the surge. And Senator Biden has the non-binding resolution, which at least sends a message that the majority of the Senate is opposed to the President's policy. But I guess my point is that opposing the escalation is a distraction from the larger issue, which is that we need to deescalate.
Now in terms of the future, I think the next President is going to be cleaning up this mess for some time to come. And what citizens can do is essentially make sure that they're keeping the pressure on. Sooner or later the political system responds, and I think the November elections fundamentally changed the political climate in a way that puts more political pressure on the President.
Singer: Now for the people who feel like they're undergoing deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra put it, in terms of American policy towards Iran...
Obama: I think the major difference is that there will not be any tolerance, I think, on the part of this Congress for unilateral action by the United States against Iran. You're not going to get the kind of authorization language that you got for Iraq. And that provided the President, frankly, a lot of cover for a long time. And it boxed a lot of folks in Congress into a policy that wasn't going to work, and made it made it more difficult to oppose these subsequent moves.
Listen, Jonathan, I'm actually about to get on a plane.
Singer: I appreciate your time.
Obama: I hope that was helpful.
Singer: As a fellow SCIAC person - I went to Pomona, one of your rivals...
Obama: Those are nice schools. Nice, small liberal arts colleges, schools. They were good. I hope I get the chance to see you again, Jonathan.
Singer: Have a safe flight.
[THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.]