Washington • Following is a transcript of AP reporter Ben Feller’s interview with President Barack Obama.
Question: Mr. President, thank you for the opportunity.
Obama: Good to see you.
Q. It’s good to see you again.
Let’s start with politics, of course. Mitt Romney is about to have the biggest political stage of his life at the Republican National Convention. What do you expect to hear from him, and how do you plan to counter it when you speak at your convention just a week later?
Obama: I suspect that we’ll hear at the Republican Convention what we’ve been seeing in the millions of dollars’ worth of ads that they’re running all throughout the country. And they basically have one message, which is, the economy is not where it should be and it’s Obama’s fault. And there will be variations on that theme.
But I think when voters step back, what they’re going to look at is who can move us forward. And we all understand that we just went through the worst recession and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. People understand the millions of jobs that were lost before I took office, the 800,000 jobs that we lost the month I was sworn in, and they recognize that we’ve started to see some progress — 4.5 million new jobs created in the private sector, half a million manufacturing jobs, saving the auto industry.
But they also understand that we’ve got to do more. And so the question is: What’s the recipe for long-term, sustained economic growth? And when they ask themselves that question, what they’ll see is the Republicans are essentially offering the same policies that got us into this mess in the first place.
Mitt Romney is proposing a $5 trillion tax cut that disproportionately goes to the wealthiest Americans. And he will pay for that by gutting investments in things like education, infrastructure, basic science and research, voucherizing Medicare — all to provide an average of $250,000 worth of tax breaks to people making $3 million a year or more.
And when you combine that with rolling back regulations that we put in place for reining in Wall Street, making sure we don’t go through the same kind of financial crisis we went through, when you look at Governor Romney’s proposal to roll back the Affordable Care Act — which would actually mean millions of young people would no longer have coverage who now do because they can stay on their parent’s plan, or seniors having to pay more for their prescription drugs — they’re going to be pretty skeptical of that argument.
And what we’re going to be offering — and have been offering — is a path forward that says balanced deficit-reduction, smart cuts in government programs that we can no longer afford, making sure that we’re eliminating waste and fraud in programs like Medicare, but still making sure that we’ve got our investments in education, our investments in science and technology, investments in clean energy research, asking folks like me — people who are in the top 1 or 2 percent — making sure that they’re paying a little bit more for a balanced deficit reduction plan but also a plan to ensure that our economy grows and that we’re building our middle class.
Q. Put yourself in the shoes of an undecided voter who says: I don’t have a job, I can’t pay my bills, my life isn’t better — my life isn’t better under President Obama. Why should that person vote for you?
Obama: Look, I hear from folks all the time who are still struggling. Even if they have a job, they are still having a tough time paying the bills. Their home may be underwater because of the housing bubble burst. They’re still worried about saving for their retirement.
And so I’m the first one to say that we’re not where we need to be. What I’d say to that voter, though, is who’s more likely to fight for middle-class families to make sure that they’ve got long-term security? Is it going to be Governor Romney and his proposals that mirror the kinds of proposals that got us into this mess in the first place — that led to some of the slowest growth we’ve ever seen, jobs being shipped overseas, middle-class wages and incomes declining — culminating in this disastrous economic crisis?
Or is it going to be a president who is interested in making sure that college is affordable for that voter’s kids, that is bringing manufacturing back, that is interested in creating jobs in the clean energy sector? And that’s the choice that I think that voter is going to be confronted with.
We aren’t where we need to be. Everybody agrees with that. But Governor Romney’s policies would make things worse for middle-class families and offer no prospect for long-term opportunity for those striving to get into the middle class. And the policies I’m offering are ones that have been proven in the past to help middle-class families achieve their dreams.
Q. You just framed it as a choice, and of course we’ve heard that from you and your campaign for months. But what about the person who basically says: I gave him a chance, I hired him, I’m not happy, I might fire him? I mean, don’t people make decisions that way and then decide let’s give the new guy a chance?
Obama: If they saw Governor Romney offering serious proposals that offered some sort of concrete ways in which middle-class families would be helped, then I could understand them thinking about that choice. But that’s not what’s happening.
Let’s be very concrete about a problem we all agree needs to be resolved and that is the deficit and debt. Now, this didn’t happen overnight. It happened because we had tax cuts that weren’t paid for, two wars fought on a credit card and then a massive economic crisis.
What I’ve said is, let’s reduce our deficit and debt in a balanced, sensible way. Let’s make sure that 98 percent of families, folks making $250,000 a year or less, aren’t seeing their taxes — their income taxes go up a single dime next year. And I’ve said to the Republicans, I’m ready to sign that bill tomorrow.
Governor Romney’s approach is to cut taxes $5 trillion, but because so much of the benefit goes to wealthy individuals, independent analysts say that’s going to cost middle-class families an extra $2,000 in tax burden. So you’ve got a very clear choice for that voter — I’ve got somebody who’s willing to keep my taxes low at the same time as he’s able to help me afford sending my kid to college, and is going to continue to invest in things like advanced manufacturing, and change the tax code so we’re not giving tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas but instead give those tax breaks to companies that are building in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh and throughout the United States.
And you’ve got a guy who will end up costing me an extra $2,000 in taxes to give breaks to folks who’ve already done very well. And in that circumstance, I think the average American is going to say: I want somebody who’s on my side, fighting for me, thinking about me.
It doesn’t mean that folks are going to be satisfied with the pace that we’re on. People are going to want to see it accelerated. And, frankly, we would be in a stronger position if the proposal I put forward almost a year ago that had provided help to states to rehire teachers and firefighters and police officers, and put construction workers back to work, rebuilding our roads and our bridges — if those proposals had been put in place, we’d have an estimated additional million jobs.
The problem we’ve got right now is we’ve got a Republican Congress that is closely aligned with Governor Romney’s perspective that is blocking some of the progress that we could be making.
Q. Well, that’s exactly what I want to ask you about next. Let’s say you win — okay, that’s a hypothetical that you would probably buy into. But say you win, but the House Republicans win again also, a likely possibility. How is that any different from what we have now? Why wouldn’t a voter look at that and say that’s a recipe for stalemate. How would you do anything differently?
Obama: Well, there are a couple things that I think change. No. 1, the American people will have voted. They will have cast a decisive view on how we should move the country forward, and I would hope that the Republican Party, after a fulsome debate, would say to itself, we need to listen to the American people.
I think what is also true is that because of the mechanisms that have been set up, agreed to by Republicans, that have already cut a trillion dollars’ worth of spending out of the federal deficit, but now we’ve got to find an additional trillion — $1.2 trillion, I guess — before the end of the year, means that the Republicans will have to make a very concrete decision about whether they’re willing to cooperate on a balanced package.
If they don’t, then I’m going to have to look at how we can work around Congress to make sure that middle-class families are protected, but that we’re still doing our — meeting our responsibilities when it comes to deficit reduction and investing in the future.
Q. But, I mean, I can certainly see Republicans, led by Speaker Boehner, saying the same thing — the American people voted, we’re back in power, too. They’re not going to change their position on taxes, on climate change, on immigration. So I mean, if you could — if I could just push a little further on that, how do you see that dynamic changing?
Obama: Well, look, there are some proposals that they put forward that we’re not going to compromise on because I believe it would be bad for the country and bad for middle-class families.
I don’t think it would be a good idea to pursue an approach that voucherizes Medicare and raises taxes on middle-class families to give wealthy individuals a tax break. So if that’s the mandate that Republicans receive, then there’s still going to be some serious arguments here in Washington.
But what I’m offering the American people is a balanced approach that the majority agrees with, including a lot of Republicans. And for me to be able to say to the Republicans, the election is over; you no longer need to be focused on trying to beat me; what you need to be focused on and what you should have been focused on from the start is how do we advance the American economy — I’m prepared to make a whole range of compromises, some of which I get criticized from the Democratic Party on, in order to make progress. But we’re going to need compromise on your side as well. And the days of viewing compromise as a dirty word need to be over because the American people are tired of it.
That’s, I think, a message that will resonate not with every Republican, but I think with a lot of fair-minded Republican legislators who probably feel somewhat discouraged about having served in one of the least productive Congresses in American history.
And I hear — not in public, but in private — that many of them would like to go ahead and get some stuff done because they recognize that our children and our grandchildren have a stake in us being able to get this work done.
Q. Let’s talk some more about Governor Romney. What have you learned about him this campaign?
Obama: Well, I think Governor Romney obviously has achieved extraordinary success with his businesses, and he’s obviously very focused on achieving the presidency. He cares deeply about his family, and I think he cares deeply about his faith.
On the other hand, his view of how we grow an economy is just contradicted by the facts. He has embraced an approach that we tried for almost a decade, and it didn’t work. And he’s now looking to double down on it.
What we’ve also seen is Governor Romney has not been willing to, I think, own up to some of the responsibilities that are required if you’re president of the United States. So there’s been obviously a lot of discussion about his unwillingness to release his tax returns. As I mentioned in a press conference on Monday, we’ve suggested he needs to, not because we’re being mean or asking something unusual. When you run for president, you are asking the American people to put their trust in you on a whole range of decisions that are going to be really consequential for them, including over the next year issues of tax reform and how we make sure the tax code is fair for everybody.
And if you’ve got a precedent where every other candidate for this office has said — here are my finances, here’s how I’ve handled my tax obligations — and you’ve got a governor who’s been unwilling to do that, and the small bits of disclosure that he has put forward indicate investments in the Bahamas, or Swiss bank accounts, that indicates to me a lack of willingness to take responsibility for what this job entails.
Q. What about more personally? One of the political narratives out there is that you are specifically driven to beat him not just because of the visions and the policies, but this guy gets you going, he gets under your skin. Is that true?
Obama: No, that’s not true. I think that’s stirred-up Beltway discussions.
Q. So, privately, when you guys have strategy meetings, no dislike for him, no disdain for him?
Obama: I don’t really know him well. I think that the big arguments that I have with Governor Romney have to do with where we take this country forward. And it is my firm belief that somebody who wants to be president of the United States but is willing to try tax plans that won’t create jobs and will definitely increase the deficit or increase burdens on the middle class, somebody who appears to have disdain for renewable, homegrown energy that has created thousands of jobs and is part of what is allowing us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, somebody who believes that when it comes to Medicare that we should move towards a voucher system — that he is somebody who, for whatever reason, has not offered the kinds of solutions that are going to help America be strong in the future.
And that’s the kind of debate that the American people ultimately are going to be making a decision about.
Q. When you get to your debates with him, where do you think he’s vulnerable?
Obama: Well, I just listed a whole range of differences and —
Q. I mean — I’m sorry — specifically in the debate, that format? A lot of people are going to be paying attention to see how —
Obama: My sense is Governor Romney is a very capable debater. I think he did a very good job in his primary scoring points. The challenge he may end up having is the fact that some of the core arguments he’s making against me just aren’t based on facts.
So probably the most prominent argument that he’s been making for why voters should vote for him is this notion that Obama took the work requirement out of welfare, and he’ll put it back. The problem is, is that every fact-checker, every reporter who has actually looked at this says this is just made up, that, in fact, the president and his administration has been willing to say to states that want to put more people back to work, get more people off of welfare, they’re willing to give them some additional flexibility, but that there has been no attempt to eliminate the work requirement.
And so if that’s the central premise or the central argument that you’re making and it’s based on something that’s just not true, it will be, I think, a little bit tougher to defend face-to-face in a debate.
Q. You must be thinking about what his motivation is for continuing to run those ads and make that point. Why do you think he’s doing it? Who do you think he’s targeting?
Obama: Well, I think that if you don’t have a good argument for how you’re going to make things better, then you stay focused on how you can discredit the incumbent. That’s sort of standard politics. And I think Governor Romney understands that if people understand his actual positions on things like tax cuts for the wealthy, or how we reduce the deficit, or his approach to Medicare, that they don’t do very well. And so I think his chosen approach — with the help of these super PACs and folks writing $10 million checks — is to see if for the undecided voter who’s feeling the pinch coming out of this recession, who’s still having a tough time, whether they can get a sense, well, maybe Obama is not looking out for me.
And what gives me some confidence is I know every single day when I wake up in the morning and every night when I go to bed, the question I’m asking myself is: Have I helped hardworking people who are responsible and following the rules and doing everything they can to look after their families and do right by their communities — have I helped them in some small way to give them a fair shot? And am I making sure that everybody is doing their fair share and following the same set of rules?
And everything that I’ve done over the last three-and-a-half years has been centered on those hardworking Americans who are trying to achieve the American dream. That gives me a lot of confidence going forward — not that everything we’ve done has worked as fast as I’d like or exactly as we want, but it gives me confidence that we have pushed this country to start moving in the right direction and we shouldn’t be going backwards.
Q. I’m getting the sign here, I’m going to try to squeeze in a couple more, with your patience.
Q. I wanted to follow up on one other thing on Romney. One of your advisors, David Plouffe, said once that he doesn’t think Romney has a core — speaking about what he stands for. Do you agree with that?
Obama: I can’t speak to Governor Romney’s motivations. What I can say is that he has signed up for positions, extreme positions that are very consistent with positions that a number of House Republicans have taken. And whether he actually believes in those or not, I have no doubt that he would carry forward some of the things that he’s talked about.
I don’t think that he would back off a $5 trillion tax cut at this point. He’s made that the centerpiece of his economic argument. I don’t think that if Congress presented him with some of the items that are in the Republican platform at this convention that would, for example, entirely roll back women’s control over their reproductive health, that he would stand in the way.
He said that he would eliminate tax credits that are going to wind producers, even though we’ve doubled the production of wind energy. I suspect that he has to follow through on those commitments.
And so, when I look back on 2008, the promises that I made — I said I’d end the war in Iraq; I did. I said that I’d go after al-Qaida and bin Laden; we did. I said that I’d give middle-class families a tax cut; they’re paying on average about $3,600 less than they were when I came into office. I said that I would make sure that every American family has some security when it comes to health insurance; we got it done. I said that I would help young people get more affordable college, and we got that done.
So we haven’t gotten everything done that I promised, but a big chunk of what I said I would do in 2008 we have done. And I’ve got to assume that Governor Romney would do the same thing. And so, regardless of his motivations, the question then becomes is what he’s proposing actually going to help hardworking families all across the country. I don’t think they will.
If you’re a voter and you believe that the biggest problem we have is that the president has put too many regulations in place to keep our air clean and our water clean, if you believe that the way to reduce the deficit is to gut our investments in education and transportation and cut taxes for wealthy individuals — then you should feel confident that Governor Romney is going to follow through on those commitments. I just don’t think they’ll work.
Q. Last one, on Paul Ryan. When you found out he was chosen as the vice presidential candidate, what did you think? Were you surprised? And do you think he’s fit to be president if it should come to that?
Obama: Well, I think Congressman Ryan is very bright, he’s appealing, he’s got a beautiful family. And he certainly has been the ideological architect of the Republican Congress. He is one of the most articulate spokespersons for the views that Governor Romney is promoting.
But it, again, goes back to the issues. It goes back to your policies. Congressman Ryan is somebody who has enthusiastically embraced the view that the way we should approach our challenges — in fact, just about the only way we should approach our economic challenges — is to drastically cut all those investments that have helped the economy grow in the past and provide massive tax cuts to folks who don’t need them.
So under Congressman Ryan’s original tax plan, Governor Romney would pay less than 1 percent in taxes — less than 1 percent — while the average bus driver or teacher or police officer or small businessman, for that matter, would be paying a substantially higher tax rate.
And not only do I think it’s not fair, but that’s not how we grow an economy. When you look at the last hundred years of American history, the economy has always grown best when we grew it from the middle out and from the bottom up. If you look at the ‘50s and the ‘60s and ‘70s, when we had our biggest booms and greatest growth in productivity — when you look at what happened under Bill Clinton, who had 23 million new jobs being created — the reason was because folks in the middle, hardworking Americans, they saw their incomes go up. And as a consequence, they had more money to spend. That gave business more customers. Businesses were more profitable, and they would hire more workers.
And part of that was making sure that we had a tax code that was fair for everybody. And the times where we’ve had real damage done to our economy, both most recently in 2007-2008, but before that in the 1920s, was when you had a few folks who were doing really well, ordinary folks were having a tough time, there were no rules in place to make sure that people weren’t engaging in reckless behavior and over time, that house of cards fell.
So this is not a situation where we haven’t tried these various approaches that are being proposed. We’ve tried them. We’ve seen the outcomes. And the history, I think, is on our side.
Q. Then why do you think he chose Ryan?
Obama: Well, you’d have to ask Governor Romney that.
Q. Fair enough.
Obama: All, right. Thanks so much.
Q. Thank you, Mr. President.
Obama: I appreciate you.