Obama on the War, Race and America's Future

Barack Obama

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois addresses the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Karen Bleier/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Bleier/Getty Images

Extra Audio

Sen. Barack Obama on Reparations for Slavery

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama says he anticipates having U.S. combat troops withdrawn from Iraq within a year, in a wide-ranging interview with NPR's Farai Chideya.

According to the Democratic presidential hopeful, the ongoing war could undermine efforts to combat domestic terrorism, as new threat assessments show al-Qaida restoring its strength to pre-Sept. 11 levels.

"We're not going to be able to tackle those issues, which I think the American people understand are one of the most prominent threats we face, unless we are not entirely bogged down in this mess in Iraq," Obama said.

The following is a transcript of the interview:

I will jump right into this: Are you willing to be the man who finally and officially pulls U.S. troops out of Iraq?

There are bad options and worse options, and we've got to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in because the safety of the troops on the ground is at stake. But if we begin a phased, responsible redeployment, I see no reason why we should not have our combat troops out by certainly early summer of next year. And once we've done that, we then have an opportunity not only to put more pressure on the Iraqi government to come to a political accommodation between the various factions but we can also go back to the international community and get their assistance in stabilizing the region.

Early summer of next year is a really aggressive timetable, and there will be convoys leaving the country, heading to Kuwait, heading to Turkey — these images on the news. You realize it could ruin you politically if people begin to associate you with defeat.

Oh, I think people at this point have a pretty good sense of whose war this is, and the critical task for us now is not only stabilizing the situation in Iraq and getting our combat troops out, it's also that we've got al-Qaida, as strong as it has been since 9/11, regrouping in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border. And we've got real serious problems there. And we're not going to be able to tackle those issues, which I think the American people understand are one of the most prominent threats we face, unless we are not entirely bogged down in this mess in Iraq.

Let's move to the domestic front. You have said that your daughters, because of their economic privilege, should not benefit from affirmative action in the same way that some other people might. If elected, will you fight to keep affirmative action alive? If so, to benefit whom?

Oh, I'm a firm believer in affirmative action. The question that was asked was, do I think that my daughters are disadvantaged. And I said no, because their father is a United States senator and both their parents are working professionals. But what I also said is that there is a strong and ongoing intersection between race and class in this country — that racism is still an issue that has to battled. Affirmative action is an important tool, although a limited tool, for us to deal with these issues. I say limited simply because a large portion of our young people right now never even benefit from affirmative action because they're not graduating from high school. And unless we do a better job with early childhood education, fixing crumbling schools, investing to make sure that we've got an excellent teacher in front of every classroom, and then making college affordable, we're not even going to reach the point where our children can benefit from affirmative action.

Let me throw a little curveball in there. We met when I was an undergrad at Harvard. You were the head of the Harvard Law Review. Now there's a big debate at Harvard over whether the children of immigrants — and you're one, and I'm one, for the purposes of these studies — should be considered the same as children of Jim Crow survivors, fthe great-grandchildren of people who survived slavery. What do you think about that and how that plays into affirmative action?

Oh, I think that's a divisive debate and a silly debate that we should not be getting into. Listen, your parents or grandparents, my parents or grandparents were either part of the black Diaspora. I mean, you know, black people didn't end up in the Caribbean by taking a yacht there. They came on slave ships. Back in Africa, my grandfather was a cook for the British army and suffered under the colonialism there. You know, the notion that we would try to parse and divide to see who among us has been most victimized, I think, is not an appropriate approach to take. And it weakens rather than strengthens the overall efforts to ensure racial equality and justice in this country.

And yet that's how some people think. You know that you've battled this issue of "Is Barack Obama black enough?" because you had an African father who you did not grow up with.

Yeah, you know, it's something that I've had to battle mainly in the press and among talking heads. It's not something I have to battle when I go into my barbershop or when I'm on the basketball court or when I'm walking down the street and people are honking and waving. You know, I really think that we are still confused about issues of race in this country. That's true for blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians and the fact that I'm running for president is obviously going to bring up some of this confusion to the surface. But one of the things I'm absolutely clear about is that ordinary people that I meet and talk to each and every day –- they are absolutely clear about where I'm coming from and partly that's because I'm very clear about who I am.

I want to continue by mining a little bit of who you are and who you've been and the path you've walked. So you spent much of your 20s in Chicago as an advocate for the poor in largely black communities, and compared to what you have to do to be a presidential candidate — to be careful about every word — do you miss the freedom of who you were? Have you lost something?

(Chuckles) Well, it's a good question. Look, you're always closing some doors when you open others, and there's no doubt that there are sacrifices involved in running for president. You know, the biggest one is just not seeing my family the way I want to all the time, and I've got two adorable daughters that I'm not home every night to tuck in. And it is also true that as president, you try to fight against being overly cautious or overly scripted, but there's no doubt that some of that happens inevitably. And some of it's not an entirely bad thing.

I was walking with my daughter the other day from the bookstore and we had what she calls the secret people following us. We had some Secret Service folks behind us, and she said, "Daddy, did you always want to be president?" And I said, "No, not really, but I think it's important for me to try this now." And she said, "Yeah, I'm not sure I'd want to be president because if I say something wrong in school, you know, I might get in trouble with the teacher. If you say something wrong, the whole world could get shaken up." And then so that's part of the responsibility of being a presidential candidate and certainly a president is that your words get magnified and count. But I also think that it's important to make sure that I don't lose my core honesty with myself and that I don't start trimming my sails or biting my tongue in order to get elected. In fact, if I try to do that, I'm pretty certain I won't get elected, because there are other people who are better at saying the conventional political thing than I am.

Your daughter calls the Secret Service the secret people. You have gotten protection really early. You don't have to go far on the Internet to find predictions that you could be the target of violence, and one of our listeners made this observation: How do you weigh the risks of being injured or even killed because you are a black man running for president versus your daughters, your love for your family?

Well, look, I don't spend all my time obsessing about safety issues. We take precautions and this is a risk that all presidential candidates face. Obviously it's a little more prevalent if you're an African-American candidate, but Michelle and I — my wife and I — talked about this before we got into this race, the sacrifices that were involved — being away from the kids, not having as much privacy as we once had — and our conclusion was that it was worth it, because we're in one of these moments where I truly believe we've got an opportunity to reshape the political landscape right now in a way that we haven't had maybe since Ronald Reagan did it for conservatives back in 1980.

I think the country is profoundly ready for change. They recognize that the war in Iraq has been a failure, that we are struggling under a health care system that doesn't work, that our education system isn't adequate for making sure that our kids can compete in an international economy. And so I think there are a lot of disaffected Republicans, there are a lot of independents who could get behind a progressive message, and I think we could also revisit and restore the sense that we've got to take on some of the issues of poverty in this country right now. But all this is going to require the kind of leadership that has been lacking, and I think it is leadership that I can provide.

Actually, we put out a request to our listeners — we have a blog, "News & Views" — and we asked for questions they wanted to ask you. Kim Campbell sent this one. She said, "I am a sophomore in college who has worked up to two jobs while taking on a full course load. I have a high number of loans already, I've had to transfer from a tier one private university to a state college, primarily because of cost. I would like to know what you would do to make college truly more affordable for students."

This is a critical issue. College has become out of reach for hundreds of thousands of students around the country. A couple of specific things we can do. Number one: The federal government has to make sure that it's fulfilling its financial obligations to states, because part of the reason tuition is going up so quickly is because states aren't providing as much support to colleges and universities as they used to because they're strapped trying to pay their Medicaid bills. Number two: Right now, our student loan programs are often funneled through banks and financial intermediaries like Sallie Mae, and those financial institutions are making $8 billion or more every year in profits off the backs of students who are trying to go to school. This is just on the government subsidized loan program. This sets aside the whole private financing of student loans that has become a big racket. And so what I've said is let's eliminate those subsidies. Let's stop giving $8 billion to companies that don't need it. Let's take that money and expand grants which were much more prevalent when I was going to college and don't require young people to take on these enormous debts. The third thing that I'd like to see is an expansion of national service programs so that if young people are committed to going into teaching or going into nursing or going into social work, or going into the public sector that they can get significant loan forgiveness so that they can actually afford to do those jobs.

Senator, a couple more quick questions from our listeners. Kitty Martin in San Francisco said, "In light of the fact that no American president has ever apologized to African Americans for the issue of slavery, would you, as the first African-American president, be willing to make that apology for an injustice that has gone unanswered in the last 250 years?"

You know, I have to confess that I am less interested in apologies, which to me are just words, and more interested in commitment. And as president the expression of grief or sorrow towards our past history is to ensure that we're creating a brighter future for those who've been impacted. That means building schools that work, putting people back to work, making sure that we've got a criminal justice system that is just. Those are the steps that I think as president I'd be much more focused on.

Finally, we've got a lighter note from David McWeeney. You're going to like this, because you've been described as a really aggressive basketball player back when you were at Harvard. So he wrote, "Senator Obama, you've said that if you become president that you will install a basketball hoop in the White House. Do you happen to know where?" But we did a little digging. It turns out the White House already has a half-court. Will you expand that to a full court, and who are you going to play?

You know, I was just with Charles Barkley a couple of days ago. He came down to Birmingham to campaign with me, and Alonzo Mourning is doing an event for me down in Miami in a couple of weeks, so I think we could put together a pretty good all-star team. I don't want to guard any of those guys. They'll be on my team, and then you know, maybe if you want to play you can come up with some folks of your own.

You know what, that's out of my league. Senator Obama, it was a real pleasure.

All right. It was great talking to you.