Obama Criticizes Bush Stimulus Plan

In an interview with NPR from the campaign trail in South Carolina, Sen. Barack Obama talks with Renee Montagne about his approach to economic issues — including some harsh words for President Bush's stimulus plan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Democratic candidates face another bellwether primary this Saturday. South Carolina, where more than half of those going to the polls are African-American, will be the first state to measure the black vote. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two leading candidates - Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - stepped up their attacks and counterattacks in recent days. And Senator Obama is spending the entire week in South Carolina.

We reached him in Greenville, where he'd just given a speech criticizing President Bush's stimulus plan, accusing the president of neglecting low-income workers and the elderly.

Senator Obama, thank you for joining us.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: If you were president today, what would you do that's different from what the president is doing?

Sen. OBAMA: The first thing I would do is not leave 50 million people, potentially, out of a tax rebate plan, as the president has proposed. You know, I, very early on, said we've got to get money into the pockets of Americans right away, to shore up consumer spending and confidence in the markets and to keep the credit markets functioning. And the best way to do that is to provide tax rebates or supplements to Social Security that move out rapidly.

But it's also important to the lowest-income working Americans, that they get a break as well. They're the ones who are most likely to spend the money and most likely to spur the economy immediately. That's an area where the president, I think, has fallen short, and I think it's absolutely critical that that's reflected in any plan that is bargained for with the Democratic Congress.

MONTAGNE: You, yourself, have said it's easy to offer, propose plans and policies when you're on the campaign trail. You can make all sorts of promises, even tell people what they want to hear, but it's hard to make this happen. If you were president and you couldn't get everything you wanted in terms of various economic policies, would you sign a bill that was a compromise?

Sen. OBAMA: Listen, I think politics is full of compromise. And, of course, you're never going to get everything that you want, and I don't think that I would be doing my job as president if I was so ideologically rigid that you couldn't listen to others who have different opinions, but I...

MONTAGNE: But even if it meant, say, for instance, leaving out those elderly people that you just spoke of, the many elderly Americans who need some sort of tax relief?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that I start from a basic principle that is both practical and fair, which is the more we help the bottom rungs of the economy and the middle class, the more sustainable economic growth and prosperity is. And so I don't want to sign some piece of legislation that I don't think is going to work for our long-term economic health. That doesn't mean that I might not compromise and have to swallow some things that I'm not wild about.

MONTAGNE: I want to turn to the campaign trail and the actual politics of becoming president. You have complained, most particularly this week, that Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton, have been out on the campaign trail distorting your record. And here's an exchange from the Democratic debate earlier this week where you were speaking on the subject, in this case, of some comments you made about Ronald Reagan.

(Soundbite of Democratic Presidential Debate)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name.

Sen. OBAMA: Your husband did.

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I'm here. He's not. And...

Sen. OBAMA: Okay. Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes.

Sen. CLINTON: I, you know, well...

MONTAGNE: Former President Clinton seems to be playing the role here that a vice presidential candidate would traditionally play and will play in a general election, something that might ungraciously be called an attack dog. You sounded testy there. Won't you have to take this sort of thing if you're the Democratic nominee and up against the Republicans?

Sen. OBAMA: You know, listen, this has been going on for a month and, of course, I will. And I'll have my vice president to respond to these things. But, you know, my concern is not that President Clinton is going out of his way to help his wife. That's perfectly acceptable. What's not acceptable is folks just making things up. And that example that you just used about Ronald Reagan, I was very clear about saying Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure, not that I was praising his ideas. You know, the reason I think this is important is, what we can't continue is this perpetual campaign style in which records are distorted, and games are played, and as a consequence, nothing gets done.

MONTAGNE: You may be able to change it if you were to become president. But the reality is you're going into - you're in a campaign, and if you're the nominee, you will be in a campaign where these are the sort of arguments that get made. Are you being baited and are you falling for it?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, no. The - Renee, you know, the fact is is that if somebody says something untruthful about you, you have to respond. And we've learned that from the past. If you don't, then, unfortunately, it starts seeping into the truth. I think John Kerry learned a painful lesson that way.

MONTAGNE: Senator, thanks for talking with us.

Sen. OBAMA: Thank you so much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Senator Barack Obama spoke to us from the campaign trail in South Carolina.

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