MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
We're just two days away from two presidential contests, the Republican primary in South Carolina and caucuses for both parties in Nevada. With the race extending across the country, mass campaigning has eclipsed living-room politicking. And today, we found the candidates more than eager to talk to us.
BLOCK: In this half hour, we're going to hear from Democrat Barack Obama, who's campaigning in Nevada and California, and from Republican Fred Thompson who's pinning his hopes on South Carolina.
SIEGEL: Jumpstarting the economy is a key topic. Today, Senator John McCain added his stimulus plan to the mix. Our co-host, Michele Norris, talks with him elsewhere in the program.
BLOCK: First, to Barack Obama who joins us from San Francisco.
Senator Obama, welcome to the program.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Thank you so much.
BLOCK: And let's start with the economy. What would you say, are we in a recession right now, do you think? Are we headed for one or are you more sanguine than that?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, I'm not concerned about the technical definition of a recession. What I know is that people have been hurting. And they've been hurting for quite some time even before the downturn caused by the subprime lending crisis. You know, when you talk to families who are working harder but haven't seen increases in income, their costs for health care, college, gas at the pump, have all been going up. They can't save for retirement. It indicates the degree to which we're going to have to take some fundamental steps both for short-term stimulus - putting money in the pockets of families so that they can start spending and continue to spur the economy, but long term, structurally. You know, we've got to change the tax code has been so skewed towards the wealthy. And we're going to have to make some investments in energy, in infrastructure, and in the American people to ensure that we continue to stay competitive.
BLOCK: You and your Democratic rivals have come up with plans to try to jumpstart the economy in the short term. And your plan and Hillary Clinton's cost about the same, about 70 to $75 billion. Why is yours any better?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, Senator Clinton, I think, relies on government spending more. My plan relies more on tax cuts, tax rebate to every American, but also a supplement for seniors so that we're getting cash into their hands right away. I think speed is of the essence if you want a stimulus plan.
BLOCK: And those are spending plans too, aren't they?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, they are spending plans, but what happens is there's no government application. You know, for example, on this social security supplement, we would simply attach some additional money to a payment that goes out every month. And so immediately then, you have seniors who can spend more on prescription drugs or, you know, whatever it is that, you know, they're having a tough time paying for.
BLOCK: These things you're talking about, of course, would increase the deficit, which is already huge, and you haven't explained how would you offset that.
Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, as Chairman Bernanke has planned to testify today, right now, it's more important for us to jumpstart the economy. We will lose so much federal revenue if we plunge into a severe recession that, from a perspective of a one-time temporary boost, it's important for us to just get the money out.
BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about your vision of the presidency. You told the Reno Gazette this week, I'm not an operating officer. My job is to set a vision of here's where the bureaucracy needs to go. I'm wondering why Americans shouldn't expect their president to be somebody who would be intimately involved in those details of governing.
Sen. OBAMA: Oh, it's - what I said was not that I wouldn't be involved in the details. What I said was a very narrow point, which is that, you know, I'm not running for chief of staff, I'm running for the presidency. And the goal of the president, the task of the president is to set a vision for the country, put together an outstanding team, make sure that that team is moving on all cylinders to achieve the goals of providing health care to all Americans, improving our education system, making sure that we have a foreign policy that keeps us safe and retains our standing in the world. You know, those are tasks of a president, not to manage the scheduling in the White House.
BLOCK: Hillary Clinton, of course, has responded to this by saying, we do need a CEO in the White House. We need somebody who's really focused on the nitty-gritty and look at the failures that happened after, say, Hurricane Katrina as an example of what happens if you don't. Do you agree with her on that?
Sen. OBAMA: Oh, there's no doubt that a president has to be on top of things. And so, you know, she's obviously wasn't paying attention to what I said. The problem in Katrina was that that we had an incompetent person in charge of FEMA and a president who is detached. It wasn't because the president wasn't managing paper flow in the White House properly, you know?
This is a broader theme that I think Senator Clinton has been trying to project, you know. That somehow, you know, there's a brisk efficiency to her potential presidency that would be lacking in mine. It's not born out by how we're running our campaigns, and I don't think would be born out in terms of how we would manage the presidency.
BLOCK: You did say the other night in the debate, when you were asked about your greatest weakness, you confessed to a certain lack of organization. You think your desk in your office are not pretty things and you need good staff around you. Do you think that may be the wrong message to be sending to voters?
Sen. OBAMA: It was interesting. I guess I should've listened to the answers that Senator Edwards and Senator Clinton provided. I think John Edwards said that his biggest weakness was he was too passionate about helping poor people. And Senator Clinton indicated she was too impatient to move the country forward. So I thought the question was what's your biggest weakness as opposed to what your greatest strength is disguised as a weakness? I should have said that I like to help old ladies to cross the street.
BLOCK: You want a redo on that one?
Sen. OBAMA: No, I don't, actually. You know, I think one of the hallmarks of our campaign is that I actually answer questions honestly and try not to engage in too much spin.
BLOCK: Senator, I want to ask you about something that your wife, Michelle, said in Atlanta on Sunday when she was talking to voters there. And she talked about fear. She said that there are some people, including some in the African-American community, who focus on might go wrong as you run for president. And those comments have been seen as allusions to you're being put in some sort of danger in this campaign. She's talked about that before. Do you share fears for your safety?
Sen. OBAMA: No. And you know, she was really actually responding to a series of reports, including one on the front page of The New York Times that indicated, not just concerns about my safety, but I think, you know, the African-American community hasn't had a candidate in this position before. And I think that, you know, for obvious historic reasons, there is a level of apprehension sometimes in the African-American community when there are efforts to break through glass ceilings that haven't been broken through before. But I feel very confident about, you know, our ability to move this campaign forward and assuage some of the concerns that people have.
BLOCK: Senator Obama, thanks for talking with us today.
Sen. OBAMA: Thank you so much.