RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep.
All three presidential candidates took a break from what has to be the world's longest campaign. They came to the Senate yesterday for one reason:
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada, Senate Majority Leader): Mr. President…
Unidentified Man: Majority Leader.
Sen. REID: As we all know this is the time for the vote-a-rama or whatever we want to call it.
MONTAGNE: They cast dozens of votes on the federal budget, as they do every year.
Sen. REID: It's usually an exciting day but it's a difficult day.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
As the majority leader spoke you could glimpse John McCain through a doorway in the Senate cloak room. Hillary Clinton soon came on the floor.
Unidentified Woman: Mrs. Clinton…
INSKEEP: And between votes Barack Obama took a few minutes to sit down and talk.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): Fire away.
INSKEEP: We'll get right into it. We interviewed Senator Clinton yesterday.
In that interview, Senator Obama's Democratic opponent discussed two presidential primaries. They didn't count because they were held too early. As it happens, they're both primaries that Senator Clinton won.
Do you agree with Senator Clinton's contention that the Michigan and Florida primaries were fair and should be honored and that you chose to take your name off the ballot in Michigan?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, no. I don't think I do, and I don't think anybody else does other than Senator Clinton. I mean, think about this. We were told that these contests would not count. Senator Clinton agreed. Our name was taken off the ballot in Michigan, and in Florida we did no campaigning.
Now, if people think that that is a normal Democratic way of running an election then that's not the America that I know.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about one alternative that Senator Clinton has proposed: a complete redo, she says, would be acceptable. A full primary. Would you accept a full new primary in either of those states?
Sen. OBAMA: Our position, consistently, has been that the Michigan and Florida delegation should be seated and that we should come up with a system that is fair to all the parties involved.
INSKEEP: Is a full primary acceptable to…
Sen. OBAMA: Well, my understanding is, is that the full primary's just not realistic. It's not on the table because neither state wants to pay for it. And there's all sorts of problems in Michigan. For example, the Republicans control the chambers there and they would have no reason to agree to…
INSKEEP: If funding is found…
Sen. OBAMA: …how it affects…
INSKEEP: …and people are already looking for funding.
Sen. OBAMA: Well, look, we're going to abide by whatever the Democratic National Committee determines is fair. But the important point, Steve, is that, you know, we agreed not to participate in this process. Not just me but Senator Clinton as well. If you ask my six-year-old should that election count, she would probably be able to figure out that that's not fair.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about this question of experience, of which much has been made in the campaign. You have said that experience perhaps matters less than the question of judgment. Which reminded me of a couple of things I heard said during the 2000 campaign about George W. Bush, who was running then. I wrote these down.
Condoleezza Rice said that George W. Bush was a man of uncommonly good judgment. Henry Kissinger was asked, about the same time, George W. Bush does not have vast experience, how could that affect this country's foreign policy? And he answered in part he has strong basic judgments. What makes your argument any different from the arguments that were made for George W. Bush in 2000?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, because I've had to weigh on some of the most significant foreign policy decisions that face this country over the last five years. Something that George Bush didn't have to do. And on critical issues like Iraq, on critical issues like Pakistan, on critical issues like Iran, I think the voters have been able to see how I exercise that judgment and can have some confidence that my concerns and projections in terms of how problems might arise as a consequence of an invasion in Iraq or saber-rattling with Iran or cozying up to Musharraf have played out badly for the American people.
The issue is not that experience is irrelevant. The issue is whether or not experience has given you better judgment. And I would argue that on critical issues like Iraq my judgment has been superior to both Senator Clinton's and Senator McCain's.
INSKEEP: Setting aside Iraq and Iran, which has been much discussed and which you've mentioned, can you think of an occasion as a leader that you have had to struggle with the decision and where to come down on it?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I've had to struggle with decisions every day. Now, if the question is have I answered a 3:00 a.m. phone call, the answer…
INSKEEP: No, that's not my question.
Sen. OBAMA: …the answer is no.
INSKEEP: You haven't been in that situation.
Sen. OBAMA: So…Right.
INSKEEP: But there's a situation…
Sen. OBAMA: And neither has…
INSKEEP: …you've struggled with…
Sen. OBAMA: …neither has Senator Clinton. Well, I struggle with issues every day. You know, every time I have to make a decision about how I view our exit strategy out of Iraq. Every time that I have to make a decision about how do I talk about our healthcare crisis in this country and, you know, how we solve it.
INSKEEP: Your informal adviser, Samantha Power, who was dismissed for a much publicized remark, also said something else in recent days about your plan for getting out of Iraq. She said that your discussion of spending 16 months or so to get troops out was only a best-case scenario, and that you would not follow some plan that you developed as a presidential candidate. Is that accurate?
Sen. OBAMA: You know, I don't think that is necessarily an accurate quote of hers. But let me tell you very clearly what I've said, which is that I will begin withdrawing immediately. I will do so in consultation with the joint chiefs of staff and the commanders on the field. My best understanding at this point is that we can safely remove our combat troops out at the pace of one to two brigades per month.
What I've also said, and I've always said this, is that as commander-in-chief I reserve the right to get new information and modify decisions based on what the national interests of the United States are going to be.
INSKEEP: So is your plan a best-case scenario, which she did say twice?
Sen. OBAMA: I don't think that it's necessarily a best-case scenario. I think that there are tactical issues and then there's strategic issues. The tactical issues involve how do we remove our troops in a way that's safe and maintains stability in Iraq.
There's a broader strategic issue, which is the wisdom of perpetuating an occupation in Iraq for potentially 100 years as John McCain has said. I've been very clear on the strategic issue. I think Iraq was a mistake from the start, I think it continues to be a mistake, I think it distracts us from Afghanistan. I think that we have fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment. It needs to end.
The tactical issues in terms of how best to remove our troops in a way that's safe is one that I will constantly monitor, based on the best information that I get from the commanders in the field. But I am very clear that I want to set a timetable and send a clear message to the Iraqi government that we are not going to be there in perpetuity.
INSKEEP: And can you think in your past of a decision where it was difficult, where you had to pause for a while and consider what was right and what was wrong?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, absolutely. The problem I had was that you said earlier in your earlier iteration of the question, excluding Iraq and Iran - those are pretty big things to exclude. But I'll give you an example that does deal with what we were just talking about, Iraq and withdrawing troops.
Sen. OBAMA: It was a very difficult decision for me to vote against continuing funding for the war as the president had put forward his budget. That was a very difficult decision because my general view had been, and continues to be, that when we send troops into a battlefield that regardless of the political debates we have an obligation to make sure that they have the equipment and the support that they need.
I came to a difficult conclusion that given George Bush's general view that he was going to double down, actually send more troops in and continue this process, that the only way to get him to negotiate and sit down at the table was to not give him a blank check. But that was a very difficult decision; not one that I came to easily at all.
INSKEEP: Senator Obama, thanks very…
Sen. OBAMA: Thank you so much.
And with that Senator Obama stood up and strode back toward the Senate floor.
Sen. OBAMA: I got to vote.
INSKEEP: He rejoined his Senate colleagues, including his fellow presidential candidates. Soon they'll all be racing across the country again.
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MONTAGNE: To hear Steve's interview with Senator Clinton, go to NPR.org.
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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.