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Text of Obama's first newspaper interview as president-elect

December 10, 2008 | 12:42 am

President elect Barack Obama and whole bunch of flags

In his first post-election newspaper interview, President-elect Barack Obama doesn't spill all the beans about his intentions upon taking office on Jan. 20.

But he does reveal some interesting details. He said he's never talked to now-accused Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich about his successor in the Senate. He said he intends to be sworn into office using his given middle name, Hussein.

He intends to visit Chicago every six or eight weeks during his term, calling Chicago's South Side "my Kennebunkport."

He and Atty. Gen.-designate Eric Holder agree that the Marc Rich pardon was a mistake but not a disqualifying one, and he's ordered Holder to reinvigorate the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Obama and wife Michelle will be choosing a regular church to attend in the Washington area.

And Obama does intend to fulfill his campaign promise of giving a major speech in an Islamic capital as a "unique opportunity to reboot America's image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular." But he refused to commit to a specific time frame for that event.

--Andrew Malcolm

President elect Barack Obama and accused Democratic Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich

An edited transcript of a Tuesday interview in Chicago between President-elect Barack Obama and Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons of our Washington bureau and reporter John McCormick of the Tribune.

Q: Have you ever spoken to [Illinois] Gov. [Rod R.] Blagojevich (photo left) about the Senate seat?

O: I have not discussed the Senate seat with the governor at any time. My strong belief is that it needed to be filled by somebody who is going to represent the people of Illinois and fight for them. And beyond that, I was focused on the transition.

Q: And that was before and after the election?

O: Yes.

Q: Are you aware of any conversations between Blagojevich or [chief of staff] John Harris and any of your top aides, including Rahm [Emanuel]?

O: Let me stop you there because . . . it's an ongoing....

...investigation. I think it would be inappropriate for me to, you know, remark on the situation beyond the facts that I know. And that's the fact that I didn't discuss this issue with the governor at all.

Q: Could you talk to the point of whether an appointment by Gov. Blagojevich would taint whoever your successor would be, given what we know?

O: I think what the people of Illinois deserve is somebody they can trust, somebody that's going to fight for them and, you know, I think we've got to make sure that whatever process emerges gives them that assurance. I haven't examined all the options that are out there at this point.

Q: Given the state of the economy, has that forced any changes in your priorities and could you talk about what you would like to roll out in terms of sequencing of the things you would like to accomplish?

O: You've got an interesting convergence between the circumstances that we find ourselves in and the agenda that I have set. Because we need to jump-start the economy, all the proposals that I put forward earlier are ones that are directly designed to put people to work and get the economy moving: a tax cut for 95% of working families --

I think that's needed more than ever -- a serious investment in infrastructure that lays the foundation for a green-energy economy, that's a job-creator and makes our economy more competitive.

Investing in technologies that can reduce healthcare costs and error; that is needed more than ever.

So what you're seeing is, essentially, an effort on the part of my transition team to develop an economic recovery package that is good for the short-term, gets people back to work, gets money to the states and local communities, gets people working again, but is also laying the foundation for the kind of competitive economy that we need over the long-term.

And, you know, there may be issues of sequencing and the need to get certain projects more quickly out the door than we would have expected, in order for a stimulus package to work more effectively.

Now, I also think that the economic crisis is going to make the issue of our long-term fiscal problems more severe. You know there are some estimates that I'm already going to be inheriting a trillion-dollar deficit, even before we get started on any of this stuff.

And if you look at the glide path that we are on with respect to healthcare spending and a whole host of other areas, we've got some big problems.

So I think that it is critical that whatever we do this year, or the next, to deal with economic recovery, anticipate the fact that we are going to have to rationalize and reform the federal government, we're going to have to cut spending that doesn't work, we're going to have to reform how the budget operates. . . . "

Q: On card-check protection [which would make it easier for unions to organize], we've heard that there might be a delay on that, or it might not be an immediate priority? Also, on NAFTA, we've heard that you might support maybe a study and then a report, instead of a wholesale reworking of the agreement right away?

O: Well look, my economic team is reviewing these issues. You know, I've consistently said on trade issues that I want environmental and labor provisions that are enforceable in those trade agreements.

But I also have said that I believe in free trade and don't think that we can draw a moat around the American economy. I think that would be a mistake.

When it comes to unions, I have consistently said that I want to strengthen the union movement in this country and put an end to the kinds of barriers and roadblocks that are in the way of workers legitimately coming together in order to form a union and bargain collectively.

My economic team is going to put together a package on trade and on worker issues that will be presented to me. I don't want to anticipate right now what sequences will be on these issues.

Q: Many industries are suffering these days. Where do you draw the line on who gets a bailout and who doesn't? And isn't it fair for people to ask why the automotive industry might get one and their company won't?

O: No, I think it is absolutely fair. I do think that it's going to be critical for our economic team to present a framework of how we're going to move this economy forward that doesn't involve the federal government spending the next several years picking winners and losers. But, right now,

I think that what we're all facing are some significant, systemic risks that could lead to millions of more Americans losing their jobs. And, so, as messy as it may be, I think there's a sense of "Let's stabilize the patient."

That's certainly true in the financial system. I think all of us wish that we had done a better job of regulating the financial system over the last decade, so that the country didn't find itself in this situation.

On the other hand, I don't think anybody wants to see a meltdown of the financial system that wouldSenator Barack Obama and wife Michelle campaigning in Indianapolis result in cascading bankruptcies across industries in a way that we haven't see in 75 years.

The auto industry is the backbone of American manufacturing in many states, certainly across the Midwest. You've got millions of people who are reliant on those industries . . . and what's unique about this time is because you have a convergence of lost demand as well as a financial crisis where nobody can get credit, even sound companies.

You've got unique circumstances where if GM, for example, went bankrupt, it's not clear that it could engage in the same kind of Chapter 11 bankruptcy that the airlines went through, for example, restructuring, but still operating.

You have issues of would consumers still buy a car if they can't have an assurance that their warranties are going to be respected. And so, there are a range of particular circumstances that we have to address right now because you have sort of a perfect storm.

But what I absolutely believe in is that as soon as we can stabilize the economy, that we've got to step back and say, how do we create an economic and regulatory framework that avoids these risks in the first place, doesn't put taxpayer money at risk, that ensures the dynamism of the free market is operating, and innovation is operating, and that there are going to be successes and failures, and we're not in the business of picking winners and losers?

And that's what's always made the American economy dynamic and that's the vision that I intend to continue.

Q: Do you have a spiritual advisor now? Many presidents have had them.

O: You know, one of the wonderful things that we did during the campaign was to set up sort of a prayer circle across the country, of pastors who, from all denominations, all religious faiths, who would every morning, a few of them would get on the phone and pray for me.

Sometimes I'd get on the phone. And, you know, they're made up of people as diverse as, you know, T.D. Jakes, Rick Warren, Joseph Lowery, just a wonderful collection of people and, by the way, across the political spectrum. I'm not even sure that all of them voted for me.

But they were willing to pray for me. And that's something that was wonderful.

Michelle and I have not found a home church since we left Trinity [United Church of Christ]. And it didn't make sense for us to join one now, right before we're about to move. So, I'm reliant on the pastors who are friends of mine and who I talk to for support and my own prayer life at home.

Q: And have you found a home church in the Washington area yet and what sort of things will you look for?

O: You know, we will definitely find a church to attend in D.C., and we frankly haven't thought about it yet because right now we're just trying to make sure that we don't lose anything in the move, including our children.

Q: Are you prepared to give a speech in an Islamic capital? Would that send a message about inclusiveness and tolerance given the mutual suspicion that exists between these different faiths?

O: This is something that I talked about doing in the campaign and it's something that I intend to follow through on. What the time frame is, how we structure that, you know, is something that I will determine with my national security team in the coming weeks and months.

But I think we've got a unique opportunity to reboot America's image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular.

So, we need to take advantage of that and the message I want to send is that we will be unyielding in stamping out the kind of terrorist extremism that we saw in Mumbai.

We will be at the same time unrelenting in our desire to create a relationship of mutual respect and partnership with countries and peoples of goodwill who want their citizens and ours to prosper together. And I think that the world is ready for that message.

Q: Would you expect that speech to be in the first six months, first year?

O: I'm not going to speculate on the date . . . but it's something that I will do.

Q: Do you anticipate being sworn in as Barack Obama or Barack Hussein Obama?

O: I think the tradition is that they use all three names, and I will follow the tradition, not trying to make a statement one way or the other. I'll do what everybody else does.

Q: During the campaign you were critical of the border fence, but I think you voted for it?

O: I voted for the fence, but argued at the time and continued to argue that it was inadequate and a fence alone, without a broader, comprehensive immigration reform, was not going to work.

And I continue to believe that we have to have much stronger border security, crack down on employers that are hiring undocumented workers, but provide a pathway to citizenship for those who have been here and, you know, have put roots down here, and often times have American children.

We need to get them out of the shadows and put them on some path to legalization.

Q: Will you support the build-out of the fence and its continued construction?

O: You know, one of the things I want to do -- and I'm very pleased with [Arizona Gov.] Janet Napolitano as the next head of the Department of Homeland Security, because nobody has more experience on these border issues than she does -- I want to discuss with her what our best options are, what our best strategy is, do an evaluation about what's working, what isn't working. And then we'll make a determination from there.

Q: As the first black president, do you feel a special mission to fulfill the vision of the civil rights movement? And how can you use the office to make further progress in race relations?

O: Obviously, I am honored and gratified to be part of this journey to change how race is viewed and dealt with in this country. But I think it's important to understand, it's not just me, or African Americans, that want to see better race relations.

I think all Americans do. That's part of the message that I delivered throughout this campaign. And so I think the burden is going to be on all of us to continue to make progress on these fronts. I think there are some specific things that we should do as a nation, some that are specific to civil rights.

I think it's important to make sure that our civil rights laws are enforced. You know, the Civil Rights Division [of the Justice Department] over the last eight years has had a lot of problems and really declining morale, and I want Eric Holder as the next attorney general to reinvigorate that office and its mission.

I think it's going to be important to make sure that on the criminal justice front that

people have confidence that the laws are being evenly applied to everyone and that we are working with local and state as well as federal officials together to try to constantly improve, you know, the way we train people and how we think about the criminal justice system so that it gains confidence.

But I think that the biggest challenges that we face right now in improving race relations have to do with the universal concerns of Americans across color lines. If we get a healthcare system that covers more people, is more affordable, reduces costs, emphasizes prevention, that's going to be good for everybody.

And it will be especially good for blacks and Latinos who are more likely to be uninsured and more likely to die of an early age of diseases that are preventable.

If we are creating jobs throughout this economy, then, you know, African Americans and Latinos who are disproportionately unemployed, they're going to be swept up in that rising tide.

So, I think that more than anything is going to improve race relations, a sense of common progress, where everybody feels like they have a chance at the American Dream.

If we can restore that sense, then I'm confident that the generation coming up behind me is going to be even more willing to embrace the diversity that makes America special.

Q: Do you expect to keep a long-term presence here [in Chicago]? You joked a couple weeks ago that it is a bad time to sell a house, but what really are your long-term expectations in terms of coming back here in four years or even coming back here in the summertime?

O: Let me explain to you, my Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago. We own one piece of property, and that is our home in Chicago. It is 10 minutes away from where Michelle grew up and where her mother still has a house.

Our friends are here. Our family is here. And so we are going to try to come back here as often as possible. My expectation would be that, depending on what my schedule looks like, you know, we're going to try to get back here at least once every six weeks or couple months.

A Barack Obama Secret Service motorcade in Chicago

Q: What's it been for you to see Chicago in this national spotlight? It has to be sort of surreal for you to drive through the city and see your face painted on the sides of buildings and on lamp posts. What's that like for you?

O: You know, unfortunately, because I'm in this bubble (See Secret Service motorcade photo to left), I don't get to see all this stuff. It's the hardest thing to adjust to about being president-elect.

It was bad, you know, during the campaign and it got progressively worse the further along we got. And now it's very tough. I don't get a chance to wander around neighborhoods, interact the way I would like to interact.

Probably the best moment I've had over these last two to three weeks was when we, on Thanksgiving, when we gave out that food, and then I had a chance to interact with those kids out at St. Columbanus [Catholic Church and school on Chicago's South Side). Those kinds of interactions I really miss.

I will say that the event in Grant Park [where he spoke on election night] was a wonderful symbol of what Chicago is all about. You know, you had people from everywhere converging and, you know, this incredibly peaceful and yet exuberant celebration.

You know, I think that being broadcast around the world sent a pretty good message. And the fact that it was 65 degrees in November didn't hurt. Maybe people will be fooled into thinking that's our usual weather.

Q: You mentioned Eric Holder, and we want to ask about that too. Congressman [Xavier] Becerra and Eric Holder were both involved in some controversial pardons [or clemency requests]. In your vetting of these two, did that come up? Did you ask about that?

O: Keep in mind . . . Eric Holder has been announced as my nominee for attorney general, so I'm not going to speculate on folks that you guys think I might be nominating.

With respect to Eric Holder, everybody who looks at his record says the guy was an outstanding attorney, an outstanding prosecutor, an outstanding judge, an outstanding No. 2 at the Justice Department.

And Eric has acknowledged that the [Marc] Rich pardon was a mistake on his part, not having caught that earlier. I agree with him. I think it was a mistake. But when you look at the totality of his experience, there is no doubt that he is going to be an outstanding attorney general.

Q: Some of your more liberal supporters are concerned that you are being too centrist in putting together your administration.

O: Look, I have chosen the people who I think are best equipped to carry out an agenda of change. And people haven't been arguing somehow that my agenda has changed, because it hasn't.

You know, I want to change our tax code, so that it's helping middle-class families. I want to get our troops out of Iraq in the 16-month time frame that I discussed during the campaign.

I want to create a healthcare system that is affordable and works for all Americans. I want to have a energy transformation in this country so that we are reducing our independence on foreign oil.

On all the promises I made during the campaign, there has been no sense that I'm backing off on them. What I've been putting in place is a Cabinet of extraordinarily qualified, competent people who would not have accepted my offer for them to join my administration unless they believed in my vision, and I think the proof of the pudding is going to be in what we get done.

Q: Does it make sense to shoot for those things in your agenda that are agreeable to a larger group of people and leave the harder stuff for later?

O: Look, there's always a strategy that has to be put in place in order to get things done, and so how we shape our agenda, how we time it, who we work with, how do we build the coalitions, how do we persuade the American people. I'm not going to spill all the beans now.

But, yes, we're sitting there, trying to plan out how to get all this stuff done. And, you know, we're inheriting probably the most crowded agenda that any president has inherited in a very, very long time.

So, yeah, we're going to have to prioritize, but I don't think people should make assumptions until they actually see what we do, what we're going to be prioritizing and how we're going to do it.

Q: What about [former Gov.] George Ryan. Your office recently said it would not be appropriate for you to comment on a pending clemency request for him. Why not, given that you know him so well, you know the case so well, others have commented on it?

O: Because I'm going to be a president who inherits this pardon power fairly quickly, and for me to comment on any decisions that my predecessor is in the midst of making around pardons I think is inappropriate.                    

Photo credits: Associated Press (Obama with flags and with Illinois gov. Rod Blagojevich); Mark Lyons / Getty Images (Obama with wife Michelle in Indianapolis); AFP / Getty Images (Chicago motorcade).

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