TODAY   |  March 30, 2010

Afghanistan trip marked ‘progress,’ Obama says

In an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Matt Lauer, President Obama says that his unannounced visit was not only intended to send a message of support to troops, but was also to “mark progress that’s been made.”

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> 7:04. here's matt.

>>> now to our exclusive conversation with president obama . we sat down at the white house on monday to talk about the passage of his landmark health care legislation and the nasty political tone in washington these days. but i began by asking president obama about sunday's surprise visit to afghanistan and why he felt it was important to go now and not earlier when he was making his decision about a troop surge .

>> well, keep in mind that as i was making the decision about troop strength, afghanistan was still in the midst of an election, or the post-election jockeying was taking place. it was very important to make sure the president of the united states doesn't look like he's parachuting in and changing the outcomes there. and i thought it was important now, not only to send a strong message to the troops that we are fully behind what we're doing, i think we've seen some progress and i wanted to mark that progress, but also it is an important time for president karzai . he has made some important steps in the right direction, improving governance, reducing corruption, but there's a long way to go . as our troops are on the front line , they're going into places like helmand, potentially into kandahar , how the afghan government performs is going to be just as important as how the afghan national security forces perform.

>> i'm curious to hear you say that there has been progress. because i was in afghanistan with secretary gates back in december and he told me when he met with president karzai , he talk about cracking down on corruption, and cracking down on the drug trade . the very same topics you talked to president karzai about. i'm curious, do you think he's listening? is he getting it?

>> i think he is listening, but i think that the progress is too slow. and what we've been trying to emphasize is the fierce urgency of now, that on all of these issues, whether it's making sure that farmers are actually getting health on their irrigation, whether it is emphasizing the need to make sure that police and prosecutors and judges are operating fairly, in terms of making sure in these proveses that the governors are actually looking out for the best interests of their people and what kind of appointments are being made. on all those issues we have to make progress faster and we can't dilly dali around. so look, obviously this is a country that's been stressed and in war one way or another for decades now. it won't transform itself overnight but my hope is that president karzai can recognize the incredible opportunity he has to be the father of a modern afghanistan .

>> let's talk about health care reform . health care law . it's seen as a huge victory for you, your presidency, for democrats . it is a tough pill to swallow for republicans . it's been described in a lot of different ways. your vice president described it in colorful terms. how do you describe it?

>> i think it is a critical first step in making a health care system that works for all americans . it's not going to be the only thing. we're still going to have adjustments that have to be made to further reduce cost. now what we have is a system in place that preserves the employer-based system but says, number one, insurance companies have to behave themselves. if we're going to have a private system in insurance , you can't bar people from getting insurance because of pre-existing conditions. you can't drop people when they get sick and need coverage most. so you can't game the system . the second thing is we've set up what's going to be called an exchange, but it's basically just a marketplace where individuals who right now have to go out on their own and buy insurance and have no leverage are suddenly going to be part of a pool of millions of people, including, by the way, members of congress . and that gives them more buying power the same way walmart has more purchasing pow weather it buys from its suppliers. that will force insurance rates down for the vast majority of people. so what we now have is the basic principle that in a country as wealthy as ours, nobody should have to go without basic health care . my hope is that this year we're going to see some very concrete benefits that people get, small businesses are going to get billions of dollars in tax breaks to provide insurance to their employees. parents are going to be able to put their children on their health insurance up to the age of 26. insurers are not going to be able to just drop people from coverage because they feel like it.

>> this version of health care reform did not receive one republican vote. you almost have to say that again and let it really sink in. not one republican vote. and a lot of people wonder how a bill, or now a law, could be good for the american public in general, when it didn't receive one single republican vote, and when a recent poll said 50% of people aren't in favor of this plan. how do you respond to that?

>> well, look. i think that the republican party made a calculated decision, a political decision, that they would not support whatever we did. all right? there was a quote by a well-known republican senator who said this is going to be obama 's waterloo. "we're going to bring him down the same way that we brought down bill clinton , by making sure that health care fails." and i think that's unfortunate because when you actually look at the bill itself, it incorporates all sorts of republican ideas . i mean a lot of commentators have said this is sort of similar to the bill that mitt romney , the republican governor and now priz dengs candidate, passed in massachusetts . a lot of the ideas in terms of the exchange, just being able to pool and improve the purchasing power of individuals in the insurance market. that originated from the heritage foundation and --

>> you are saying it is all politics. it is not about the inner workings of the bill, it is all politics.

>> i will say that any objective observer looking at this bill would say that this is a middle of the road , centrist approach to providing coverage to people and making sure that we are also reducing costs. i am frustrated that republicans who i think had an opportunity to help shape this bill declined that opportunity. that's not to say that on specific provisions there might be legitimate concerns that they had philosophical concerns that they had. some of them i think sincerely believed that we should do more on this aspect of the bill or that aspect of the bill. but the overall architecture was right down the middle .

>> the deputy editorial page editor of the " wall street journal " had an interesting take on it, mr. president. he said, "if you produce a bill that even olympia snowe of maine cannot vote for. you've produced once in a lifeti lifetime legislation that no republican from any constituency across america can vote for."

>> my response is, number one, the " wall street journal " editorial page is not favorable to much of what i do. but i think that's interesting is that if you actually break down the specifics of the bill, you will see that this historically has had a lot of republican support. there historically was a lot of republican support for o mandate, that everyone should take a lot of responsibility. republican support historically for the idea that we should make sure entitlement reform exists within medicare . there was historically a lot of republican support for the idea of the exchange, the centerpiece of the bill. if you actually look at the particulars, these are all things that in the past others, including the " wall street journal " editorial page , had endorsed, and yet --

>> but you keep coming back to -- the fix was in, what you're basically saying.

>> i think what happened is they made a calculation, which if you are thinking in terms of short-term politics, you can see the argument. their attitude is, look, if we stop this bill, if we paint it as -- and we stop this president here, then that will give us a lot of political benefit in november. what i've tried to say throughout is, i will continually reach out to republicans , i will continue to incorporate their ideas even when they don't vote for the ideas that i've presented, but what i'm not going to be dissuaded from is us going ahead and taking on these big challenges that are critical in terms of america 's long-term economic health.

>> when we announced we'd be sitting down with you here at the white house today, our in-box filled quickly from e-mails from viewers all around the country . jeff in minnesota asked a question. he said, "mr. obama , the cbo just issued a statement this past week that social security had reached the tipping point a full six years earlier than originally statementangiginally estimate d. how can we believe your figures figures".

>> the reason it reached a tipping point six years earlier, is because the deficit was to devastating. social security generally has to be reformed to ensure long-term sustainability. but in any given year or any given period it might end up being way off from estimates because of something like the financial crisis . here's the interesting thing though. the congressional budget office historically has actually underestimated the savings whenever medicare has been reformed, whenever we've made changes. and that was true the last time it was done. so we actually feel pretty optimistic that not only is $138 billion going to be saved in the first ten years, but more significantly, $1 trillion is going to be saved in the second ten years.

>> let's talk about where we are politically right now. i don't have to tell you that the passage of this bill and turning it into law has left this country as politically divided as i think it has been in a long time. you might be able to cite some other champs, but the vitriol, the rhetoric, the sniping, the threats, how are you possibly going to continue with any kind of legislative agenda when your opponents have said to you, i'm not going to cooperate with this president, with these democrats , unless it's a matter of national security . how do you move on?

>> well, first of all, i think that a lot of the rhetoric has been overheated and overblown and this is what happens in washington when you have a big debate . suddenly the passage of this bill is armageddon and as i pointed out, the next day after i signed it, i looked around, and no asteroids had hit the pl planet, no cracks had appeared in the earth. this bill will help a lot of people and help to lower costs of health care , but it is not a radical departure from what we've done in the past.

>> we are going to have much more of our exclusive interview with president obama in our next half-hour as mr. obama opens up about three of his great loves -- family, faith and basketball. 16