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Obama: ‘We’re suffering from a massive hangover’

Read the transcript of TODAY co-host Matt Lauer's exclusive interview with the president about the economy, the war on terror, the peanut recall and his super-secret BlackBerry.
/ Source: TODAY

MATT LAUER: I sat down with the president at the White House for a wide-ranging conversation. First up, the economy. After failing to win a single House Republican vote for his stimulus plan, I asked the president if he's worried about his promise to build bipartisanship in Washington.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Oh, listen, it's only been ten days. People have to recognize that it's going to take some time for trust to be built, not only between Democrats and Republicans but between Congress and the White House, between the House and the Senate. You know, we've had a dysfunctional political system for a while now.

MATT LAUER: You — you were pretty agitated this past week when the news broke of these Wall Street bonuses paid out in 2008 even as some of the firms that paid them out had their hands out looking for


MATT LAUER: for federal assistance. And is — is there some way — is there an audit under way right now or can there be an audit that takes place to make sure that none of the taxpayers' money —

MATT LAUER: goes to anything but stabilizing these firms?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's what I've asked my Treasury Secretary to do, to put together a clear set of guidelines. If a bank or a financial institution is getting relief, then they've got to abide by certain conditions.

MATT LAUER: The American people might worry that the bailout, you know, could be off course because if the money's going to people who simply are out of touch, it's not a confidence builder.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right. Well, and that's why it's my job as president and Congress's job to make sure that there's some rules of the road that people are gonna abide by, and that we've got transparency and accountability. But this stuff is being posted. And one of the things that we're gonna do is put together an independent board on the recovery package —


PRESIDENT OBAMA: that actually looks at these programs and the money before it goes out the door.

MATT LAUER: It seems like somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 billion to $350 billion in TARP money has already gone out and — and been spent. And — and you're hearing more and more people saying it's going to take much, much more. I'm curious, though, have you heard anyone credible be able to put a real figure on how much it's gonna take to fix us? And B) who can say and this money will work? It will fix the economy?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Here — here's what I've heard — from a range of economists acro — across the political spectrum. The banks, because of mismanagement, because of huge risk taking, are now in very vulnerable positions. We can expect that we're gonna have to do more to shore up the financial system. We also are gonna have to make sure that we set up financial regulations so that not only does this never happen again, but you start having some sort of — trust in how the credit markets work again.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: I do have confidence that we're gonna be able to get it right. But it's not gonna be overnight. And there's no silver bullets to this. The fact of the matter is, is that we are suffering from a massive hangover from a binge of risk taking.

MATT LAUER: And it's still getting worse.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And that's still getting worse. And it's gonna take some time for us to be able to dig ourselves out of this hole.

MATT LAUER: Are you planning in the near future to announce an idea that will buy up the toxic debt from the balance sheets of these banks with perhaps a so-called bad bank? And if so, what do you think that could cost? ’Cause Chuck Schumer came out and said since we don't really know what those debts are worth, this could cost $4 trillion.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, it — we're not gonna be spending $4 trillion worth of taxpayer money. It's conceivable that we have more — not only is it conceivable, it is likely that the banks have not fully acknowledged all the losses that they're gonna experience. They're gonna have to write down those losses. And some banks won't make it. Other banks — are gonna make sure that — we strengthen. All deposits are gonna be — safe for ordinary people. But we're gonna have to wring out some of these bad assets. And —

MATT LAUER: Are you gonna set up a bad bank or —


MATT LAUER: — it would be called?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah, well —  I —  I don't wanna preempt an announcement next week. And there's a lot of technical aspects to it. And if I — say — that we're doing one thing. then the markets might interpret it differently from what it ends up being. But the basic principle that we're gonna have to see some of this debt written down, that the government is gonna have to support some banks, that others that are not — not viable, essentially that we're gonna have to — do something with those assets,

MATT LAUER: At some point will you say, "Wait a minute, we've spent this amount of money. We're not seeing the results. We've got to change course dramatically?"

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Look, I'm at the start of my administration. One nice thing about — the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years. And —MATT LAUER: You're gonna know quickly how people feel —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: — and — and —

MATT LAUER: — about what —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: that's exactly right. And — and, you know, a year from now I think people — are gonna see that — we're starting to make some progress. But there's still gonna be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's gonna be a one-term proposition.

MATT LAUER: Let me go on quickly, if I can, to some other subjects. You signed an executive order in your first week that says you'll close the military detention —


MATT LAUER: — center at Guantanamo within a year. So the clock is ticking. And already you've heard the criticism that you don't know what you're gonna do with the 245 prisoners being held there.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It's the right thing to do. It ultimately will make us safer. You've already seen in the reaction around the world — a different sense of America by us taking this action.

MATT LAUER: Some of these people may be released, the ones that seem —


MATT LAUER: — to be less of a threat. But if one of those people that's released goes back and takes part in the planning of or carrying out of an attack against U.S. interests, you're gonna have a Willie Horton times 100 situation on your hands. How are you gonna deal with that?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Of course I'm worried about it. Look, the — you know, I have to make the very best judgments I can make in terms of what's gonna keep the American people safe and is what — what's gonna uphold our Constitution and our traditions of due process ... If we don't uphold our Constitution and our values, that over time that will make us less safe. And that will be a recruitment tool for organizations like al-Qaida. That's what I've gotta keep my eye on.

MATT LAUER: Let me ask you about Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this is gonna be a long slog and that it's our greatest military challenge. You're gonna send 30,000 additional U.S. troops in there. Can that make a difference in a country that's had 2,000 years of trouble and that's been called the graveyard of empires?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We are not gonna be able to rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy.

MATT LAUER: What's the mission there now?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: What — what we can do is make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for al-Qaida. What we can do is make sure that — it is not destabilizing neighboring Pakistan, which has — nuclear weapons. The key is ... we've got to have a clear objective. And there's been drift in Afghanistan over the last couple of years. And that's something that we intend to fix — this year.

MATT LAUER: There was an article in the Washington Post that some of the big donors who were invited to some of your inaugural functions were, I think the word they used was, "shocked" by how easy it was to get access to you. And they expressed concerns that not enough was being done to secure you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have complete confidence in — in Secret Service. These guys and gals are unbelievably professional. They know what they're doing. And I basically do what they tell me to do. Now, sometimes I — I'm the first one to admit that it chaffs a little bit being inside this bubble. It's the hardest adjustment of being president, not being able to just take a walk or —

MATT LAUER: I watched you walk down the halls a couple of times and there's someone in front of you and someone behind you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's exactly right. So — so it's tough. But I have complete confidence in their ability to keep me safe.

MATT LAUER: There's been a massive peanut-butter products recall in this country over the last several weeks. Most of the products track — trace to one plant down in Georgia that has a bit of a history of sending out products even though there have been traces of salmonella found. The question, the obvious question people wanna know, is the FDA doing its job?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I — I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch. And so we're gonna be doing a complete review of FDA operations ... at bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter ... that's what Sasha eats for — for lunch — probably three times a week. And, you know, I don't wanna have to worry about whether she's gonna get sick as a consequence to having — having her lunch.


MATT LAUER: Now to more of my exclusive interview with President Barack Obama. After talking about the economy and national security, the president gave me a quick tour of the White House and we talked about life in his new home.


MATT LAUER: Has there been any surprise in terms about life in the White House? Is there something at the White House that you didn't think they had or doesn't have that you thought they did have?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know. Uh. The bowling alley doesn't seem to be improving my game. That is the one thing I have noticed.

MATT LAUER: Have you used it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We did, we took the kids down and I wanted to use the bumpers, but Michelle said ....

MATT LAUER: It didn't work, you had the gutters at least. That's good. It is good to know you are not cheating in bowling and you are playing horse on the basketball court.

Obama: Play horse on the basketball court. There is a horseshoe pitch out there, so I am going to have to practice that a little bit.

MATT LAUER: After twelve days, it is a minuscule amount of time. Are you and Mrs. Obama more or less confident that you can keep a real sense of normalcy in the girls’ lives?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I think that we are going to be OK. Look, Malia is 10, so three years from now she is 13. Who knows what happens to teenagers?


PRESIDENT OBAMA: But if there is a pair of kids who can handle this weird fishbowl, it is those two.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Nobody's cooler than my two girls. They just seem to take whatever comes with, you know — happiness and — steadiness. And they're loving school. They're making friends ... and — they've already joined some clubs. And Sasha, you know — I think maybe to endear — myself to her, she — she decided she wanted to join a basketball team. So — what more could I want?

MATT LAUER: Are you getting to take part in some of the routines? So I was thinking, you know, you've been on the road basically for two years, although you got home a lot.


MATT LAUER: Now you're all under the same roof basically for 12 days. Are you there for breakfast? Do you — do you get to read them a story at night, tuck them in bed? How's it going?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It's the best deal — of — of this whole thing is it turns out I've got this nice home office. And — at the end of the day, yeah, I can come home, even if I've got more work to do, I can have dinner with them. I can help them with their homework. I can tuck them in. If I've gotta go back to the office, I can.


MATT LAUER: Let's talk about the BlackBerry. You got to keep it.


MATT LAUER: Can I see it? Do you have it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I didn't bring it down here.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, it — it — it's like — Inspector Gadget, you know? We — the — if you touch it, it might blow up.

MATT LAUER: But that's — I kind of envision that. It's like Q in the James Bond movies. (LAUGHTER) Did they give you, like, fingerprint recognition technology or something?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The works. The works. It turns into a car — (LAUGHTER) if I have to make a quick getaway.

MATT LAUER: How many people have that e-mail address?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: A handful. Look, there are security issues involved. And so we've gotta make sure that I'm not — creating a situation where — you know, potential people can compromise our —

MATT LAUER: — can they contact you on that BlackBerry?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Typically, world leaders are gonna be contacting me through the Oval Office. They know how to reach me there.

MATT LAUER: Sasha and Malia?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Sasha and Malia can always contact me.




MATT LAUER: You're not gonna hook me up, are you?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Matt, do you want one?

MATT LAUER: I — no, I — I want your e-mail address. (LAUGHTER)

MATT LAUER: — during the game.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I like your son. I might give it to him. I'm not gonna give it to you.

MATT LAUER: Let me end on something — not only did you just become president, obviously that carries a certain amount of fame — with it. But — but you have achieved a — a certain rock-star status outside of that.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Outside of my house. (LAUGHTER)

MATT LAUER: Yeah, well — let — let me show you. This is the — the current issue of — of Us Weekly.


MATT LAUER: And here's a great picture —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Oh, it's beautiful.

MATT LAUER: — of — of you and — and Michelle and — and your daughters. Now, the — the reason I bring this up, I think it's funny. It's a great picture.


MATT LAUER: But I wanna show you the cover. Look what they did. They — they took you off the cover.


MATT LAUER: They took you out of it.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It — it's — it's a little hurtful.

MATT LAUER: You got replaced by Jessica Simpson.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah, who's is in a weight battle apparently. (LAUGHTER) Yeah. Oh, well.

MATT LAUER: President Obama, it's a pleasure. Thanks for welcoming us to the White House.