November 10, 2009 / 12:28 AM / 10 years ago

Text of Obama's interview with Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, who leaves on Thursday for Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, gave Reuters an interview in the White House Oval Office on Monday.

Here is the transcript:

QUESTION: You’ve described China as a partner of opportunity, not necessity. Reuters and Ipsos actually took a poll last week, and ...

OBAMA: I saw it in your article.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, we found that Americans place a high importance on the relationship but tend to view Beijing as more of an adversary than a friend. And I’m wondering, do you see China as a rival or do you see it as an ally?

OBAMA: Well, I see China as a vital partner, as well as a competitor. The key is for us to make sure that that competition is friendly, and it’s competition for customers and markets, it’s within the bounds of well-defined international rules of the road that both China and the United States are party to, but also that together we are encouraging responsible behavior around the world. And on critical issues, whether climate change, economic recovery, nuclear non-proliferation, it’s very hard to see how we succeed or China succeeds in our respective goals without working together. And that is, I think, the purpose of the strategic partnership and that’s why this trip to China is going to be so important.

QUESTION: What about trade?

OBAMA: Well, trade ...

QUESTION: In terms of the rival ...

OBAMA: As I said, we are competitors. We have a very important economic relationship. One of the goals of this trip is to build off what we talked about at the G20, which is that over the last several decades that relationship was deeply imbalanced. On the one hand, we benefited greatly from cheap imports into the United States when it comes to — as consumers. On the other hand, that was financed by huge debt, both on the consumer level and at the business and federal levels, or government levels, that are unsustainable, and our manufacturers I think have legitimate concerns about our ability to sell into China.

One of the things that we need to do coming out of this extraordinary economic crisis that we’ve seen over the past year is to move beyond this imbalanced bubble-based economic model toward one that is sustainable. And that means us selling more exports into China; it means us being more responsible in terms of our savings rate; it means China building on the growing consumer demand in their country. If both countries recognize their interest in a more sustainable growth model, then I think we will both benefit and the world in general will see greater stability.

QUESTION: One of the causes of those imbalances that you talked about during your campaign was the currency issue, manipulation of the currency. And I’d just like to ask you directly, are you going to raise that with the President of China on your visit? And do you agree with U.S. manufacturers when they say that the Chinese currency is significantly undervalued?

OBAMA: Tim Geithner, my Treasury Secretary, has been talking extensively to his counterpart about not only currency issues but the whole array of factors that have contributed to these imbalances. That broader conversation will be at the center of our conversations with the Chinese delegation. And as I said before, I think that as we emerge from an emergency situation, a crisis situation, I believe China will be increasingly interested in finding a model that is sustainable over the long term.

They have a huge amount of U.S. dollars that they’re holding, so our success is important to them. The flip side of it is that if we don’t solve some of these problems, then I think both economically and politically it will put enormous strains on the relationship.

So I’m confident that — so the answer is, currency, along with a host of other issues, will come up. And I’m confident that both the United States and China can arrive at a broad set of policies that encourages trade, that benefits both countries, that allows ongoing economic growth. It’s particularly important for us when it comes to Asia as a whole to recognize that in the absence of a more robust export strategy, it’s going to be hard for us to rebuild our manufacturing base and our employment base in this country.

And right now we have about 9 percent of — a 9 percent share of Asia’s — not just China, but Asia’s trade overall, and it’s estimated that for every 1 percent of increased share that we get, that could mean 250,000, 300,000 jobs.

So this is a jobs agenda for the United States. And the nice thing is, is that, look, Chinese consumers, they I think are ready to consume more. In some ways their consumption has been put on the backburner in the interest of export-led growth. That was an entirely legitimate strategy as they were trying to pull themselves out of very difficult economic times. As they become more confident, I think that they will be more interested in the kind of balanced growth that we think is achievable.

QUESTION: Sure. But you keep away from ... I mean, just very quickly, you keep away from sort of perhaps talk in the campaign of calling ... China a currency manipulator?

OBAMA: I think that it’s important as President of the United States to make sure that as we enter into these discussions that we are looking at all the issues involved and not just one.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you said currency would be one of many issues. I want to look at another one that might come up. Critics have said that you are softer on China on human rights than your predecessor, and that this has encouraged hardliners. Will human rights be a big part of your talks with the Chinese, and will you — are you prepared to get tough on them on this issue?

OBAMA: You know, I don’t find the critics credible, because if you look at my statements, they have been entirely consistent, we believe, in the values of freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, that are not just core American values, but we believe are universal values. And there has not been a meeting with the Chinese delegation in which we didn’t bring these issues up. That will continue.

QUESTION: If we could turn to another one of those key questions: climate change. That’s obviously going to be a key issue in your talks with the Chinese. Just on the subject of climate change, could we ask you whether you are intending to go to Copenhagen for the talks? You went there for Chicago’s bid for the Olympics; are you intending to go there for the climate change summit?

OBAMA: Well, here’s what I’ll say. Since before I was sworn in, I was very clear that I think dealing with climate change is vital to our security interests, is vital to our economic interests. It is an opportunity, as well as an enormous challenge, for us to shift to a clean energy economy. And after eight years in which there was resistance to even acknowledging the problem, I think my administration has been very clear that we intend to be a leader on this issue internationally.

Now, getting to a deal internationally is difficult. This will be one of the top subjects for our conversations with the Chinese. In my previous conversations with President Hu Jintao, I think he acknowledges that this is an area of great interest to the Chinese. The effects of climate change could be devastating on their agricultural systems and their ecology. And the key now is for the United States and China as the two largest emitters in the world to be able to come up with a framework that along with other big emitters, like the Europeans and those countries that are projected to be large emitters in the future like India, can all buy into.

And I remain optimistic that between now and Copenhagen, that we can arrive at that framework. It’s hard work. And one of the things that I’ve come to believe based on a lot of summits this year is that the work is really not done at the summit; the work is done before the summit. And if I am confident that all the countries involved are bargaining in good faith and we are on the brink of a meaningful agreement and my presence in Copenhagen will make a difference in tipping us over the edge, then certainly that’s something that I would do. But I’ve got to make sure that over the next three weeks, pressure is continually applied on our teams and everybody else’s teams to actually create a framework that people can sign off on.

QUESTION: Do you think there’s more you can bring, apart from what’s happening on the Hill, sort of legislation which may not indeed be ready by then, but I mean —

OBAMA: Well, I think everybody understands that the Senate won’t have acted on climate change legislation before Copenhagen. And our key partners, including Prime Minister Rasmussen of Denmark, the host, who’s taken a very constructive and active role on this issue, I think recognizes that not every “t” is going to be crossed and “i” dotted in the next three weeks. I think the question is, we can create a set of principles, building blocks, that allow for ongoing and continuing progress on the issue, and that’s something I’m confident we can achieve.

And I am confident also — last point I’d make — I’m confident that the American people will recognize the enormous opportunity around a clean energy economy and the ability for us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

But it takes time. In meetings with world leaders, I’ve repeatedly explained that America is not a speedboat; we’re a big ocean liner. And you can’t reverse course overnight. But what we can do and we are doing is I think changing the trajectory of how we approach this issue, both in terms of public opinion, attitudes on Capitol Hill, and certainly among businesses who really understand that for America to lead in this issue ultimately will create enormous economic opportunities.

QUESTION: I’d like to ask about Iran and North Korea. You won the Nobel Prize for your nuclear disarmament efforts but don’t seem to be making a lot of progress on either. And one of the stumbling blocks seems to be China, in both cases. Can you convince the Chinese to get tougher? And if you can’t, do you really expect progress anytime soon?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think it’s very important to say that if by lack of progress you’re suggesting we have not already eliminated nuclear weapons from the face of the earth in the first nine months of my administration, then that’s true.

QUESTION: Come on, you’ve won the Nobel Prize. Surely, by now ...

QUESTION: What’s taking so long?

OBAMA: Right. On the other hand, I’m confident that the United States and Russia is going to sign a START treaty that institutes verifiable, serious reductions in our nuclear arsenals. That is something that we saw as an important message to send to the world, that we’re not only talking about non-proliferation when it comes to other countries, but we are serious about meeting our commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That will be accomplished, I believe, by the end of the year.

With respect to North Korea, we were able to institute very vigorous sanctions that are being followed by countries around the world. And China was a signatory to that security resolution. And I have to remind people that the expectations were very low when North Korea first started on these tests. And the expectation was China would never go along, and yet they did, on much more robust sanctions than people expected.

With respect to Iran, we have unprecedented agreement with Russia and the other P5-plus-1 countries putting an offer on the table to Iran that every international observer suggests is a fair offer, giving them a pathway for legitimate civilian nuclear energy use, but that makes clear they are not — that builds confidence in a process that will lead to an Iran without nuclear weapons. And although so far we have not seen the kind of response — positive response that we want from Iran, we are as well positioned as we’ve ever been to align the international community behind that agenda.

So I would strongly argue that we have made more progress on this issue over the last several months than we’ve seen in the last several years. But it is going to take time. And part of the challenge that we face is, is that neither North Korea nor Iran seem to be settled enough politically to make quick decisions on these issues.

OBAMA: I’ve used up our time.

WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN ROBERT GIBBS: You have two minutes, so go quickly.

QUESTION: One quick question. You’re nearing the final stages of your decision-making on Afghanistan.

OBAMA: Yes

QUESTION: And I know that you’ve been frustrated that a lot of the discussion has spilled out into the public view.

OBAMA: Yes, it does seem ...

QUESTION: But given that it has ...

GIBBS: Was that the question?

QUESTION: Given that it has, do you think that you have leeway to give General McChrystal anything less than the 40,000-troop increase that he’s requested without risking the perception that you’re weakening the commitment in Afghanistan?

OBAMA: That’s not how I think about the problem. My obligation — my solemn obligation, as Commander-in-Chief, is to get this right. And then I worry about people’s perceptions later.

QUESTION: Sir, then I would just throw in one last final question. You know, you’ve had a very challenging first year, nearly a year in office. And you’ve had some notable successes, the economy, and made a lot more progress on health care than many people would have thought. I’d just like to ask you whether you think you’ve made any mistakes in your time?

OBAMA: Oh, we make at least one mistake a day.

QUESTION: Any you’d like to tell us about?

OBAMA: But I will say this, I don’t think we’ve made big mistakes. I don’t think we’ve made fundamental mistakes. Everything from how we handled some of the early vetting on our appointments to how I phrased commentary on an arrest in Cambridge to — I mean, there are constant sort of things that I think have proven unnecessary distractions. But in terms of the core decisions that we’ve made to rescue the economy, to move forward on a path for moving our troops from Iraq, on making sure that we’ve gone through a rigorous process in Afghanistan to how we have moved health care to a place that seven Presidents have not been able to get to. I feel very good about our progress.

GIBBS: Thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

OBAMA: Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

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