By George E. Condon Jr.
December 12, 2011Defiantly proclaiming "it doesn't really matter" who the Republicans nominate against him, President Obama declared that he is ready to take on either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney and ask voters to contrast his vision with that offered by the GOP nominee. In an at-times feisty interview with CBS's "60 Minutes," the president suggested there is little difference between the two front-runners for the nomination.
"The core philosophy that they're expressing is the same," he told Steve Kroft in an interview conducted in two parts last week and aired Sunday night. "And the contrast in visions between where I want to take the country and… where they say they want to take the country is going to be stark." He predicted "a good debate" and a clear choice for the voters.
Pressed by Kroft to explain Gingrich's recent surge in the polls, Obama attributed it to the former speaker's longevity. "He's somebody who's been around a long time, and is good on TV, is good in debates." Despite his repeated insistences that he is not closely following the debates, the president also made sure to cast Romney as a politician, a theme often heard by Romney's Republican opponents. "Mitt Romney has shown himself to be somebody who's good at politics, as well. He's had a lot of practice at it," he said, adding that he expects the GOP fight for the nomination to be protracted. "I think that they will be going at it for a while," he said. "When the Republican Party has decided who its nominee is going to be, then we'll have plenty of time to worry about it."
He boiled down the 2012 campaign to a single question to be answered by the voters: "Do they see a more compelling vision coming out from the other side?" He characterized the Republican vision as more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and "gutting" regulations. "If the American people think that that's a recipe for success and… a majority are persuaded by that, then I'm going to lose."
He also brought up his vision when Kroft asked him if it was not his job as president to find solutions no matter how much the other party fights him. "It is my job to put forward a vision of the country that benefits the vast majority of Americans," he said. "It is my job to make sure that my party is behind those initiatives, even if sometimes it's breaking some china and going against some of the dogmas of our party in the past. We've done that on things like education reform. And it's my job to rally the American people around that vision."
And he left no doubt that the vision he will champion during the upcoming campaign was reflected in last week's speech in Kansas in which he decried income inequality and the decline in the middle class. Obama strongly disputed Kroft's suggestion that his speech was either socialistic or promoting class warfare. "Everybody's concerned about inequality," he said, adding that he will continue to ask, "What's happened to the bargain? What's happened to the American deal that says, you know, we are focused on building a strong middle class?"
The talk of class warfare, he said, reflects the debasement of today's politics. "Our politics has gotten to the point where we can't have an honest conversation about the greatest income inequality since the 1920s. And we can't have an honest conversation about the irresponsibility that resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, without somebody saying that somehow we're being divisive." Instead, he insisted, he is just "being honest" in raising the issue.
He was asked if he and first lady Michelle Obama had ever considered not running for a second term. The president joked that his wife had often reminded him that "You volunteered for this thing." But he said they had never doubted that he would run in 2012. "Not because our quality of life might not be better if I were not president. Not because Michelle is so enamored with me being president. But because we both think that what we're doing is really important for a lot of people out there."
The president refused to engage Kroft when he pressed him on why there has been no criminal prosecutions of anyone on Wall Street responsible for the financial collapse in 2008. "I can't, as president of the United States, comment on the decisions about particular prosecutions," he said. But he added, that "some of the most damaging behavior on Wall Street -- in some cases, some of the least ethical behavior on Wall Street -- wasn't illegal." He said that is why he pushed for "the toughest financial reform package since F.D.R. and the Great Depression."
By George E. Condon Jr.
December 12, 2011