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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
President Obama's Press Conference
Aired May 21, 2012 - 16:26 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody.
Let me being by saying thank you to my great friend Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of the city of Chicago and to all my neighbors and friends, the people of the city of Chicago, for their extraordinary hospitality and for everything that they've done to make this summit such a success.
I could not be prouder to welcome people from around the world to my hometown. This was a big undertaking -- some 60 world leaders, not to mention folks who were exercising their freedom soft speech in assembly. The very freedoms that our alliance are dedicated to defending.
And so, it was a lot to carry for the people of Chicago, but this is a city of big shoulders, Rahm, his team, Chicagoans have proved that this world class city knows how to put on a world class event. And partly, this was a perfect place for this summit because it reflects the bonds between so many of our countries.
For generations, Chicago has welcomed immigrants from around the world, including an awful lot of our NATO allies. And I just add that I have lost track of the number of world leaders and their delegations who came up to me over the last day and a half, and remarked on what an extraordinarily beautiful city Chicago is and I could not agree more.
I'm especially pleased that I have a chance to show them Soldier Field. I regret that I was not able to take in one of the cross town classics. Although I will note that my teams did OK. Now, White Sox fan in the back, right on.
Now, as I said yesterday, NATO has been the bedrock of common security, freedom and prosperity for nearly 65 years. It hasn't just endured. It has thrived -- because our nations are stronger when we stand together. We saw that of course most recently in Libya where NATO afforded capabilities that no one else in the world could match.
As president, one of my top foreign policy priorities has been to strengthen our alliances including NATO. And that's exactly what we have done. Two years ago in Lisbon, we took action on several areas, that are critical to the future of our alliance, and we pledged that in Chicago, we would do more. Over the last two days, we have delivered.
First, we reached agreement on a series of steps to strengthened the alliances' defense capabilities over the next decade, in keeping with strategic concept, we agreed to in Lisbon and in order to fulfill our article five commitment to our collective security. We agreed to acquire a fleet of remotely piloted aircraft, drones, to strengthen intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. We agreed to continue air patrols over our Baltic allies, which reflects our unwavering commitment to collective defense.
We also agreed on a mix of conventional, nuclear missile and missile defense forces that we need and importantly we agreed on how to pay for them. And that includes pooling our resources in these difficult economic times. We're moving forward with missile defense and agreed that NATO is declaring an interim capability for this system. America's contribution to this effort would be a phased adoptive approach that we're pursuing on European missile defense and I want to commend our allies that are stepping up and playing a leadership role in missile defense as well.
Our defense radar in Turkey will be placed under NATO control. Spain, Romania and Poland have agreed to host key U.S. assets. The Netherlands will be upgrading radars and we look forward to contributions from other allies.
Since this system is neither aimed at or undermines Russia's strategic deterrent, I continue believe that missile defense can be an area of cooperation with Russia.
Second, we're now unified behind a plan to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan. A plan that trains Afghan security forces, transitions to the Afghans and builds a partnership that can endure after our combat mission in Afghanistan ends.
Since last year, we have been transitioning parts of Afghanistan to the Afghan National Security Forces and that has enabled our troops to start coming home. Indeed we're in the process of drawing down 33,000 U.S. troops by the end of the summer.
Here in Chicago, we reached the next milestone in that transition. At the ISAF meeting this morning, we agreed that Afghan forces will take the lead for combat operations next year, in mid-2013.
At that time, ISAF forces will have shifted from combat to a support role in all parts of the country. This will mark a major step toward the goal we agreed to in Lisbon, completing the transition to Afghan lead for security by the end of 2014.
So that Afghans can take responsibility for their own country and so our troops can come home. This will not mark the end of Afghanistan's challenges obviously or our partnership with that important country.
But we are making substantial progress against our core objective of defeating al Qaeda and denying its safe haven, while helping the Afghans to stand on their own. We leave Chicago with a clear road map.
Our coalition is committed to this plan to bring our war in Afghanistan to a responsible end. We also agreed on what NATO's relationship with Afghanistan will look like after 2014. NATO will continue to train, advice and assist and support Afghan forces as they grow stronger.
And while this summit has not been a pledging conference, it's been encouraging to see a number of countries making a significant financial commitment to sustain Afghanistan's progress in the years ahead.
Today the international community also expressed its strong support for efforts to bring peace and stability to South Asia, including Afghanistan's neighbors.
Finally, NATO agreed to cooperate with its partners that have been critical to alliance operations as in Afghanistan and Libya. Today's meeting was unprecedented. Our 28 allies joined by 13 nations from around the world, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
Each of these countries has contributed to NATO operations in different ways. Military, political, financial, and each wants to see us do more together. To see the breadth of those companies represented in that room is to see how NATO has truly become a hub of global security.
So, again, I want to thank all my fellow leaders, I think the bottom line is that we are leaving Chicago with a NATO alliance that is stronger, more capable and more ready for the future.
As a result, each of our nations, the United States included, is more secure and we're in a stronger position to advance the security and prosperity and freedom that we seek around the world.
So with that, I'm going to take a couple of questions and I'm going to start with Julie Pace of AP.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Mr. President. You've said that the U.S. can't deal with Afghanistan without also talking about Pakistan and yet there's been little public discussion at this summit about Pakistan's role in ending the war.
In your talks with President Sardari today did you make me any progress in reopening the supply lines and if the larger tensions with Pakistan can't be resolved, does that put the NATO coalition's gains in Afghanistan at risk?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, my discussion with President Sardari was very brief as we were walking into the summit and I emphasized to him what we have emphasized publicly as well as privately.
We think that Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. That it is in our national interest to see a Pakistan that is democratic, that is prosperous and that is stable. That we share a common enemy and the extremists that are found not only in Afghanistan, but also within Pakistan and that we need to work through some of the tensions that have inevitably arisen after 10 years of our military presence in that region. President Sardari shared with me his belief that these issues can get worked through. We didn't anticipate that the supply line issue was going to be resolved by this summit, we knew that before we arrived in Chicago.
But we're actually making diligent process on it. And I think ultimately, everybody in the alliance and most importantly, the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan understand that neither country is going to have the kind of security, stability and prosperity that it needs.
Unless they can resolve some of these outstanding issues and join in common purpose with the international community in making sure that these regions are not harboring extremists. So I don't want to paper over real challenges there.
There's no doubt that there have been tensions when ISAF and Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan over the last several months. I think they are being worked through both military and diplomatic channels.
But ultimately, it is in our interest to see a successful stable Pakistan and it is in Pakistan's interests to work with us and the world community to ensure that they themselves are not consumed by extremism that is in their midst.
So we're going to keep on going at this and I think every NATO member, every ISAF member is committed to that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. President. Yesterday, your friend and ally, Cory Booker said that an ad that you released that your campaign released was nauseating and it alleged that Romney at Bain Capital was, quote, responsible for job losses at a Kansas City steel mill.
Is that your view that Romney is personally responsible for those job losses? Will comments from Booker and your former auto czar Steve Ratner who have criticized some of these advertisement call on you to pull back a little bit?
And generally, can you give us your sense -- three-part, Mr. President, could you give us your sense of just what private equity's role is stemming job losses as they seek a return on investment for their investors?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all I think Cory Booker is an outstanding mayor. He's doing great work in Newark and obviously helping to turn that city around.
I think it's important to recognize that this issue is not a, quote, "distraction." This is part of the debate that we're going to be having in this election campaign about how do we create an economy where everybody from top to bottom, folks on Wall Street and folks on Main Street, have a shot at success.
And if they're working hard and they're acting responsibly that they're able to live out the American dream. Now I think my view of private equity is that it is set up to maximize profits and that's a healthy part of the free market.
That's -- that's part of the role of a lot of business people. That's not unique to private equity and as I think my representatives have said repeatedly and I will say today, I think there are folks who do good work in that area.
And there are times where they identify the capacity for the economy to create new jobs or new industries. But understand that their priority is to maximize profits. And that's not always going to be good for communities or businesses or workers.
And the reason this is relevant to the campaign is because my opponent, Governor Romney, his main calling card for why he thinks he should be president is his business experience. He's not going out there touting his experience in Massachusetts.
He's saying, I'm a business guy and I know how to fix it, and this is his business. And when you're president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits.
Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot. Your job is to think about those workers who get laid off and how are we paying for their retraining? Your job is to think about how those communities can start creating new clusters so that they can attract new businesses.
Your job as president is to think about how do we set up an equitable tax system so that everybody's paying their fair share and it allows us to invest in science and technology and infrastructure? All of which are going to help us grow.
So if you're main argument for how to grow the economy is, I knew how to make a lot of money for investors then you're missing what this job is about. It doesn't -- it doesn't mean you weren't good at private equity, but that's not what my job is as president.
My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure the company is growing not just now, but in 10 years from now and 20 years from now. So to repeat, this is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about.
It's what is a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed and that means I've got to think about those workers in that video just as much as I'm thinking about folks who have been much more successful. What I would say is that Mr. Romney is responsible for the proposals he's putting forward for how he says he's going to fix the economy.
And if the main basis for him suggesting he can do a better job, is his track record as the head of a private equity firm, and both the upsides and the downsides are worth examining. Hold on a second, Alister Bolton?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. President, I would like to take you back not to this summit, but the one you hosted at Camp David a couple of days ago. Whether you can assure investors that there are contingency plans in place to cope if Greece leaves the euro to prevent a Lehman like shock to the U.S. and the global economy?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We had an extensive discussion on the eurozone and everybody is keenly interested in getting that issue resolved. I'm not going to speculate on what happens if the Greek choose to exit, because they've got an election and this is going to be an important debate inside of Greece.
Everybody who was involved in the G8 summit indicated their desire to see Greece stay in the eurozone in the way that is consistent with the commitments that have already been made. And I think it's important for Greece, which is a democracy to work through what their options are at a time of great difficulty.
I think we all understand though what's at stake. What happens in Greece has an impact here in the United States. Businesses are more hesitant to invest if they see a lot of uncertainty looming across the Atlantic because they're not sure whether that's going to mean a further global slowdown.
And we're already seeing, very slow growth rates and in fact contraction of all a lot of countries in Europe. So we had an extensive discussion about how do we strengthen the European project generally in a way that does not harm world economic growth, but instead moves it forward.
And I have been clear, I think in not just this week, but over the last two years about what I think needs to be done. We have got to put in place fire walls that ensure that, you know, countries outside of Greece who are not doing the right thing aren't harmed just because markets are skittish and nervous.
We've got to make sure that banks are recapitalized in Europe so that investors have confidence. And we have to ensure that there's a growth strategy to go alongside the need for fiscal discipline.
As well as a monetary policy, that is promoting the capacity of countries like a Spain or an Italy that have put in place some very tough targets and some very tough policies to also offer their constituencies a prospect for the economy improving, job growth increasing, incomes expanding, even if it may take a little bit of time.
The good news was you saw a consensus across the board, from newly elected presidents to Chancellor Merkel, to other members of the European community that that balanced approach is what's needed right now.
They're going to be meeting this week to try to advance those discussions further. We have offered to be there for consultation, to provide any technical assistance and work through some of these ideas in terms of how we can stabilize the markets there.
Ultimately, what I think is most important is that Europe recognizes this euro project involves more than just a currency, it means that there's got to be some more effective coordination on the fiscal and monetary side and on the growth in general. And I think that there was strong intent there to move in that direction. Of course, they have got 17 countries that have to agree to every step they take. I think about my one Congress, and I start thinking about 17 congresses and I start getting a little bit of a headache.
It's going to be challenging for them. The last point I'll make is, I do sense greater urgency now than perhaps existed two years ago or two and a half years ago. And keep in mind, just for folks here in the states.
When we look backwards at our response in 2008 and 2009, there was some criticism because we had to make a bunch of tough political decisions. In fact, there's still criticism about some of the decisions we made.
But one of the things we were able to do is to act forcefully to solve a lot of these problems early, which is why credit markets that were locked up started loosening up again. That's why businesses started investing again.
That's why we have seen job growth of over 4 million jobs over the last two years, that's why corporations are making money and that's why we have seen strong economic growth for a long time. And so, acting forcefully, rather than in small, bite sized pieces and increments I think ends up being a better approach.
Even though obviously we're still going through challenges ourselves. I mean, some of these issues are ones that built up over decades, all right?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. President. As you of the summit try to continue the work of stopping Afghanistan from reverting to its former role as a terrorist haven. Terrorists today in Yemen massacred 100 soldiers. Are you concerned that despite U.S. efforts, Yemen seems to be slipping more on anarchy and what more can the U.S. do to slow that process?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We are very concerned about al Qaeda activity and extremist activity in Yemen. A positive development has been a relatively peaceful political transition in Yemen, and we participated diplomatically along with Yemen's neighbors to diplomatically lead to a political transition.
But the work is not yet done, we have established a strong counter terrorism partnership with the Yemeni government, but there's no doubt that in a country that is still poor. That is still unstable.
It is attracting a lot of folks that previously might have been in the Fatah before we started putting pressure on them there. And we're going to continue to work with the Yemeni government to try to identify AQAP leadership and operations and try to thwart them.
That's important for U.S. safety, it's also important for the stability of Yemen and for the region. But, you know, I think one of the things that we've learned from the Afghanistan experience is for us to stay focused on the counterterrorism issue.
To work with the government, to not overextend ourselves, you know, to operate smartly in dealing with these issues. And it's not unique to Yemen, by the way. I mean, we've got similar problems in Somalia. What's happening now in Mali and the Sahel.
This is part of the reason why not only is NATO important, but these partnerships we're establishing are important because there are going to be times where these partners have more effective intelligence operations, more diplomatic contacts, et cetera, in some of these parts of the world where the state is a little wobbly.
And you may see terrorists attempting to infiltrate or set up bases. I'm going to call on Jack Tapper. Because Jay Carney told me you've been talking to more troops in Afghanistan.
Since so much of the topic of this summit has been on Afghanistan, obviously none of this would be working were it not for the extraordinary sacrifices that they're making.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Mr. President. I appreciate it. Yes, I put out an invitation for some troops and their families that I know. I'll just give you two or three of them.
Mr. President, if this handoff and withdrawal prove premature, what plans are in place for dealing with an Afghanistan that's fallen apart or is possibly again under Taliban rule? And I'll just do one more.
Do you feel that the reporting you receive from the Pentagon fully represents what the on-ground commanders assess? Is there any disconnect between what leaders feel the public and the president want to hear versus what is actually occurring on the ground? These are from troops I've met who served.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me take the second question first. I mean, I think that one of the things that I emphasize whenever I'm talking to Jon Allen or the joint chiefs or any of the officers who are in Afghanistan is I can't afford a whitewash.
I can't afford not getting the very best information in order to make good decisions. I should add, by the way, that the danger a lot of times is not that anybody is purposely trying to down play challenges in Afghanistan.
A lot of time it's just the military culture is, we can get it done. And so their thinking is, how are we going to solve this problem not, boy, why is this such a disaster? That's part of the reason why we admire our military so much and we love our troops because they've got that can-do spirit.
But I think that we have set up a structure that really tries to guard against that. Because even in my White House, for example, I've got former officers who have been in Afghanistan who I will send out there as part of the national security team at the White House.
Not simply the Pentagon, to interact and to listen and to go in and talk to the captains and the majors and the corporals and the privates to try to get a sense of what's going on. And I think the reports we get are relatively accurate in the sense that there is real improvement in those areas where we've had a significant presence.
You can see the Taliban not having a foothold. That there is genuine improvement in the performance of afghan national security forces. But the Taliban is still a robust enemy and the gains are still fragile, which leads me, then, to the second point that you've made in terms of premature withdrawal.
I don't think that there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say, this is all done. This is perfect. This is just the way we wanted it. And now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home. There's a process.
And it's sometimes a messy process. Just as it was in Iraq, but think about it, we've been there now ten years. We are now committing to a transition process that takes place next year. But the full transition to Afghan responsibility is almost two years away.
And the Afghan security forces themselves will not ever be prepared if they don't start taking that responsibility. And, frankly, the large footprint that we have in Afghanistan over time can be counterproductive. We've been there 10 years. And I think, you know, no matter how much good we're doing and how outstanding our troops and our civilians and diplomats are doing on the ground, ten years in a country that's very different, that's a strain.
Not only on our folks, but also on that country, which at a point is going to be very sensitive about its own sovereignty so I think that the timetable that we've established is a sound one, it is a responsible one.
Are there risks involved in it? Absolutely. Can I anticipate that over the next two years there are going to be some bad moments along with some good ones? Absolutely.
But I think it is the appropriate strategy whereby we can achieve a stable Afghanistan that won't be perfect. We can pull back our troops in a responsible way, and we can start rebuilding America and making some of the massive investments we've made in Afghanistan here back home.
Putting people back to work, retraining workers, rebuilding our schools, investing in science and technology, developing our business climate. But there are going to be challenges. The one thing that I'm never doubtful about is just the amazing capacity of our troops and their morale.
When I was in Bagram just a couple of weeks ago, the fact that you still have so much determination and stick to it-ness and professionalism not just from our troops, but from all our coalition allies, all ISAF is a testament to that. It's extraordinary. And we're very proud of them, all right.
Since I am in Chicago, even though my press secretary told me not to do this, I am going to call on a Chicagoan to ask a Chicago question.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good to see you, how you been?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good to see you, Mr. President. Good to see you in Chicago. Chicagoans look at you standing there with Chicago, Chicago, Chicago on the wall behind you. There's an undeniable sense of pride.
In your view, how did reality match up to fantasy in welcoming the world leaders to Chicago? And did the demonstrators in any way on the streets undermine your efforts, Mayor Emanuel's efforts, to project the image of Chicago you would have liked to have seen?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have to tell you, I think Chicago performed magnificently. Those of us who were in the summit had a great experience. If you talk to leaders from around the world, they loved the city.
Michelle took some of the spouses down to the south side to see the Komer Center where wonderful stuff is being done with early education. They saw the art institute. I was just talking to David Cameron. I think he's sneaking off, doing a little sightseeing before he heads home.
I encouraged everybody to shop. Want to boost the hometown economy. We gave each leader a bean, a small model for them to remember, as well as a football from soldier field. Many of them did not know what to do with it.
So I -- people had a wonderful time and I think the Chicagoans that they interacted with couldn't have been more gracious and more hospitable. So I could not have been prouder.
Now, I think with respect to the protesters, as I said, this is part of what NATO defends is free speech and freedom of assembly. And, you know, frankly, to my Chicago press, outside of Chicago, folks really weren't all that stressed about the possibility of having some protesters here because that's what -- part of what America's about.
And obviously Rahm was stressed. But he performed wonderfully and the Chicago police, Chicago's finest, did a great job under, you know, some significant pressure and a lot of scrutiny. The only other thing I'll say about this is thank you to everybody who endure the traffic situation.
Obviously, Chicago residents who had difficulties getting home or getting to work or what have you, you know, that's -- what can I tell you, that's -- that's part of the price of being a world city.
But this was a great showcase. And if it makes those folks feel any better, despite being 15 minutes away from my house, nobody would let me go home. I was thinking I would be able to sleep in my own bed tonight. They said I would cause even worse traffic, so I ended up staying in a hotel, which contributes to the Chicago economy. (LAUGHTER)
OBAMA: All right, thank you , everybody.