Obama focused on economic stimulus

This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted Tuesday in Chicago with President-elect Barack Obama. The interviewers were Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons of our Washington bureau and reporter John McCormick of the Tribune.

Have you ever spoken to [Illinois] Gov. [Rod R.] Blagojevich about [filling] the Senate seat?

I have not discussed the Senate seat with the governor at any time. My strong belief is that it needed to be filled by somebody who is going to represent the people of Illinois and fight for them. And beyond that, I was focused on the transition.

Given the state of the economy, has that forced any changes in your priorities?


You’ve got an interesting convergence between the circumstances that we find ourselves in and the agenda that I have set. Because we need to jump-start the economy, all the proposals that I put forward earlier are ones that are directly designed to put people to work and get the economy moving: a tax cut for 95% of working families; . . . a serious investment in infrastructure that lays the foundation for a green-energy economy, that’s a job-creator and makes our economy more competitive. Investing in technologies that can reduce healthcare costs and errors . . .

Now, I also think that the economic crisis is going to make the issue of our long-term fiscal problems more severe. You know there are some estimates that I’m already going to be inheriting a trillion-dollar deficit, even before we get started.

On card-check protection [which would make it easier for unions to organize], we’ve heard that there might be a delay on that, or it might not be an immediate priority. Also, on NAFTA, we’ve heard that you might support maybe a study and then a report, instead of a wholesale reworking of the agreement right away.

Well, look, my economic team is reviewing these issues. You know, I’ve consistently said on trade issues that I want environmental and labor provisions that are enforceable in those trade agreements. But I also have said that I believe in free trade, and don’t think that we can draw a moat around the American economy. . . .

When it comes to unions, I have consistently said that I want to strengthen the union movement in this country and put an end to the kinds of barriers and roadblocks that are in the way of workers legitimately coming together in order to form a union and bargain collectively.

Many industries are suffering these days. Where do you draw the line on who gets a bailout and who doesn’t? And isn’t it fair for people to ask why the automotive industry might get one and their company won’t?

No, I think it is absolutely fair. I do think that it’s going to be critical for our economic team to present a framework of how we’re going to move this economy forward that doesn’t involve the federal government spending the next several years picking winners and losers. But right now, I think that what we’re all facing are some significant, systemic risks that could lead to millions of more Americans losing their jobs. And so, as messy as it may be, I think there’s a sense of “Let’s stabilize the patient.”

That’s certainly true in the financial system. . . . I don’t think anybody wants to see a meltdown of the financial system that would result in cascading bankruptcies across industries in a way that we haven’t seen in 75 years.

The auto industry is the backbone of American manufacturing in many states, certainly across the Midwest. . . . There are a range of particular circumstances that we have to address right now because you have sort of a perfect storm.

Do you have a spiritual advisor now? Many presidents have had them.

You know, one of the wonderful things that we did during the campaign was to set up sort of a prayer circle across the country, of pastors . . . who would . . . get on the phone and pray for me. Sometimes I’d get on the phone . . . T.D. Jakes, Rick Warren, Joseph Lowery, just a wonderful collection of people and, by the way, across the political spectrum. I’m not even sure that all of them voted for me. But they were willing to pray for me, and that’s something that was wonderful.

Are you prepared to give a speech in an Islamic capital?

This is something that I talked about doing in the campaign, and it’s something that I intend to follow through on. What the time frame is, how we structure that . . . is something that I will determine with my national security team in the coming weeks and months.

Do you anticipate being sworn in as Barack Obama or Barack Hussein Obama?

I think the tradition is that they use all three names, and I will follow the tradition, not trying to make a statement one way or the other. I’ll do what everybody else does.

As the first black president, do you feel a special mission to fulfill the vision of the civil rights movement?

Obviously, I am honored and gratified to be part of this journey to change how race is viewed and dealt with in this country. But I think it’s important to understand [that] it’s not just me, or African Americans, that want to see better race relations. I think all Americans do. . . .

I think that more than anything is going to improve race relations [is] a sense of common progress, where everybody feels like they have a chance at the American Dream. If we can restore that sense, then I’m confident that the generation coming up behind me is going to be even more willing to embrace the diversity that makes America special.

Do you expect to keep a long-term presence here [in Chicago]? You joked a couple weeks ago that it is a bad time to sell a house.

My Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago. We own one piece of property and that is our home in Chicago. It is 10 minutes away from where Michelle grew up and where her mother still has a house. Our friends are here. Our family is here. And so we are going to try to come back here as often as possible. My expectation would be that, depending on what my schedule looks like, you know, we’re going to try to get back here at least once every six weeks or couple months.