The President-elect on his goals and agenda in a time of crisis

This week President-elect Obama gave an interview to Time magazine, answering some of the key philosophical questions facing the next Administration.  As David Von Drehle wrote in a story based on the interview, the circumstances the country faces are extraordinary: “Score that as follows: one imploding economy, one deteriorating war in an impossible region and two versions of Armageddon — the bang of loose nukes and the whimper of environmental collapse. That’s just for starters…”

During the interview, the President-elect discussed what he views as the key benchmarks for his first two years, and whether the economic crisis will force him to hold back on the bold agenda he has put forth:

When voters look at your Administration two years from now, in the off-year election, how will they know whether you’re succeeding?
I think there are a couple of benchmarks we’ve set for ourselves during the course of this campaign. On [domestic] policy, have we helped this economy recover from what is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Have we instituted financial regulations and rules of the road that assure this kind of crisis doesn’t occur again? Have we created jobs that pay well and allow families to support themselves? Have we made significant progress on reducing the cost of health care and expanding coverage? Have we begun what will probably be a decade-long project to shift America to a new energy economy? Have we begun what may be an even longer project of revitalizing our public-school systems so we can compete in the 21st century? That’s on the domestic front.

On foreign policy, have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way, put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our Constitution? Have we rebuilt alliances around the world effectively? Have I drawn down U.S. troops out of Iraq, and have we strengthened our approach in Afghanistan — not just militarily but also diplomatically and in terms of development? And have we been able to reinvigorate international institutions to deal with transnational threats, like climate change, that we can’t solve on our own?

And outside of specific policy measures, two years from now, I want the American people to be able to say, “Government’s not perfect; there are some things Obama does that get on my nerves. But you know what? I feel like the government’s working for me. I feel like it’s accountable. I feel like it’s transparent. I feel that I am well informed about what government actions are being taken. I feel that this is a President and an Administration that admits when it makes mistakes and adapts itself to new information, that believes in making decisions based on facts and on science as opposed to what is politically expedient.” Those are some of the intangibles that I hope people two years from now can claim.

When you look at the economic issues that you ran on in the campaign, does [all the bad financial news] change your priorities about how quickly you’ve got to act on, say, jobs vs. energy?
Fortunately, most of the proposals that we made apply not only to our long-term economic growth but also fit well into what we need to do short term to get the economy back on track. I have talked during the campaign about the need to rebuild our infrastructure, and that obviously gives us an opportunity to create jobs and drive demand at a time when the economy desperately needs jobs and demand. I’ve talked about a tax cut for 95% of working families, and that fits into a stimulus package, and we can get that money out into people’s pockets fairly quickly. I’ve talked about the need for us to contain health-care costs, and it turns out there’s some spending that has to be done on information technology, for example, that we can do fairly swiftly. So there’s no doubt that most of the priorities that I had are ones that will serve our short-term economic needs as well as our long-term economic needs.

The drop in oil prices, I do think, makes the conversation about energy more difficult, not less necessary. More than ever, I think, a wholesale investment in transforming our economy — from retrofitting buildings so that they’re energy-efficient to changing our transportation patterns and thinking about how to rebuild our electricity grid — those are all things that we’re going to need now more than ever. But with people not paying $4 a gallon for gas, it means it drops on their priority list. And that makes the politics of it tougher than it might have been six months ago.

Throughout the Transition period, the President-elect has made clear that he is as committed as he has ever been to sweeping change in every major policy area. Regarding his nomination of Tom Daschle and the health care team tasked with a fundamental overhaul of our system, the President-elect said, “It is hard to overstate the urgency of their work”; on our energy future and his nominations of Steven Chu, Lisa Jackson, Nancy Sutley and Carol Browner for his energy team, he said, “In the next few years, the choices that we make will help determine the kind of country – and world – that we will leave to our children and grandchildren”; and regarding the work that his economic team would face as they work to fundamentally reshape America’s economy, he said, “that work starts today, because the truth is, we don’t have a minute to waste.”

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