Return to Transcripts main page
STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Obama Press Conference
Aired April 19, 2009 - 12:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KING: Welcome back to "State of the Union." You're looking at Port-of-Spain in Trinidad and Tobago.
President Obama will be holding a news conference right there, just a few moments from now. We've been given a warning by the White House to expect that event in just a few minutes. So we're going to change our programming. We were about to bring you a fabulous piece on the Everglades. Our producer, Josh Rubin, shot it down in Florida. We will bring that to you another day because we want to stay with this event here.
The president has been at the Summit of the Americas, a four-day trip abroad. Before that, he was in Mexico, meeting with President Calderon. He has been discussing issues like how to deal with U.S. border security, how to deal with the flood of weapons across the border from the United States into Mexico, into the hands of those cartels, and the flood of drugs back from Mexico into the United States.
And while there at the Summit of Americas itself, in Trinidad and Tobago, he has had a couple of friendly-looking encounters with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who, of course, has been a longtime nemesis of the United States and a man who called Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, "the devil."
He also has had a new overture from the government of Cuba. Cuba is not a democracy, so it not invited to the annual Summit of the Americas, but Raul Castro, the leader of Cuba, did say, at that meeting, that he believed he was willing to sit down, now, for an open dialogue with the United States, that human rights and other issues would be on the table, if the United States was open to this dialogue.
And so we are going to have a little bit different programming than we normally have, while we await the president of the United States.
And still with me, here, to discuss the stakes of this news conference and the outcome of the summit, David Gergen is with us; Stephen Hayes, and Gloria Borger.
David, let me just start with you. You've been at this summit. You know what the headlines have been back home. You know what people have been saying this morning about Hugo Chavez. "Should you have been smiling?"
You raised that point yourself. A friendly meeting is one thing. What will come of the policies?
He now knows he commands that stage, when he walks out there in two or three minutes. What does he need to do?
GERGEN: He needs, basically, to speak to some of his American audience, now, back home and tell them what's been accomplished and put this in context -- you know, what he's trying to do. You know, he met some of these people who were regarded as real dictators and very anti-U.S., and where he's now -- and put that in a context and tell us where he's trying to go; what's his policy?
I think we need to get beyond the, sort of, you know, how it was fun to be here kind of stuff and the niceties. Let's get to some policies. Let's get to some meat.
KING: And, Steve, we've seen, in the past, that this is a president who's very good in this -- number one, he's a very good performer, a very good communicator in this setting, but he sometimes does not appreciate it when he's challenged.
So if somebody asks the question you asked a few minutes ago -- and we assume it will be asked -- when there was this tirade against the United States, including President Kennedy, who you have said is among your political heroes, why didn't you swing back?
That's the kind of question that sometimes puts President Obama back on his heels and he gets a little testy.
HAYES: It does. It would be a great question to ask. I wish I were there to ask it. I think -- I agree with David. I think at this point, he has got to respond to that question. The White House has been saying in background briefings with reporters, well, we don't want to dwell on debates in the past. This is new, we're looking forward. That's fine and I get that, but at a certain point, you need a toughness moment here because I think the perception is with the handshake with Chavez and the failure to say anything and with Ortega, there's a perception that we might be getting pushed around a little bit. And that's a dangerous political place for him to be.
BORGER: And I think there was also a fear on the part of some folks on the administration going into this, John, that it was going to be hijacked by Cuba. Of course, we announced easing of some restrictions, travel restrictions, money restrictions heading into Cuba and I think that they're afraid that it became too much a topic of conversation and that's why the president of the United States before the summit started called the president of Brazil to have a phone conversation saying, let's make sure we stay on the agenda. So we need to hear from the president what was achieved beyond arguing over Cuba.
KING: Forgive me anyone if I interrupt you, if I see the president walking out, I will interrupt. But let me bring in this point. Could we perhaps be a little off on this in the sense that No. 1, the biggest issue for the American people is obviously the economy. So does the president have more leeway to be a little different, outside of what the State Department guide book might tell him when it comes to these relationships? And number two, David Gergen, he did campaign saying, I am going to give conversation a chance.
GERGEN: Right. Look, I think Americans voted for him not with that knowledge and many wanted these new conversations, they wanted some kind of opening to Cuba. You see that in the younger generations of Cuban Americans in Florida. Now they have a very different view of the older generation of the Cuban Americans there.
So I think that is all positive, but the question is, how do you do it? What are you trying to achieve? And to go to your point, I would think that his emphasis in this statement and this press conferences is how do we go forward to go there economically? He needs to keep it in the economic context as well. HAYES: Well then I think to sort of contradict what I said about one minute ago, he could put himself in a box if he hasn't stopped this moment in part because of the things he said in his interview with CNN Espanol, in part because of the public statements he's made where he's called U.S. policy in the region heavy handed. He's said that several times. And he is, in a sense, been, I would say he didn't apologize for it, but he's been apologetic for the things that have been done in the name of Americans. So if he's critical at this point, will it look like he's -- he can't be critical on the substance because he said that in the past.
KING: So then, what is the middle ground if you believe the past has been heavy handed and you don't want to be soft, a label pinned against Jimmy Carter and other Democrats in the past, what is that ground in the middle where you can have a conversation but also have some red lines where we have a conversation, but if you don't step over this line eventually and give me something back, conversation ends.
BORGER: Well I bet that's what we're going to hear from the president because I don't think at a summit at like this, is a moment for the president to make policy declarations unless they've all been agreed to. I think that's something he does when he consults with his secretary of state, et cetera.
But the other thing about President Obama during this summit is when we saw him in Europe at the G-20, he's a revered figure, he's a rock star, he's really, really popular over there. Not so much over here. I think there's lots of questions about Barack Obama and the United States. And I don't think he felt the love as much as he did at the G-20.
KING: And let's put in context for our viewers, this isn't just about do you get along with Hugo Chavez. This isn't just about 11 presidents now if you include President Obama who have tried to figure out what to do with the Castros and Cuba, all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower. David, what are the policies at stake? If you are having a friendly conversation with Hugo Chavez and he suddenly decides you're not keeping your end of the bargain, what can he do if anything to actually hurt the United States, oil being one weapon.
GERGEN: Oil is one weapon. I think that we as Americans have to pay a lot of attention to the fact that China is starting to form all sorts of relationships not only in Africa, but relationships in Latin America. They don't mind us playing second. China would love to do that and I think we have larger stakes in Latin America than we have been willing to acknowledge.
We have been so preoccupied with other things, we took our eye off Latin America. And I think it's time to start paying some more serious attention. Clearly the development of Latin America, as we've always known, especially in Mexico, has a lot to do with our own immigration issues. It has a lot to do with our own economic future.
To me, one of the hard questions I would find to a debate like this inside the White House, when people are really angry at you, you sometimes need to let them talk and just get it out of their systems and should President Obama come in and say, look, we heard some harsh things here, but we had to let that happen and now we are going to get on with business. Or should you avoid all that? That's an interesting, hard question.
KING: If this meeting were a week after the campaign ended, we would think the issues would be economy and trade because remember, President Obama, as candidate Obama, said I might want to renegotiate some of NAFTA and CAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Central America, the Caribbean Free Trade Agreement, where he was somewhat skeptical of these trade agreements which have been critical to the economies of those less developed nations. And yet now we find ourselves consumed with the drug violence and rightly so. The drug violence along the U.S./Mexico border -- already the environment has changed some, right?
HAYES: I certainly think it has and I think there's a reason to a certain extent that we pay attention to the symbolism of these things because on the first trip to the region in the opening months of a presidency, the symbolism matters. We are now setting precedent for what we're likely to see over the next three and a half years. So, this kind of an embrace with Hugo Chavez I think may lay the ground work either for better relations, some kind of more serious engagement or it could lead to Barack Obama being taken less seriously by people because he's taking these pariah leaders seriously.
BORGER: What was interesting about his meeting in Mexico with President Calderon was it was all about domestic policy in the United States. It was about immigration. It was about a ban on assault weapons. Would the president indeed go after a ban on assault weapons which he says he would. It was about drugs, all trade, all issues that play really domestically in this country. And the president, I think, held pretty firm on where he stands on those issues.
KING: On the Mexican violence issue, David, at all surprised by the president saying, look, sure, maybe reinstating the assault weapons ban here in the United States would help, but it is not going to pass and it would take too long, get tied up in Congress. So let's not even bother. Let's turn to using enforcement of existing laws and things like that. Former senator, now Secretary Clinton said you know what, my husband enacted that ban and I thought it worked. So she is saying, I thought it was a good policy. She said that in Mexico. The president of the United States in Mexico says, maybe it will work, but we're not going down that road.
GERGEN: Her husband did it, enacted it, it did make a difference. It was positive. It also lost some Democratic seats. I think Hillary Clinton took the right view and I'm surprised she's not going to go out there to fight for a revival of it. It does seem to me that's exactly the kind of issue where he ought to take a stand.
BORGER: He didn't back off of his support for it, though. He walked both sides of the street on that.
HAYES: This was Obama the pragmatist at his purest, I think, where he recognizes he got a letter from 65 House Democrats saying, look, not only oppose you on this, we will fight you on that. Does he want that fight as he's trying to work on the economy, as he's doing these kind of things? I think he doesn't.
KING: Occasionally you want to fight, he's saying.
GERGEN: Occasionally you want to fight.
KING: Your own party, you think he should pick it.
GERGEN: I think assault weapon ban is a serious issue for much of urban America and it is worth fighting for it to reinstate it.
KING: If you're just joining us, we want to reset the scene for you. You're looking at a beautiful site there in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. We're waiting for the president of the United States, Barack Obama. He has just concluded the Summit of the Americas and he is wrapping up a four-day trip outside of the United States. He went to Mexico, then he went to Trinidad and Tobago for this summit. Issues on the table, illegal immigration, the Mexican drug violence along the border, trade with Latin American and Caribbean countries. Also of course, overtures from Cuba and from Venezuela.
Also, back here in the United States, don't forget the economic debate and the controversy over his decision to release formally top secret memos detailing interrogation tactics of the Bush administration. A lot to ask the president about.
David Gergen, Steve Hayes, Gloria Borger and John King all wish they could be there for it. Let's come back it the torture issue. Obviously not a debate at the Summit of the Americas, but here you have a White House press corps getting a chance to ask the president of the United States. David, again, you've worked in the White House. He's in Trinidad and Tobago. Does that matter to the White House press corps? Are the questions different when you're not in the states?
GERGEN: Not at all. And I would wager one of the things that's happening right now for the reason he's a little delayed is his staff has probably been doing the same thing you have been doing on STATE OF THE UNION today and that is looking at all the shows. What is the context as you come out here? What is being said politically ask in the United States and how are you going to respond to that? And you've got for example, two major newspapers in this country. The "Washington Post" coming out in support of what he did and the "New York Times" basically coming out and saying, this is nowhere far enough. You should be putting these people up on the stand, maybe even be prosecuting people from the Bush administration. I bet somebody is going to start throwing those kinds of questions at him. What do you think of what the "New York Times" said today. I think that's why they're probably gathering. What's the news?
HAYES: And the goal of the reporters as we all know who are traveling with him on the trip is to "get him to make news." They want him to advance the story. Advance the story. Excuse me, they don't care if they're in Trinidad and Tobago. They don't care where they are as long as they can get him to advance the news.
BORGER: You know, the way the president handled that whole torture thing really tells us a lot about Barack Obama because he had an internal debate going on in his administration the CIA, the director of national intelligence on the one side and folks on the other side in his administration who wanted these torture memos released but did not want people prosecuted. So, he, he took the side against the CIA and his own DNI and released these memos, but then said no, we won't prosecute.
BORGER: So he kind of -- he cut -- he sliced the apple right in half.
KING: All right. Everybody play reporter for a minute. I'm going to start with you, David Gergen. If you're in the front row, the president gives his opening statement and he opens up for questions and he says, "Mr. Gergen," you would ask?
GERGEN; I would come back to the question of your relationship of Hugo Chavez and Castro and other people who have been taking such a strong anti-American stand. Do you want to work with them? Are you really sort of going to embrace them in this way? Or is this going -- you know, how are you going to do this and what is it you're willing to stand up against them for? What is it you are going to insist on in terms of the relationships?
KING: And if there is great, strong, obvious follow-up question to the answer, Steve Hayes, you would come up with?
HAYES: I would jump back to these memos. I would say, you know, the -- intelligence professionals across the political spectrum, from George Tenet, Michael Hayden, others, have recommended against revealing the specifics of these techniques.
You overruled them. Given the discussion that we had in the United States for years about politicizing intelligence, isn't -- aren't you making a political decision to overrule these intelligence professionals who are claiming that the release of these memos will make us less safe?
KING: You just sat down last week, Gloria, with the vice president of the United States, and, you know, these guys are pros. So he knows some of the questions that are coming.
KING: The vice president, when you sit down with him, what do you do to try to think, OK, they know the general subject I'm going to ask, but I'm going to be a little more...
BORGER: Well, you kind of game it out, and you know this, anyone, you know, you kind of figure, well, if I ask this, he is going to say this, what's my follow up? You know, what I would ask today is, what did you get out of your handshake with Victor (sic) Chavez? What did you get out of the pat on the back? What -- how is this going to change our relationship in any way, if any? Should you have done that? The picture played on the front page of newspapers across America.
KING: I'm looking here, somebody has stepped up to the podium, I can't see it as close on this picture. I assume that's an aide to the president since we haven't heard any voices yet. There we go. They're probably setting his opening statement there. That tells us -- those signs tell you -- we don't know who that is, the White House aide there. But that tells you we're getting close, we hope, anyway.
And, David, on the issue...
GERGEN: His mother knew.
KING: On this issue of Cuba, I can't see it on the small monitor, it's my eyesight failing. I'm sorry, I'm sure I probably do know who it is and I just passed up a chance to give him his moment of cable TV fame.
On the issue of Cuba, the president did do some easing so the Cuban-Americans can travel back to see some of their relatives. As you know, this debate has been going on forever, and you mentioned the generational shift among Cuban-Americans, particularly down in the Florida area.
I sensed a lot of that last year in the campaign. But, you know, there are those who still argue, no, isolate them, isolate them, isolate them. And there are those who say, why stop with just letting Cuban-Americans go back and forth? Send in Mr. Hilton, Mr. Hyatt, Mr. Marriott, Mr. Verizon, Mr. AT&T, and just let capitalism overwhelm.
GERGEN: Well, that's right, which is what we did in China. You know, we have had a very contradictory policy there.
KING: And but what have we gotten for it. Have we gotten enough?
GERGEN: Well, we've got -- with China we've got a much more engaged relationship, and by the way, they're our creditors now. You know, so, it has made a difference. I think the isolationists have diminished in number because it hasn't seemed to go anywhere. What has been striking about this summit, John, is that even as he started easing in Cuba, the Latin American leaders wanted to go much, much farther.
He is getting a lot of pressure. You know, in some ways they're getting out in front of him and they're going to push him and push him and push him. And I think again the question comes back, what are you going to get in exchange as you go in these relationships?
KING: That is the risk, isn't it? You open the door an inch, people want you to open it a mile, some of them.
HAYES: Absolutely, that's the risk. I mean, now, look, he is the leader. I mean, they want him to do this and I think one of the things that could be his Achilles' heel, and as you say, he's a new president, we're sort of feeling him out at this point, is it seems clear to me, and I think a lot of people I talk to in Washington, that he likes to be liked.
He likes to receive -- the adulation might be too strong. He likes to be in agreement with people. And I think, you know, that's fine, it's all well and good so long as it doesn't affect the substantive policies as it relates to American interests.
BORGER: I think the notion is that if you did it one way for eight years, it didn't really work.
GERGEN: We've been doing it this way with Cuba since 19 -- the early '60s.
BORGER: For 50 years, OK. But, you know -- and, so, this president has said, I am going to be different in my approach. And, so, he's trying something different. It may work, it may not. But...
HAYES: But what is the...
BORGER: But it is a risky strategy. There is no doubt about it.
HAYES: The question is, what is the "it"? When we say "it didn't work," what is the "it"? I mean, you know, we could...
BORGER: Not engaging. Not engaging.
HAYES: ... make the argument. But if the argument is, we needed to have the country be kept safe for seven years, then "it," in fact, did work. If the question is, were we loved, then I think the question is...
BORGER: But I don't think...
HAYES: ... maybe not as much as we liked.
BORGER: I think that's a false choice, though.
GERGEN: Cuba doesn't pose a serious danger to us in any fashion. HAYES: Well, I'm not -- I'm talking about broadly.
BORGER: Yes. When you talk about -- that's not the choice in Cuba.
KING: Again, if you're just joining us, I just want to let you know what you're watching here is on the right of your screen at home, that is Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. We are waiting for the president of the United States to give a closing news conference at the Summit of the Americas.
He has been out of the country for four days. In Mexico first, now in Trinidad and Tobago, talking to leaders in the hemisphere, our southern neighbors, about issues like drug violence, about issues like trade. And he has received some fresh overtures from Cuba and from Venezuela.
David Gergen, you talked earlier about during the campaign, he did say he would sit down and talk to other people. If they came to the table, said they wanted to have conversations, let's at least start the conversation, see if it gets us anywhere.
One country that we have not mentioned, because it's not obviously a player in this summit is Iran, which holds an American journalist and has now convicted her of spying, a trial we cannot see because it was held in a closed setting, and sentenced her to eight years in prison.
The Iranian government says she will get a full and robust appeal when the family appeals. What are the options? Let's be skeptical about that. I think we can fairly be skeptical about that given the history of Iran. What are the options of the president of the United States who has said to the Iranian government, I want to talk to you, but you need to prove it's a productive conversation?
GERGEN: Well, I think this goes to the exactly kind of issue where the president does need to be firm. We do want to warm relations, but we want this journalists back. And as part of the process, you know, if you want to show good faith, if you really want to show us that you're serious, give us our journalist back.
You know, that's an important step in this. This is trying to find some small bridges of trust and trying to build them and build them over time. Again, the president promised in the campaign he'd go down this direction. I think he is following up on his campaign pledge.
And, by the way, there are some indications that perhaps the Iranians may be warm, too. There are also indications that they just may want to diddle with us. And so you have to be aware of both. You know, it was the old Reagan thing, trust but verify.
KING: And so what do you do, Steve Hayes? One of the calculations that -- let's hope, let us hope, I think we can all agree that the Iranian government, as a -- whether it's a gesture of good will, whether they say, you know what, this case wasn't as strong as we think, whatever reason, the journalist is freed, Ms. Saberi comes home.
Is that enough? Does the Iranian government say, see, a gesture of good will, now you give us something, or do we say, no, we appreciate that, but now let's turn to the real substance, your nuclear program, your cross-border issues with Iraq, your support of Hezbollah and Hamas?
HAYES: Yes. I think it's probably not enough. I think that's one of the things he is going to talk about.
KING: The president of the United States walking out. You see that's Barack Obama. Let's listen.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's a nice view, huh? It's beautiful. Did you guys go out at all last night, by the way?
OBAMA: Chuck Todd, did I see you on the cruise ship?
CHUCK TODD, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That wasn't me.
OBAMA: All right.
Well, we just concluded a very productive summit and I want to thank the people of Trinidad and Tobago for their wonderful hospitality and their gracious welcome. I want to thank Prime Minister Manning and first lady Manning, his government for the hospitality they've shown me and our entire delegation.
Now this summit has been held at a time of great challenge and great opportunity for the United States and the Americas. The consequences of a historic economic crisis are being felt across the hemisphere, putting new pressure on peoples and governments that are already strained.
Migration to and from each of our nations has serious implications for all nations. The safety and security of our citizens is endangered by drug trafficking, lawlessness, and a host of other threats. Our energy challenge offers us a chance to unleash our joint economic potential, enhance our security, and protect our planet. And too many citizens are being denied dignity and opportunity and the chance to live out their dreams in Cuba and all across the hemisphere.
Now these are some of the issues I discussed here in Trinidad and Tobago with leaders like President Garcia of Peru, President Bachelet of Chile, President Uribe of Colombia, President Preval of Haiti, and Prime Minister Harper of Canada.
The subject of many of these meetings and conversations has been launching a new era of partnership between our nations. Over the past few days we've seen potential positive signs in the nature of the relationship between the United States, Cuba, and Venezuela. But as I've said before, the test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds. I do believe that the signal sent so far provide at least an opportunity for frank dialogue on a range of issues, including critical areas of democracy and human rights throughout the hemisphere.
I do not see eye-to-eye with every regional leader on every regional issue. And I do not agree with everything that was said at this summit by leaders from other nations. But what we showed here is that we can make progress when we're willing to break free from some of the stale debates and old ideologies that have dominated and distorted the debate in this hemisphere for far too long.
We showed that while we have our differences, we can and must work together in areas where we have mutual interest and where we disagree, we can disagree respectfully.
We showed that there are no senior or junior partners in the Americas, that we're simply partners committed to advancing a common agenda and overcoming common challenges.
And that spirit of shared responsibility was reflected in the achievement of this summit and in the work that the United States has done in concert with nations across Americas.
First, we're building on our unprecedented efforts in the United States and on the work that we did at the G-20 summit in London to jumpstart job creation, reform a broken financial regulatory system, and put our economies on the path of sustainable growth and shared prosperity.
OBAMA: We're tripling the International Monetary Fund's lending capacity. We're urging the American Development Bank to increase its current lending level. And the United States is launching a new microfinance growth fund for the hemisphere that will make meaningful differences for businesses and entrepreneurs across America.
Over the past few days, we also discussed what we can do to ensure that the policies we pursue in our own countries advance and do not undercut our broader regional recovery.
And together these efforts will help drive economic expansion in the United States and across the hemisphere and ensure that we do not see an erosion of the progress that we've made to lift people out of poverty and into the middle class.
Second, we're acting boldly; we are acting swiftly; and we are acting in concert to combat threats that are endangering the safety and security of citizens across the Americas.
This week I traveled to Mexico, where I met with President Calderon to advance our shared commitment to combating the drug cartels, stemming the southbound flow of guns and money and protecting citizens on both sides of our common border.
We're also taking a number of other key steps in concert with our regional partners. So when I went and met with the Central American nations and the Caribbean nations, they had similar concerns. And we pledged to work together to defend our nations and keep our people safe.
The United States is investing $30 million in enhanced security partnerships with Caribbean nations to ensure that they have the resources they need to combat drug traffickers seeking to enter their borders from Mexico and Central America.
And I'm also making it a priority to ratify the illicit trafficking and firearms convention and to enhance cooperation with nations across the region to reduce the threat of existing weapons stockpiles.
Third, we're taking a critical step to drive our economic expansion, enhance our security and protect the bounty and beauty of the hemisphere with a new Energy-Climate Partnership of the Americas that I proposed.
Through this partnership, we will harness the progress being made by nations across the hemisphere, from Brazil's work on biofuels to Chile's investment in solar power to Mexico's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions to El Salvador's work on geothermal energy.
This is a voluntary and flexible partnership. The nations across this region are invited to join the partnership that will enhance energy efficiency, improve our infrastructure and support investments that can make energy more affordable.
In doing so, we can create the jobs of the future, promote renewable sources of energy, and make the Americas a modal for cooperation.
Now, meeting these challenges and seizing these opportunities will not be easy. It will not happen overnight. Our efforts to work together may be strained at times by disagreements.
And one of the things that I think is going to be critical to do is to make sure we are working with our respective teams to -- to encourage implementation at -- at a more granular level. Because sometimes, at these summits, we have very lofty statements. There's got to be follow-through across the way.
But I firmly believe that, if we're willing to break free from the arguments and ideologies of an earlier era and continue to act, as we have at this summit, with a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual respect and mutual interest, then each of our nations can come out of this challenging period stronger and more prosperous. And we can advance opportunity, equality and security across the Americas.
So, with that, let me take some questions.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. The spotlight on your visit here was on the handshakes and smiles with Hugo Chavez, but we didn't see much interaction with some of the other leaders of the region yesterday like Daniel Ortega, Rafael Correa or Evo Morales, who, yesterday, accused the United States of still interfering in affairs, and "even though it's too soon," he says, "I'm not seeing much change."
Did you have any private meetings with any of these leaders?
And, if so, can you tell us what was discussed?
OBAMA: Well, I had meetings with all the leaders involved, including Daniel Ortega, who was the chairperson of the Central American meeting; had a very cordial conversations with President Morales and President Correa. And, you know, I think it's just that President Chavez is better at positioning the cameras.
And in all these conversations, here's what I emphasized, that we're not going to agree on every issue, but that, as long as we are respectful of democratic processes; as long as we're respectful of principles of sovereignty for all nations, that we can find areas where we can work in common.
And my sense is, if you talk to any of those leaders, that they would say that they feel encouraged about the possibility of a more constructive relationship.
Now, specifically on the Bolivia issue, I just want to make absolutely clear that I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments, wherever it happens in the hemisphere. That is not the policy of our government. That is not how the American people expect their government to conduct themselves. And so I want to be as clear as possible on that.
But, you know, one of the things that I mentioned in both public remarks, as well as private remarks, is that the United States, obviously, has a history in this region that's not always appreciated from the perspective of some, but that what we need to do is try to move forward, and that I am responsible for how this administration acts. And we will be respectful to those democratically elected governments, even when we disagree with them. OK?
QUESTION: Mr. President, you said during the summit that you were here not to debate the past. You also said we must learn from our history. You just referred to this history.
What have learned, over two days of listening to leaders here, about how U.S. policy is perceived in the region?
And can you name a specific policy that you will change as a result of what you've heard?
OBAMA: Well, I think that what was reemphasized, in all the discussions that I had, was a sense, on the one hand, that the United States is critical to the economic growth and opportunities in the region.
I mean, even the most vociferous critics of the United States also want to make sure that the United States economy is working and growing again, because there's extraordinary dependence on the United States for exports, for remittances. And so, in that sense, people are rooting for America's success.
I do think that there is a strain of thought in the region that, in the past, many of the problems surrounding economic growth and opportunity, or the lack thereof, resulted because of a too-rigid application of, you know, a free-market doctrine imposed by the IMF -- what is termed "the Washington consensus."
I think, in some cases, those issues have been addressed. At the G-20 summit, for example, we talked about the need to create a reformed international financial -- set of international financial institutions that provide additional flexibility, provide more voice and vote to developing countries.
In some cases, it may be just a carryover of knee-jerk, anti- American sentiment, or simply different -- differences in terms of economic theories and how the economy should grow.
One thing that I thought was interesting -- and I knew this in a more abstract way, but it was interesting, in very specific terms, hearing from these leaders who, when they spoke about Cuba, talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region and upon which many of these countries heavily depend.
And it's a reminder for us in the United States that, if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction; if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence and have -- have a beneficial effect when we need to try to move policies that are of concern to us, forward in the region. And I think that's why it's so important that in our interactions, not just here in the hemisphere, but around the world that we recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power. And that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways so that people can see very practical, concrete, improvements in the lives of ordinary persons, as a consequence of U.S. foreign policy.
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, building a little bit actually on the answer that you had there, you've been three continents now in the last three weeks and 40 odd leaders in the same room --
OBAMA: Time to get home.
TODD: Exactly, talk about deja vu. What should -- a lot of people are going to start trying to write about the Obama doctrine. What are the pillars of that that you think people should be taking away after observing you on the world stage these last three weeks? What are the pillars of the Obama --
OBAMA: I will leave it up to you, Chuck, to write the definitive statement on Obamaism. But, there are a couple principals that I've tried to apply across the board.
No. 1, that the United States remains the most powerful, wealthiest nation on earth, but we're only one nation and that the problems that we confront whether it's drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can't be solved just by one country.
And I think if you start with that approach, then you are inclined to listen and not just talk. And, so, in all these meetings what I've said is, look, we have some very clear ideas in terms of where the international community should be moving.
We have some very specific national interests, starting with safety and security that we have to attend to. But we recognize that other countries have good ideas, too. And we want to hear them. And the fact that a good idea comes from a small country like a Costa Rica should not somehow diminish the fact that it's a good idea. I think people appreciate them. So, that's number one.
Number two, I think that, I feel very strongly that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideas. The idea of Democratic practices, the idea of freedom of speech and religion, the idea of a civil society where people are free to pursue their dreams and not be imposed upon constantly by their government.
So, we've got a set of ideas that, I think, have brought applicability. But what I also believe is that other countries have different cultures, different perspectives and are coming out of different histories and that we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example. And, so, if we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand. That allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.
Again, I think people around the world appreciate that we're not suggesting we're holding ourselves to one set of standards and we're going to hold you to another set of standards. That we're not simply going to lecture you, but we're rather going to show through how we operate the benefits of these values and ideals. And as a consequence of listening, believing that there aren't junior partners and senior partners on the international stage, I don't think that we've suddenly transformed every foreign policy item that's on the agenda.
I know that in each of these meetings, you know, the question has been, well, did you get something specific? What happened here, what happened there? Countries are going to have interest and changes in foreign policy approaches by my administration suddenly aren't going to make all those interests that may diverge from ours disappear.
What it does mean, though, that the margins, they're more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate. It means that where there is resistance to a particular set of policies that we're pursuing, that resistance may turn out just to be based on old preconceptions or ideological dogmas that when they're cleared away, it turns out we can actually solve a problem. And, so, we're still going to have very tough negotiations on a whole host of issues and in Europe, you know, people believe in our plan for Afghanistan, but their politics are still such that it's hard for leaders to want to send more troops into Afghanistan. That's not going to change because I'm popular in Europe or leaders think that I've been respectful towards them.
On the other hand, by having established those better relations, it means that among the population there's more confidence that working with the United States is beneficial and they are going to try to do more than they might otherwise have done. And here in this hemisphere, I think as a consequence of a summit like this, it becomes easier for our friends. Countries like Mexico or Columbia that are stalwart partners with us on issues like drug trafficking, it becomes much easier for them to work with us because their neighbors and their populations see us as a force for good or at least not for a force for ill. OK. Jake?
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You have heard from a lot of Latin American leaders here who want the U.S. to lift the embargo against Cuba. You've said that you think it's important leverage to not lift it. But in 2004, you did support lifting the embargo. You said, "It's failed to provide the source of raising standards of living and squeeze the innocent and it's time for us to acknowledge that this policy has failed." I'm wondering, what made you change your mind about the embargo?
OBAMA: 2004 that seems just eons ago. What was I doing in 2004? I was running for Senate, there you go. Look, what I said and what I think my entire administration has acknowledged is that the policy that we've had in place for 50 years hasn't worked the way we want it to. The Cuban people are not free and that's our, our load stone, our north star when it comes to our policy in Cuba.
It is my belief that we're not going to change that policy overnight. And the steps that we took, I think were constructive in sending a signal that we'd like to see a transformation. But I am persuaded that it is important to send the signal that issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, democracy, that those continue to be important, that they're not simply something to be brushed aside.
What was remarkable about this summit was that every leader who was participating was democratically elected. We might not be happy with the results of some elections, we might be happier with others. We might disagree with some of the leaders, but they all were confirmed the legitimacy of a country speaking through Democratic channels. And that is not yet there in Cuba.
Now, I think that as a starting point, it's important for us not to think that completely ignoring Cuba is going to somehow change policy. And the fact that you had Raul Castro say he's willing to have his government discuss with ours not just issues of lifting the embargo but issues of human rights and political prisoners, that's a sign of progress. And so, we're going to explore and see if we can make some further steps. There are some things that the Cuban government could do. They could release political prisoners. They could reduce charges on remittances to match up with the policies that we have put in place to allow Cuban American families to send remittances.
OBAMA: It turns out that Cuba charges an awful lot. They take a lot off the top. And that would be an example of cooperation, where both governments are working to help Cuban families and raise standards of living in Cuba.
So there are going to be some ways that the Cuban government, I think, can send some signals that they're serious about pursuing change. And I'm hopeful that, over time, the overwhelming trend in the hemisphere will occur in Cuba, as well.
And I think that all the governments here were encouraged by the fact that we had taken some first steps. Many of them want us to go further, but they at least see that we are not dug in into policies that were formulated before I was born.
Bill? Bill Plante? No? Bill's not here? That's shocking.
Dan from CNN? Where's Dan?
QUESTION: During the campaign, you were criticized by some within your own party for perhaps not being able to be tough on foreign policy matters. Now you've had this friendly interaction with Mr. Chavez.
Are you concerned at all about how this might be perceived, back in the U.S., as perhaps being too soft? Already, one senator is calling this friendly interaction irresponsible.
And as a quick follow-up, if I may, when you got the book from Mr. Chavez, what did you really think?
OBAMA: Well, I think -- I think it was -- it was a nice gesture to give me a book. I'm -- I'm a reader. And, you're right. We had this debate throughout the campaign.
I mean, the whole notion was -- is that, somehow, if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it, because it doesn't make sense.
You know, you take a country like Venezuela. I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy. His rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflammatory. There have been instances in which we've seen Venezuela interfere with some of the -- some of the countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern. On the other hand, Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably one-600th of the United States. They own CITGO. It's unlikely that, as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez, that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.
I don't think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.
So, you know, if the question is how does this play politically, I don't know. One of the benefits of my campaign, and how I've been trying to operate as president, is I don't worry about the politics. I try to figure out what's right, in terms of American interests. And on this one, I think I'm right.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I'd like to ask some questions about an issue back home, about the economy, and the stress test, and whether or not you expect that, along with the stress tests, with the results next month, that one or more executives will be asked to step down, as it was with the auto restructuring plans?
OBAMA: OK, well, I don't want to speculate ahead of the release of the stress test numbers. You know, I think what you'll see is that, not surprisingly, different banks are in different situations. They are going to need different levels of assistance from taxpayers.
And as I've said before, if taxpayer money is involved, then I've got a responsibility to ensure some transparency and accountability in the operations of those businesses.
We try to use as light a touch as we can, but I'm not going to simply put taxpayer money into a black hole, where you're not going to see results or some exit strategy so that taxpayers ultimately are relieved of these burdens.
We've seen, I think, some progress in certain parts of the banking sector. As I mentioned before, I'm encouraged by the number of refinancings in mortgages that's already taking place.
But I have also said we're not out of the woods. This is still a difficult time for the economy. Credit is still contracted and banks still are not lending at previous levels.
The nonbank sector that accounted for 40 percent of credit, prior to this crisis, still hasn't recovered the way it should. And we're still having to take a series of extraordinary steps.
So we'll have more information as these stress test numbers are provided. I haven't seen all of them yet. They're being completed, I think, while we were on this trip. But I'm sure that we'll have more to say about this over the next -- next several days.
OK. April? You look surprised.
Come on, April, I hope you've got a good question.
QUESTION: I've got some -- I have two, actually.
OBAMA: All right. Well, you only get one, though.
QUESTION: I'll take that one. Mr. President, as you're concluding your summit here and the meeting in Mexico, there is the U.S. -- U.N. Conference -- the World Conference on Racism in Geneva tomorrow. The U.S. is boycotting. And what say you about that?
And is Zionism a main issue and the reason why the U.S. is boycotting that conference?
OBAMA: Well, let me, first of all, say that I believe in the United Nations. I believe in the possibility of the United Nations serving as an effective forum to deal with a whole host of transnational conflicts. And so I want to be as encouraging as I can, and I've said that to the general secretary.
For that reason, we're actually -- have pursued a seat on the Human Rights Commission, the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Because, even though, up until this point, we haven't been very pleased with how it's operated, we think that it's worthwhile for us to go in there and try to make it into a constructive organization, because of the extraordinary range of human rights violations that exist around the world.
And I think America should be a leader. We can't opt out of those discussions.
Now, in that same spirit, I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe, which, by the way, are not a particular province of any one country.
Obviously, we've had our own experiences with racial discrimination, but if you come down to Central and South America, the Caribbean, they have all kinds of stories to tell about racial discrimination.
You know, somebody mentioned, earlier, President Morales. Whatever I think about his politics, the fact that he is the first indigenous -- first person of indigenous background to be elected in a country that has an enormous indigenous population -- indicates how much work remains to be done around the world.
So we would love to engage constructively in a discussion like that. Here's the problem. You had a previous conference -- I believe it was in 2001; maybe it was 2002; I think it was 2001 -- in which it became a -- a session through which folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were oftentimes completely hypocritical and counterproductive. And we expressed in the run up to this conference, our concerns that if you incorporated, if you adopted all the language from 2001, that's just not something we could sign up for. So if we have a clean start, a fresh start, we're happy to go.
OBAMA: If you're incorporating a previous conference that we weren't involved with that raised a whole set of objectionable provisions, then we couldn't participate or it wouldn't be worth it for us to participate because we couldn't get past that particular issue.
And, unfortunately, even though I think other countries made great efforts to accommodate some of our concerns and assured us that this conference would be more constructive, our participation would have involved putting our imprimatur on something we just don't believe.
So what we've said and I said this to Secretary-General Moon who was here addressing the summit, we are happy to work with them to see if we can move forward on some of these issues. Hopefully some concrete steps come out of the conference that we can partner with other countries on to actually reduce discrimination around the globe, but this wasn't an opportunity to do it.
So, OK, I think the -- it's warm and I've got to get home, but I appreciate you guys. Thank you. By the way, whose wallet is this? Is this one of my staff's here?
KING: President Obama speaking there in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. We just lost the picture at the very end. A long presidential news conference, concluding the Summit of the Americas. He was choosing his words very carefully and cautiously but defending his position that perhaps there could be a diplomatic opening with Venezuela, perhaps a diplomatic opening with Cuba. He has come back. Let's listen.
OBAMA: Safety and well being. We are working to make sure that she is properly treated and to get more information about the disposition of her case.
She is an American citizen and I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage. She was an Iranian- American who was interested in the country of which her family came from. And it is appropriate for her to be treated as such and to be released. We are going to be in contact with -- through her Swiss intermediaries with the Iranian government and want to ensure that we end up seeing proper disposition of this case. OK, thanks. Thank you guys.
KING: An interesting moment at the end there, President Obama leaving for a second time. A press conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He returned to the microphone to take a question about an American journalist imprisoned in Iran, convicted of spying charges, sentenced to eight years in prison. Did not come up during the news conference. The president was leaving the stage, obviously heard the question and wanted to answer it and came back, told the Iranian government it must treat her well and give her her rights to appeal. A thorny diplomatic issue for the administration, in addition to all of the other subjects the president discussed.
Steve Hayes, our CNN contributor and the senior writer for the "Weekly Standard" is still with us. Quite interesting there, he chose his words very cautiously, very carefully, when asked Hugo Chavez wants to have a better relationship with the United States, Raul Castro wants to have a better relationship, perhaps a dialogue, with the United States. And he said, "We will be judged. The test for all of us is not simply words but also deeds," essentially saying you want to have a dialogue, show me something. What have we learned?
HAYES: Well, this was an interesting first step, I'd say, and I thought that quote that you pulled out was the one that sort of rung in my head, as well. I was interested to see how far he would go being in critical of Hugo Chavez, given the symbolism and the amount of play, especially back here that this hand shake has gotten.
The strongest word he used was inflammatory. I think you'll find some, particularly in Congress, particularly Republicans who will say he needed to be stronger about that. This is a guy who wished for American failure and called the former president of the United States the devil.
On the other hand I think he did address that and he did say, look, there are going to be limits to what I do. It is not going to just be a hand shake. What matters is substance. What matters is what we get done, which I think lays sort of a foundation for this diplomacy that he promised going back in the campaign.
KING: And interesting because our Dan Lothian brought up the point already and he was referring to Senator John Ensign earlier today on this program saying, you can shake his hand, but it was the smiles, it was looking happy about being in public with Hugo Chavez, he says are you worried about how this is going to play out? And the president said, "if your question is how does this play politically, I don't know."
HAYES: Yes and that was a very interesting moment. I think he may have helped stem whatever political damage that was done by the picture by addressing it in that sort of direct way. But still, I think we're going to be seeing that picture a lot more.
KING: And also he was asked, is there an Obama doctrine? He was in Europe on an international trip, now in the region for another international trip. He used the word Obamaism and he said he would define it this way. There's a number one economic power and military power in the world and that is the United States, but there is not just one. He said you should listen, there are not junior partners or senior partners on the world stage and that you need to listen to other countries. What do we think? HAYES: It's fascinating. You know, in foreign policy circles, there's this debate over American exceptionalism. Is America an exceptional country? And it seems to me that he's sort of walking away from that doctrine, the doctrine of American exceptionalism by saying things like there are no senior partners and no junior partners. As you pointed out though, I think descriptively he said, of course, there are senior partners and junior partners and we're the senior partner.
KING: Steve Hayes, a fascinating news conference from the president. We'll continue to cover it here on CNN and we'll be right here again next Sunday and every Sunday, 8 a.m. Eastern for the first and last word in Sunday talk. Until then, I'm John King in Washington. Have a great Sunday, thanks for hanging with us.
For our international viewers, "African Voices" is next. For everyone else, "Fareed Zakaria: GPS" starts after the break.