interviewed Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., on Saturday about his presidential campaign after events in northeastern Iowa. Here are excerpts:
Q: Why is Iowa still so important in the primary process?
A: It's the first real measure. Up until this point all the measures of how people are doing are pretty indirect. There's fundraising and there's polling. There are focus groups. There's the chatter around the Sunday morning TV shows. It's not until Iowa when people say this is how the American people are feeling. … So it ends up shaping how people view the race in subsequent states.
Q: Obviously it's very particular in terms of its demographics and its anti-war feeling.
A: When I campaign in South Carolina, we're getting a pretty strong response when you start talking about trying to end this war. What is true is obviously that Iowa is not a perfect microcosm of the country. On the other hand, people take their politics here very seriously and this retail politics … I think it really does give the entire country an opportunity to listen to what people are saying, to test the candidates' mettle. The whole nation's watching. This happens to be the theater in which the country gets its first look at these candidates.
Q. Is Iowa like southern Illinois?
A. That's exactly right. My grandparents and my mother were very Midwestern. The culture of Iowa's very familiar to me. Meat and potatoes. Common sense. Not a lot of pretense. Straight talk. That's the kind of atmosphere that I grew up in. A lot of these folks look like my grandparents.
Q. How much time did you spend in Kansas when you were growing up?
A. I didn't spend time in Kansas. My mother grew up in Kansas, among other places. She was born there, spent time there. Her parents moved to Seattle first, where she went to high school, and then moved to Hawaii. They had relatives in Kansas, so I visited Kansas. But I didn't grow up there.
Q. What have you felt resistance to on the campaign trail?
A. Obviously, I'm probably not getting a complete sampling of resistance out there. … I don't find much resistance on the issue of experience. Because people understand that I've got a lot of experience. I just haven't been in Washington that long. I do think that people are interested in electability. They are interested in toughness, both with respect to being able to win a general election and being able to take on some of the big challenges that are out there. The main thing is people are very receptive to the message. They just have to overcome the cynicism that's built up over the last couple of decades about the effectiveness of government in Washington.
Q. One woman said she never notices (your) race and can't imagine anyone else would. Do you think that's naive?
A. There's no doubt that people recognize that I don't look like the other 43 presidents. The same way they recognize that Hillary Clinton or Bill Richardson would be a breakthrough. I do think that the race factor will not be the predominant issue in this race. If people feel confident that I can deliver on universal health care … and can restore our standing in the word and get our troops home, then they'll vote for me. If they don't think I can deliver on those things, then they won't vote for me. It'll be much less likely a function of race.
Q. Is it an advantage in this climate to not look like the other 43?
A. I do think that the skills I bring to the race — the capacity to talk about issues in ways that bring people together, the ability to maybe inspire people who haven't been involved in the process to get involved, a certain self-reflective quality in how I approach issues and a willingness to consider other points of view. I do think those are contrasts to how this president, the current president, has operated.
Q. One man said you'd have an easier time bringing the world together because you have stretch — what he meant by that was all the diversity in your own personal background.
A. There's no doubt that the day I'm inaugurated the world looks at America differently. That provides us with some important political capital. Now that doesn't substitute for hard work and good judgment and sound strategy when it comes to foreign policy.
Q. You're on the air here with ads.
A. It's a fairly modest buy. I'm not very focused on what our media strategy is. But I do know that we're just kind of quietly getting my biography out because, although a lot of people know my name, I am still much less known than many of my competitors. When people discover that I was a community organizer, that I taught constitutional law, that I served eight years in the Illinois Legislature and chaired the health care committee, those are very relevant to people.
Q: Are you worried that you haven't overtaken Hillary Clinton or John Edwards at this point in Iowa?
A. What's remarkable is that we're within the margin of error running against one candidate who's been campaigning here for basically four years straight and another candidate who is known by 99% of the population. I'd say we're doing pretty good.
Q: On Iraq, some people have been saying our only two options are all in or all out. Obviously you don't see it that way.
A. Here's my view on the situation. There are two indisputable facts, and then there's a choice. Fact No. 1: the surge is not working. It has not changed the dynamics on the ground. It has put more U.S. troops at risk. It has not strengthened the Iraqi government. It has not quelled the antagonism between the various factions, and it has not lessened the strength of the insurgency.
Fact No. 2 is there are no good options. There are only bad options and worse options. There will be risks involved in whatever approach we take at this point, which is why future presidents should think through the implications of a military incursion before they launch one. The choice that we have is, I think, fairly stark. And that is either we in Congress allow the president to continue down this failed path, or we constrain him. And that's really what the debate … is going to be about. We can have debates about what exactly the timetable is, we can have debates about how we phase in or we phase out the combat presence there. We can talk about what kind of residual force is remaining. But the bottom line is either we let the president continue to do whatever he wants to do for the next year, year and a half, with untold consequences, or we say enough. And I am on the side of saying enough.
Q. What if Gen. Petraeus says he needs more time?
A. There is no scenario that I can imagine right now in which over the next eight weeks we see a magic transformation in Iraq. There's been progress in places like Anbar province. But you notice that the progress arises as a consequence of tribal leaders in that region making a decision that they no longer want to participate in the sectarian nonsense that has been taking place there.
Q. They are turning to the Americans for help.
A. What I said in my original bill in January is that if the Iraqi government had met all its benchmarks and had shown itself to be capable, then we could continue to be a partner with them. But they have not shown that willingness. The only benchmarks that received a satisfactory grade from the president were benchmarks that were essentially meaningless. A process was set up to discuss such and such, or a committee was set up to work on such and such. The problems that did need to be measured — Have we disarmed the militias? Have we passed an oil revenue sharing bill? Have we dealt with the issue of re-Baathification? — the really critical issues, on none of those did we get a sense that any progress had been made.
Q. A lot of people respected Gen. Petraeus.
A. Yes. I still respect him.
Q. Someone said it took Lincoln a long time to find the right general to fight the Civil War.
A. Oh wow, come on, no, I don't think we're going to buy that. One of the things that I find really objectionable is the tendency for this administration to blame the military for the failures in Iraq, which we've been seeing increasingly. The military has performed its task. The problem has been the civilian leadership. This is also why I object when the president says we should not micromanage the war. The question is not me being interested in telling Gen. Petraeus how to do his job. The question is, is the commander in chief willing to define a mission in which the military can succeed? And that is a civilian job. Defining the mission for the military. This president has failed to define an achievable mission. It is now up to Congress to define a mission. So as I said in these meetings (in Iowa), my first task if I were commander in chief would be to call the Joint Chiefs together and not tell them how to do their job, but I would tell them your job is to begin a phased deployment. Because the mission I'm defining is one in which we are withdrawing in a gradual fashion, that we are helping to train Iraqi forces and that we're going to initiate diplomacy as a more important tool at this point than the surge in order to achieve our goals.
Q. And nothing would talk you out of that at this point?
A. If the Iraqi government suddenly completely transformed itself and the (Shiite) and the Sunni came together and said we're ready to arrive at a peace deal and all we need is the U.S. to sign off on it, of course I would be supportive of that. That's fantasy land. That's not going to happen. And if that did happen, then there'd be no reason for us to have 150,000 troops there. If we have a coherent government in Iraq, we can wipe out the al-Qaeda Mesopotamia, we can knock them out in pretty short order.
Q. What would you do with the huge embassy that we've built?
A. Well, that raises a whole other set of questions.
Q. And the (military) bases.
A. I've been very clear we should not have permanent bases in Iraq.
Q. Would you leave the embassy?
A. We have to have an embassy, absolutely. Now the fact that we built this Xanadu in the middle of Baghdad, I would question the wisdom of that.