Q&A: Obama on His First Year in Office

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Kent Nishimura / Getty

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Now, you are absolutely right that this seed that we've planted is going to have to be carefully nurtured. And for readers who aren't familiar, the basic idea is that we should not only fund the usual repaving of highways — although that's important — but we should also think, What's the 21st century infrastructure that's out there? And those decisions should be made by people who really have clear ideas about the kind of infrastructure we're going to need. As opposed to it being determined solely by, you know, "Who's the chairman of the transportation committee from what state?"

But I am sensitive to the fact that Congress has its prerogatives. We're trying to nudge them in the direction of rationalizing our transportation knowledge — particularly in a time of fiscal constraint. And by the way, that's a principle that's going to apply, Joe, to all of government. You mentioned earlier the pivot that we have to make. It's not driven by politics. We had to do what we had to do last year, whether it was politically popular or not. Now that we have begun the recovery process and the economy has stabilized, we have to deal with our long-term fiscal problems, whether it's politically popular or not. And some of those decisions are going to be just as unpopular.

But part of that pivot, then, is to say, "How are we going to make sure that we squeeze every ounce of value out of every dollar that we spend?" We began that process with Pentagon reform. And the victories that [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates helped win are ones that this town completely discounted when we started. We are scrubbing the budget once again to make sure that every program that we're funding actually has some justification — it actually works. Yesterday we had a whole bunch of CEOs and innovators here to talk about modernization of government. The infrastructure bank falls in that broader category of, How do we make these dollars work better? Because we're going to have to make some very difficult spending decisions moving forward.

It seems to me that these are ways — the Wall Street battle — to start building trust in a small way. People have had 30 years of propaganda telling them that government doesn't work.
And my theory, Joe, has always been, A) A lot of people's skepticism is entirely justified. B) There's no reason that government should inherently be inefficient. C) At a time when we've got such enormous problems and such limited resources, people are going to be looking to government for help. But they want to make sure that their dollars are well spent, because those are the same decisions that they're having to make in their own lives. They're looking for value. Whether they're shopping for a pair of jeans or they're going to a restaurant or they're buying a new car. And right now, they don't feel like they're getting good value out of their government.

Let me ask you one foreign policy question. My sense is that — just my own personal sense, but also from people I talk to — the overall conception of your foreign policy has been absolutely right. Necessary, corrective. Subtle, comprehensive.
We have a good team.

But there have been some problems in execution.
Well, I would not deny that, but let me say that given what's on our plate — and you know the list. I don't need to tick them off.

I actually think that our execution has been sound as well. I'll give you the examples of where I think our foreign policy team has gotten the right strategy and has executed well even though the outcomes are still uncertain — because these are tough problems that aren't subject to easy solutions. I think that in Iraq, we are moving forward and on pace to get our troops out. It's messy, it's imperfect, but I think that our team has done a very good job managing that process.

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