TIME: Your speeches seem to be getting far tougher.
Well, it's getting to be crunch time. Now is the time where people are going to start paying attention, leading up into the convention, and we've got to make sure that people understand the choices that are at stake. I have consistently run a campaign based on the promise of America, where I think we can take this country, on energy independence, on providing health care for all Americans, making the economy more fair.
And over the last several weeks, I think what we've been getting from John McCain has been nonstop attacks against me and my character, which have distracted people from the issues. What I want to do is make sure that people understand is [that] here are the choices: that you've got a candidate who is presenting policies that are identical to what George Bush has been doing for the last eight years, [and] you've got somebody who intends to fundamentally change those policies so that they work for the average American family. And if people understand what those choices are, I think we will win.
There are Democrats who are nervous that you are not tough enough for the general election.
I don't think that's just about me. I think they are congenitally nervous because we lost a bunch of presidential elections where people felt that we should have won. But keep in mind that whatever concerns people have about me, my campaign in particular, we heard those all through the primaries. And the reason as I said in this town-hall meeting that I think we're going to be successful is, it's not about me. It's about the American people. It's about the fact that their wages and incomes have flatlined, their costs have gone up, they are losing their homes. They are losing their health care. They are worried about the future.
The Republicans are going to want to try to focus this election on me. What I want to do is focus this election on the American people and who can actually deliver for them. There's nothing new about this approach that they are taking. This is the same approach that they took against John Kerry and Al Gore and tried to take against Clinton. And so, as I said, what I think makes the difference this time is people understand this is a big election. We can't afford to keep on doing the same things we've been doing the same policies or the same politics.
There has also been some criticism that you've helped fuel that idea that the election is about you for example, with the huge rallies.
You know, Karen, I give full credit to the Karl Rove acolytes who are working for John McCain, and one of their general strategies is to try to turn strengths into weaknesses. The enthusiasm and involvement at the grass roots that we've seen in my campaign, I consider a strength. That's one of the reasons we are able to compete in 18 [battleground] states. But those crowds and those rallies, those people have not come out because of my speechmaking.
They've come out because they understand what's at stake in this election. And that's not going to change, and [when] we have small town halls or we have round tables like we had this morning, whatever the venue, the message is going to be the same: that somebody needs to be fighting for America's families in Washington. We've got to stop having the agenda set by special interests and lobbyists, and I'm the person who's best equipped to bring that change about.
One of the biggest moments in the campaign is going to be your announcement of a Vice President. What is that decision going to tell voters about you?
Hopefully, the same thing that my campaign has told the American people about me. That I think through big decisions, I get a lot of input from a lot of people and that, ultimately, I try to surround myself with people who are about getting the job done and who are not about ego, self-aggrandizement, getting their names in the press, but are focused on what's best for the American people.
I think people will see that I'm not afraid to have folks around me who complement my strengths and who are independent. I'm not a believer in a government of yes-men. I think one of the failures of the early Bush Administration was being surrounded by people who were unwilling to deliver bad news, or who were prone to simply feed the President information that confirmed his own preconceptions.
Does it make a difference that you are the first presidential candidate who came of age after the 1960s?
Yes, I think that the ideological battles of the '60s have continued to shape our politics for too long. They haven't shaped the lives of the American people. The average baby boomer, I think, has long gotten past some of these abstract arguments about are you left, are you right, are you big government, small government. You know, people are very practical. What they are interested in is: Can you deliver schools that work? I'm working really hard, can I get some health care that I can count on? Do we have a foreign policy that deals with our enemies but also has some sense of humility about it, so that we are able to gain cooperation from our allies around the world?
People recognize that government can't do everything and that most of us have to take individual responsibility, but what we do expect is that government can help. So those kinds of arguments have been resolved in the minds of the American people for a long time, but they still drive politics in Washington. And one of the things we have to do in this campaign is to break out of some of those old arguments. And what, frankly, the McCain campaign wants to do is to try to push us back into those old arguments. So the campaign they're running is a reprise of the Republican greatest hits of the last 25 years. "He's going to raise your taxes. He's not patriotic. He's going to be soft on our enemies."
Well, I don't blame them for that. It's worked for them. But it doesn't solve problems. It's part of the reason they've been governing so poorly, because what they campaign on doesn't have anything to do with the problems we have right now. He's got an energy policy that has been nonexistent for the last eight years, at a time where everybody could see that this is going to have as much to do with our national security, our environment, our economy as anything out there.
You grew up a child of the world, and as you've said, you have "brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents." How does it affect your view of America's place in the world, the idea of American exceptionalism?
If anything, it has reinforced my belief in American exceptionalism. One of the things that happens when you live overseas is you realize how special America is our values, our ideals, our Constitution, our rule of law, the idea of equality and opportunity. Those are things that we often take for granted, and it's only when you get out of the country that you see the majority of the world doesn't enjoy those same privileges.
What I do think it also provides is a sense that the world really is smaller than we sometimes think, and that the aspirations of people around the world, although not always expressed in identical ways, really aren't all that different. People want work that supports their families. People want their children to do better than they are doing. They want some sense of security. And so when I approach foreign policy, I work from the basis that there are some universal hopes and dreams and fears that people carry with them.
But then, in our ability to shape a better world, we've got to be honest and mindful of the fact that different countries are at different phases, have different cultural histories. And if we think that we can just plunge in and, say, create a democracy from scratch in five years, then we're badly mistaken.
The question lingered with me as I finished reading Dreams [from My Father]. One of the many things you're wrestling with is the issue of African history. Is globalism used to be colonialism on balance, net good or net bad for the world's people? Does it even make sense to talk in those terms?
I'm not sure it makes sense to talk in those terms. I think it's inevitable, partly because of technology, partly because of travel, migration patterns. I do believe that America has a special role to play in trying to lift up a set of ideas, a set of rules of conduct for countries that aren't imposed by force but by example. I think our economy has helped to provide a template for other countries, our judicial system has helped to inspire other countries.
When you think about our greatest victories reintegrating Japan, Western Europe after World War II into the free world there were enormous sacrifices, a lot of resources, but what was really powerful was how we could hold up ourselves and say, "Individuals are able to live a better life under this system." And I don't think that we should be ashamed of asserting that rule of law is better than no rule of law, that democracy is better than authoritarianism, that a free press is better than a closed press. Yet how we achieve or how we approach this, I think, has to take into account that not everybody is going to be at the same place right away, and that if we think we can simply impose our institutions through military means, that we'll probably fall short, because the world may be smaller, but it's not that small.
Do you agree that you were more exposed to left ideas than the average guy who ends up running for President? Hard to picture most of them reading Frantz Fanon or saying, "Stokely Carmichael is in town, I'm going to go hear him."
I'm not sure that what I was exposed to was all that different from what Bill Clinton was exposed to. He's squarely a baby boomer. I'm sure that what I was exposed to was different from what John McCain was exposed to, because there's a much bigger gap of years there. But you know, the truth is that my education was a pretty standard liberal-arts education. So I was exposed to thinkers on the left. At the same time, I was reading Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and I was growing up when Ronald Reagan was ascendant. So the political culture of my formative years was much more conservative.
It partly explains why, if you look at not just my politics, but also I think who I am as a person in some ways, I'm pretty culturally conservative. I was always suspicious of dogma and the excesses of the left and the right. One of my greatest criticisms of the Republican Party over the last 20 years is that it's not particularly conservative. I can read conservatives from an earlier era a George Will or a Peggy Noonan and recognize wisdom, because it has much more to do with respect for tradition and the past, and I think skepticism about being able to just take apart a society and put it back together. Because I do think that communities and nations and families aren't subject to that kind of mechanical approach to change. But when I look at Tom DeLay or some of the commentators on Fox these days, there's nothing particularly conservative about them.
You have a powerful belief in this idea that getting people together, of getting them to trust one another. The epiphany of your first book is "faith in other people." You understand how it sounds kind of gossamer to some people?
You know, it is very interesting. I think that the commentary about me kind of swings back and forth between this wildly idealistic, pie-in-the-sky, green-behind-the-ears kid who doesn't know how tough the world is and this fiercely calculating politician who has been ruthlessly pursuing power over the last several years. You know, neither caricature is true.
Look, I believe people are fundamentally good. But I also believe there's evil in the world. I believe that it is better for us to talk than not talk, and that most human beings are motivated by the same things, their hopes and fears, regardless of race or religion. And if we can get people to recognize themselves in each other, then we're more likely to make good decisions.
But I'm also aware of the fact that history has placed people in very different situations, with long memories of conflict and hatred. And there are bad people in the world. And ultimately, power is decisive in a lot of decisions, not simply whose got the best ideas.
And so the challenge, I think, for the next President is to harness the essential idealism of the American people, the essential optimism of the American people, to inspire people to try to do better in the world, but to do so with a clear-eyed gaze, to understand that these things are not going to be easy. That there are fights that are going to have to be fought. And that at the end of the conversation, there are still going to be disagreements. And I intend to be on the winning side and have more power than the other side in terms of making the best judgments about where I think the country goes.
I want to be bipartisan, but there are going to be some things where you just don't agree with the other side. There are philosophical differences. Being realistic about how hard it is to make change for the benefit of the American people and still also be idealistic about the things we can do better, that's how we got here. That is how women got the right to vote. That's how African Americans got citizenship. That's how workers got the 40-hour workweek. That's how we're going to solve the problems that we face right now.