NBC's Guthrie Grills Obama: Critics Say You're 'Delusional' And 'Passive' on Terrorism

In an interview aired on Monday's NBC Today, President Obama discovered that speaking to an actual journalist was a bit tougher than having YouTube celebrities lob softballs at him. In the exchange – conducted prior to the Super Bowl on Sunday – co-host Savannah Guthrie grilled the President over his handling of the war on terrorism: "You said in your State of the Union that American leadership is helping to stop the advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But your critics say that is delusional, that in fact they've gained more territory since the air strikes have begun."

Obama defensively replied: "That's not accurate. In Iraq what we've seen is the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces continue to push back against ISIL. And those same critics that you suggest I imagine would have us redeploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops-" Guthrie interrupted: "But isn't that kind of a straw man? You often say that-" He testily shot back: "Hold on, Savannah, let me – it's not a straw man. Let me finish what I'm saying."

In part, Obama argued: "So this takes longer, but it's the right way to do things." Guthrie countered: "But aren't there things you could be doing right now, short of a huge presence of ground troops inside Syria or Iraq, that would help this goal of what you say is to defeat ISIS happen more quickly? Couldn't we be doing more?" He declared: "Anything that we're doing – anything that we could be doing, Savannah, we are doing."

Not satisfied with such assurances, Guthrie kept up the pressure: "The criticism that I hear a lot of you, even from your political allies, is you came into office, you were the president that was going to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that you are so focused on doing that and not getting the U.S. entangled in another war that you are sometimes slow to react, that you're passive."

Obama again showed his frustration at having someone hold him accountable: "Savannah, you've repeated that comment three different ways..." He proceeded to take a shot at critics "who want us to shoot first and aim later" and "typically get this country into really bad situations."

Guthrie pointed to the reality in the Middle East: "Haven't the forces of militant extremism, Jihadism, grown stronger on your watch? If you look at Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen – a place where Al Qaeda's – that branch is so active and vicious and now the government, our ally, just collapsed."

After the President admitted that "Yemen's a tough situation," Guthrie pointedly asked: "Are we safer under your watch?" Obama claimed: "I believe we are safer."

In a separate live interview during Sunday's Super Bowl pre-game coverage, Guthrie pressed Obama on politics:

You gave your State of the Union a couple weeks ago. People noticed you had pep in your step, you were confident, your critics say maybe a little cocky. I guess the question is, you know, your party lost in November but you went in there with such swagger. Should you have been more conciliatory? Is it – to borrow a football metaphor – is it kind of like you're the quarterback, you're doing the end zone dance when it's the other team that got the touchdown?

The President laughably asserted: "Well, actually, nobody was doing an end zone dance. What we were talking about was the success that America's had and in digging itself out of a really tough recession. And that's a celebration of the American people, that's not about politics."

She continued: "The economy is doing better, but you laid out a bunch of proposals that you know cannot get through this Congress that is run by Republicans now. Isn't that kind of counterproductive?...you're offering tax hikes, you know, for the wealthy, that's something that couldn't even get through the Congress when it was run by Democrats."

Obama proclaimed: "Savannah, my job is to present the right ideas. And if the Republicans think they have a better idea, they should present them. But my job is not to trim my sails and not tell the American people what we should be doing, pretending somehow that we don't need better roads or we don't need more affordable college."

There were lighter moments in the pre-game exchange, which was conducted in the White House kitchen so the President could show off the executive mansion's micro-brewed beer. At the end of the segment, Obama remarked: "Savannah, enjoy the beer. You should finish it before our full interview, it'll make it go smoother." Guthrie replied: "I don't think that's gonna happen..."

Based on how tough that full interview was, she kept her word.

Here is a full transcript of the interview aired on the February 2 Today show:

7:16 AM ET

AL ROKER: Nice job interviewing the President before – the pre-game show.

GUTHRIE: Oh, thank you. Well, we had a little fun and then we sat down and really got to business. We had an exclusive conversation at the White House and we covered a lot of things about whether the U.S. is really winning the war against ISIS, that ongoing measles outbreak in this country, and his goals for his final twenty-three months in office. But I began by asking him what is being done to help the female American hostage currently being held by ISIS, an aide worker captured in 2013.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: President Obama One-On-One; Talks ISIS, Vaccines & Presidential Legacy]

BARACK OBAMA: We are deploying all the assets that we can, working with all the coalition allies that we can to identify their locations. We are in very close contact with the family, trying to keep them updated. Obviously this is something that is heart breaking for the families and our obligation is to make sure we can do anything we can to try to make sure that any American citizen is rescued from this situation.

GUTHRIE: You said in your State of the Union that American leadership is helping to stop the advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But your critics say that is delusional, that in fact they've gained more territory since the air strikes have begun.

OBAMA: That's not accurate. In Iraq what we've seen is the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces continue to push back against ISIL. And those same critics that you suggest I imagine would have us redeploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops-

GUTHRIE: But isn't that kind of a straw man? You often say that-

OBAMA: Hold on, Savannah, let me – it's not a straw man. Let me finish what I'm saying. It is entirely possible for us to deploy 200 or 300,000 U.S. troops. If we don't have inside of Iraq or inside of Syria or inside of Afghanistan both the capacity and the will of people to fight for themselves, then any gains that are made eventually dissipate. So this takes longer, but it's the right way to do things.

GUTHRIE: But aren't there things you could be doing right now, short of a huge presence of ground troops inside Syria or Iraq, that would help this goal of what you say is to defeat ISIS happen more quickly? Couldn't we be doing more?

OBAMA: Anything that we're doing – anything that we could be doing, Savannah, we are doing.

GUTHRIE: The criticism that I hear a lot of you, even from your political allies, is you came into office, you were the president that was going to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that you are so focused on doing that and not getting the U.S. entangled in another war that you are sometimes slow to react, that you're passive.

OBAMA: Savannah, you've repeated that comment three different ways, but the truth of the matter is, is that we are doing exactly what we should be doing to make sure that while we're pushing back ISIL, we are not creating another situation in which we are deploy massive numbers of U.S. troops. And those who want us to shoot first and aim later typically get this country into really bad situations.

GUTHRIE: Haven't the forces of militant extremism, Jihadism, grown stronger on your watch? If you look at Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen – a place where Al Qaeda's – that branch is so active and vicious and now the government, our ally, just collapsed.

OBAMA: Yemen's a tough situation. This is a country that's always been fragile, the governments have never been strong. On the other hand, we've been continually able to maintain pressure on Al Qaeda in that region such that they have-

GUTHRIE: Can you do that without a government that's a partner?

OBAMA: You know, we feel confident that we can maintain that pressure. We have-

GUTHRIE: Are we safer under your watch?

OBAMA: I believe we are safer. But you know, obviously that doesn't mean that we aren't concerned about the breakdown in order in this region generally.

GUTHRIE: Have you ever personally watched one of those videos of hostages being beheaded?

OBAMA: You know, I – I think it's fair to say that anything related to these terrorist actions I take a look at.

GUTHRIE: I hear you saying that you have.

OBAMA: I have.

GUTHRIE: It must affect you deeply to see something like that.

OBAMA: I think it would affect anybody who has an ounce of humanity. And it's part of the reason why I think we've been so successful in organizing such a broad-based coalition.

GUTHRIE: I did want to ask you about the measles. Do you feel there should be a requirement that parents get their kids vaccinated?

OBAMA: Measles is preventable. I understand that there families that in some cases are concerned about the effect of vaccinations. The science is pretty indisputable. We looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated. There aren't reasons to not get vaccinated.

GUTHRIE: Are you telling parents, "You should get your kids vaccinated"?

OBAMA: You should get your kids vaccinated. It's good for them. But we should be able to get back to the point where measles effectively is not existing in this country.

GUTHRIE: 2016 – on a scale of one to ten, with one being happy and ten being over the moon, how happy are you not to be running for anything?

OBAMA: Not as happy as Michelle. But the – you know, look, I loved campaigning, but there is no doubt that with two years to go in this job, it is refreshing to just have this ability to focus every single day on what's going to make a difference in the lives of the average family out there. And you know, we've been able to, I think, do some really interesting, creative things, even without congressional cooperation. I do think that there's the possibility of cooperation around infrastructure and tax reform and tax simplification. And we'll have some battles along the way, but there's going to be a whole bunch of stuff that we can do that's really productive.

GUTHRIE [Holding up a picture of Obama from 2009]: When you did your first Super Bowl interview, you were twelve days into this job.

OBAMA: Look at that. I look so, so young.

GUTHRIE: What would you tell this person if you had a chance? What would you tell him?

OBAMA: What I would tell him is that you are going to be really gray. But that's okay, every one of these gray hairs I earned and I'm pretty proud of the work that we've gotten done since then.

GUTHRIE: Our sit-down with the President at the White House. By the way, we put the full unedited interview online, Today.com.

Foreign Policy Iraq Middle East Syria War on Terrorism Liberals & Democrats NBC Today Video Savannah Guthrie Barack Obama

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