Exclusive Obama Interview

A day after winning the Iowa caucuses, already campaigning hard in New Hampshire, Sen. Barack Obama sat down with NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe for an interview in a teacher's office at Concord High School. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What does your win in Iowa say about America today?
Barack Obama:
It means that America is hungry for change. The way young people, old people, independents, crossover Republicans poured out was a testimony to the American people's desire to move beyond the broken politics of Washington. You know, when the American people get it in their minds that they have the power to change things, it's very hard to stop them.

People are saying there's something historic here as well: an African-American presidential candidate winning in a predominantly white, an overwhelmingly white, state.
Against some very strong candidates. I think there's no doubt that it's a measure of our progress as a country. I've said from the beginning I had confidence in the American people. Race is no doubt still a factor in our culture. But people want to know who is going to provide health care that works, schools that work, a foreign policy that works. If they think you can do the work, I think they are willing to give you a chance.

Does it change the psychology of voters elsewhere, black and white?
Yes. I think there's no doubt it's pretty difficult for people to make an electability argument against me when I was attracting more independent and Republican support than any other [Democratic] candidate. And this is what we've been saying throughout the campaign. Everybody had been pooh-poohing it, but you saw it in action yesterday.

Your wife has said this comment about [how] you're not going to do this again. Another four years, another eight years and you'll be disconnected from real people. What does that say about Washington?
I think it's not just Washington. I think Washington is an especially virulent aspect of what happens when people in power are only talking to other monied power interests. They forget that there are an awful lot of people out there who are working just as hard, in many cases more honorably, but are still struggling.

What is the hardest thing you've done, and what does it say about your capacity to lead?
Look, let me address what you're interested in. What happens if there's a 9/11, and how would you respond to that? All I can say is this: during the course of my life, a life in which I wasn't born into privilege, I made some bad decisions early in my life, but as an adult I made a series of choices that I'm very proud of. I got to work on behalf of people who needed help, to advocate for the dispossessed, and [took] a lot of risks when a comfortable path was before me. So I think my judgments over the last 25 years indicate somebody who handles just about anything that is thrown at him.

If people have doubts about that, just look at how we've handled this campaign, where others who supposedly are far more seasoned and ready to lead maybe haven't always handled the pressures or the ups and downs of the campaign as well. I've said from the outset that starting from scratch, starting from zero, we've built the best political organization in the field. And I think that yesterday confirms it. I have managed this operation without any drama. My staff is famous for being courteous and treating people with respect.

At some point people have to stop asserting that because I haven't been in the league long enough, I can't play. It's sort of like Magic Johnson or LeBron James keep on scoring 30, and their team gets wins but people say they can't lead their team because they're too young.

By running for president in a post-9/11 world, you are saying to parents in New York, Washington and the rest of the country that they can rely on you to keep their children safe from harm.
Yes, I am saying that.

Why should people believe that?
Because I have a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old in Chicago who I intend to keep safe from harm. The notion that I would put them in harm's way makes no sense. Look, the question presupposes that there's somebody out there who has gone through 9/11. Who is that person other than George W. Bush? And I think we know how that worked out.

There was a meeting in late October [a strategy session at a Chicago supporter's apartment] where [a top adviser] was encouraging you to kneecap Hillary Clinton and you said, "I don't want to win that way."
There's certain things I won't do.

How do you draw the line? Where do you draw the line?
I think it was Justice [Potter] Stewart during an obscenity case, when they asked him what obscenity is, he said, "I know it when I see it." I know where I think you cross the line into the dark side of politics. I have no problem contrasting my policy positions with others. I don't mind others drawing contrasts with my policy positions. The latest gambit by the Clinton folks on health care is something that I think is misleading, but I don't think is out of bounds. They believe in a mandate, having the government force everybody to buy health insurance, and I focus more on cost. I think that's not a practical or the best approach. For them to say that means I would leave 15 million uninsured [is misleading]. I think the average person out on the street would assume that means I would just leave them uncovered. [In fact,] this is [what economists project to be] the 3 percent of the population whom the Clintons assert do not want health care and would not buy it even if it was offered at an affordable cost. I might have arguments with them about the content of their negative ad, but I don't think it's out of bounds. On the other hand, if I see the flurry of e-mails that are going out--we haven't traced these to anybody, but they're in the ether--talking about me being a …

A jihadi, exactly. That's the kind of stuff if I found out anybody on my staff was involved, I would fire them.

When you do it in your stump speech, you say they wanted me to kneecap her, do a Tonya Harding. That's your finance people?
I think that's a mischaracterization. I think it's accurate that there were some people who thought that we really needed to go hard negative. But I think that was more coming from, frankly, you--the pundits.