On "60 Minutes," Obama defends Geithner, criticizes Cheney

In a wide-ranging interview, the president also signaled his opposition to a bonus tax and said a big bank failure could still lead to an economic implosion.

Published March 23, 2009 2:00PM (EDT)

When President Obama sat down with "60 Minutes'" Steve Kroft recently, the two men had plenty to discuss: The economy, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, AIG, Afghanistan -- and, of course, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The economy dominated the conversation, naturally, especially because the interview was part of the administration's efforts to sell his plans to the country. And given the story's domination of last week's news cycle, the bonuses paid out by AIG recently were the first thing on Kroft's mind. Over the course of several questions about the bonuses and the response, it became clear that even if the president isn't declaring outright opposition to the tax the House passed last week, neither is he exactly in favor of the idea.

"I think that you've got an -- pretty egregious situation here that people are understandably upset about. And so let's see if there are ways of doing this that are both legal, that are constitutional -- that uphold our basic principles of fairness, but don't hamper us from getting the banking system -- back on track," the president said. "[O]ne of the things that I have to do is to communicate to Wall Street that, given the current crisis that we're in, they can't expect help from taxpayers but then enjoy all the benefits that they enjoyed before the crisis happened... [But] Main Street has to understand, unless we get these banks moving again, then we can't get this economy to recover. And we don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face."

The importance of this was driven home by another exchange by the two men; Kroft asked the president whether there's still a threat to the economic system as a whole, whether he thinks the collapse of a big institution like AIG or Citigroup could cause the entire thing to "implode." Obama's answer was simple: "Yes."

Geithner, who's been having a rough time of late, was an important topic as well, with Kroft even asking whether there have been discussions within the administration about replacing him, or whether he'd suggested he should resign. Obama said neither was the case, joking, "If he were to come to me, I'd say, 'Sorry, buddy -- you've still got the job.'" The president also said he thinks his Treasury secretary is "doing a terrific job," adding, "I take responsibility for -- not, I think, having given him as much help as he needs."

Almost as soon as he turned the discussion to foreign policy and the war on terror, Cheney's name was on Kroft's lips, as he asked Obama what he thinks of the former vice president's recent criticism of the new administration. In his response, the president didn't hold back.

"I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly. You know, I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests," Obama said. "The facts don't bear him out. I think he is -- that attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world... How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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