Former President Bill Clinton on the Stimulus, the Economy, Obesity and More

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," February 19, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Now former president Bill Clinton goes "On the Record." Only four men in the world understand the pressure that President Obama is under right now, and you are about to meet one of them. Would President Clinton be doing the same things that President Obama is doing right now to solve this economic crisis? Moments ago, President Clinton went "On the Record."


VAN SUSTEREN: President Clinton, nice to see you, sir.


VAN SUSTEREN: All right, in the '90s, things were going pretty well. We had a lot of affluence. The economy was good. So I have to ask you this question. Would you do exactly to our economy now, make the same decision, as President Obama?

CLINTON: In general, I would. I think he's got a good team and I think they're making good decisions. I think it's important that the American people understand that he has proposed and passed this stimulus plan not as the end-all and be-all to our economic woes but as our bridge over troubled water until we get the finance system, the banking system working again.

And I think the stimulus package is well conceived. A lot of it puts money in people's hands, with the unemployment benefits and the food stamps and the tax cuts. A lot of it keeps the states and local governments from laying off a million more people or having big tax increases with the aid to education and health.

And then I think the energy and the infrastructure investments will create the jobs the president wants. So I like the conception of that. And based on just what I read in the paper today, I think they've got a pretty good idea on the housing. I think they -- they intend to do something to help more homeowners stay in their homes, to take toxic assets off the books of the banks until the economy comes back, then they can put them back on, and they'll have value.

And to put some more liquidity out there, but only if the banks actually lend this money.

If those three things are done and we have a good resolution on automobiles that really promotes reform, I think we'll be on the way back. I like it.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. You said "in general," so, of course, that's what I'm seizing upon. Where would you differ? Where would you do things differently?

CLINTON: Well, I don't know, because I don't know what he had to do to get it through the Congress. That's what I mean. I think generally--

VAN SUSTEREN: Apparently nothing. I mean, he -- he got all the Democrats, and he has a Democratic Congress and a Democratic Senate.

CLINTON: Well, and he had three -- the three Republicans in the Senate. They made some changes in the Senate. And then they had -- they went to conference. It appears to me that the conference bill actually made some improvements.

But I'll just give you one little example. I hated to see them cut the tax credit back for buying an electric car from $7,500 to $4,500 a year, simply because I think it's more likely than not that the first year or so that car will cost $7,500 more than a car without an electric motor.

But I think it's really important for us to move very, very rapidly to electric cars. But that's something that came out of the Conference Committee. There was nothing he could do about it.

I think, on balance -- I think they've done a very, very good job. And the American people should feel good about it.

VAN SUSTEREN: When you were president, you came into office with a deficit. You left with a surplus. The current situation is that we have a giant deficit that's only getting worse with the stimulus package.

So it's what scares a lot of Americans. We're, you know, mortgaging future generations' future, as well. What about that?

CLINTON: There's a risk there, but let's look at what it is. First, after paying down $600 billion on the national debt at the end of my terms, we doubled the national debt in the previous eight years and got, I think, two million jobs for it, and almost all of them government jobs. So we've got this debt overhang.

And it is true that the president's stimulus package increases that debt by about $800 billion more, plus the interest that will be required to pay it off. What is the risk of that?

The risk is that as we come out of this recession, we'll have so much debt to finance, we'll either have to have inflation or very high interest rates to continue to borrow the money, or both. That's a risk.

Watch Part 1 of Greta's interview with former President Clinton

Watch Part 2 of Greta's interview with former President Clinton

But it's a risk that the president and his economic team and the Congress had no choice but to take, because the problem we have now, very different from when I was in office, is a wholesale drop in the value, first, of housing and then of other assets. We have got to put a floor under the drop in asset prices, beginning with the housing.

And we can't do that overnight. So I will say, again, the stimulus is our bridge over troubled waters. And if it's invested well, it'll generate a lot of economic growth, and we'll get quite a bit of the revenues back.

VAN SUSTEREN: Here's what bothers -- here's what bothers me, and a lot of people who email me, as well, is that more than anything else we want the economy lifted, we want it thriving. I mean, every good American does.

But when Congress passes a bill, passes it so quickly that members on both sides of the aisle say "Never read it," when you look at the numbers inside the bill and they're actually sort of precise, and you think that they had some sort of scientific study and they thought this is the right number, and they basically pulled it out of a hat.

It's a whole big push to get it passed on a Friday night. They even flew poor Senator Brown back from Ohio -- his mother had died -- so that he could vote and then leave. And then the president doesn't sign it in Ohio -- or doesn't sign it that night, Friday night, doesn't sign it Saturday, doesn't sign it Sunday, not Monday, and then takes till Tuesday, when there's this big rush. He flies an expensive 747 out there just for a backdrop, not for any other presidential reason. That cost millions of dollars.

And so we're sitting here thinking, "Why do we think this one's going to work?" I mean, it makes everyone -- can you see how it would make people uncomfortable?

CLINTON: Sure. I do. And I think that there must be things in that bill that the Congress or the president may not support in exactly that way if they had two more months to deal with it.

But let me back up and say, if you look at what's happened to the stock market, if you look at what's happened to housing values, if you look at what's happened to bank loan portfolios because the value of their other assets that they've already issued loans against were going down, I think there was a pretty good argument for trying to pass something at about this level of investment with the divisions as they were--unemployment, food stamps, and tax cuts, aid to education and healthcare, and job creation.

There was an argument for doing that as quickly as possible.

I think what should be done now--and you can contribute to this--is people ought to be going over this, finding things they don't like. Congress has clearly proved they can act in a hurry. If there's something wrong with it, it can be amended. If something needs to be kicked in, it can be put in. If something needs to be taken out, it can be taken out.

If something needs to be cured administratively, that can be done. For example, the secretary of energy will have quite a lot of discretionary authority about how some of this energy efficiency money will be spent. So, yes, I get it. I get why people are worried. But we were in a circumstance where I think the president believed, the economic team believed they had to move as quickly as they could.

And based on the evidence, and I just follow it every day in the press and look at the numbers from the Federal Reserve, I would say they were right. We needed to do something in a hurry.

VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, I don't dispute it, but it makes me very nervous when people pass things they haven't read. I mean, that seems just so 101 to me, that you read it.

And when I think of speed, I know that you can throw a switch at the IRS and get rid of unemployment tax for people who make, let's say, less than $200,000. That's an immediate stimulus in the next pay period.

And then when I look at these and see these incredible numbers, and I think to myself, "Has anybody even read this?" And the answer is, "No, we're all hoping for the best," which, you know, it's very unnerving as a citizen.

CLINTON: But I would think the leaders of the committees and their staffs and the people in the White House have read it. And the people at OMB, I think they do know what's in it. And I think that, as I said, in general terms -- the only reason I said "in general" is not to qualify it. It's that I haven't seen all the details.

The only thing I know which should not have been changed is the tax credit for electric cars, because that'll generate a huge number of jobs in America and keeps us moving in the right direction with energy independence.

But when you do anything this big this quick, there are going to be mistakes. But is it on balance a very good bill? I think it is.


VAN SUSTEREN: Up next, more with President Clinton. He talks about a big, figuratively and literally, problem we have that has nothing to do with money or the economy. And the topic of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's singing abilities comes up.


VAN SUSTEREN: We continue with former President Bill Clinton.

Many Americans are unhappy that the stimulus bill was passed before the lawmakers actually read it. And then President Obama flew to Denver and then to Arizona to make expensive, symbolic appearances that could have been made in Rose Garden right outside the Oval Office in Washington.

What does President Clinton think about that?


VAN SUSTEREN: I guess, sir, the red flag to me, though, is -- and not to beat a dead horse -- but is the not reading it. And then after we gave so much hell to the automakers for showing up on private jets without a plan last fall, and now the president, at a time -- and this is a different time. He's holding a fiscal responsibility summit in two weeks, and he goes out there at this extraordinary expense, not for other presidential business, but to sign something he could have signed in the Rose Garden, and then goes on to Arizona to make another announcement.

It just seems to me, it's like, is that sending the right message? And that sort of casts a question to me about the...

CLINTON: Well, let me -- let me ask you something else, though.


CLINTON: This is a dilemma that he faces, I think, that I faced. Except when you give an address to the nation before the Congress, the State of the Nation address--I think he's going to give one in a couple of weeks. I hope he does, anyway. I did my first year when we had an economic crisis.

Except when you do that, the president may get on television every night when something's going on, but usually his voice will carry no more than 20 seconds or so.

I'll just give you an example. I thought the best night he's had on TV for himself was that incredibly moving encounter he had with the lady who had lost her job and was sleeping with her child in the backseat of her car, and the next day the lady had a house to live in. It was beautiful, moving.

But no one watching that could learn what was in the stimulus package and how it fit with the bank reforms and what they were going to do on housing and banking.

And so he'll be able to do that if he addresses the country as a whole.

But I think when you go out into the country, you're more likely to get more of your message out, at least in the regions where you are. So I can't criticize him for getting out of Washington once a week and getting out and around. I think that's an important part of the job.

VAN SUSTEREN: Except for one thing--times have changed. We're in a huge economic situation. That's the first thing. The second thing is the states that he's hit are Indiana, Ohio, Florida, Colorado, recently--

CLINTON: All in trouble states.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, recently become Democratic states, and it looks like a reward. It just -- you know, if you--

CLINTON: Well, he's going to Arizona next week, though, isn't he, a state he lost?

VAN SUSTEREN: Right, which is on the edge, the first one. Actually, that's where he announced the mortgage. So I'm just saying is that these are just different times. And in terms of, you know, a lot of -- symbolically, if you're telling everybody, "We've got an economic situation," this might be a good time to set a different tone, perhaps.

CLINTON: Well, it's something I think they ought to consider. But I will just tell you, one of the things that you learn in the White House is, if you're trying to communicate a message with more than one point, and it's complicated, the urge to leave Washington and get out into the country to do it gets pretty strong, because you can't go to Congress more than once a year.

I think once I did twice. Once I think I did a state of the nation and a healthcare message.

But barring some huge conflict or something, it's difficult to go more than once a year, and you want to -- if you want to get it out there.

And those of us who support what he's doing, I suppose, can do a better job of being surrogates.

But I think that's a lot of it. I don't think he -- and maybe they will travel less because of the fuel issue and the cost issue. But I think now he thought this was a really big deal, this stimulus thing, and worth a trip out in the country. And I think he's right about it.

VAN SUSTEREN: You mentioned healthcare. Let's talk about obesity in this country. It's another -- you've got a new initiative.

CLINTON: Huge problem.

VAN SUSTEREN: Huge problem, figuratively and literally.

CLINTON: Yes, it's the biggest public health problem in America today, the rising rates of obesity among our young people and very heavy statistics among our adult population.

But I particularly worry about the young, because it runs the risk of making them the first generation of Americans to have shorter lives than their parents.

So today we announced a program with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Aetna, the Blue Cross Blue Shield companies, and PepsiCo was our first anchor employer to provide healthcare coverage to prevent and treat obesity, including up to four trips to a pediatrician and four to a dietician a year.

And it's a great thing. And we've got PepsiCo involved. We've got now Paychex, Owens Corning glass, the Houston Independent School District.

We need more employers to take advantage of these insurance options. It'll cut their costs over the long run by keeping people healthier.

VAN SUSTEREN: Were you a chubby kid?

CLINTON: Oh, yes. But, it's funny, when I was born after World War II, parents were actually taught -- my mother was a nurse -- they were taught that children should be as heavy as possible in their first two years, that a fat baby was a healthy baby.

So I'm probably dealing with the aftermath of stuff that happened to me in my first four years of life. But, yes, I was.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you fight it now? I mean, you look -- you look fit. I know that you've had heart issues.

CLINTON: I work at it.

VAN SUSTEREN: But you look -- you work at it?

CLINTON: Yes, I work at it all the time. I think -- of course, once you get over 60, the number-one thing you can do to lengthen your life expectancy even more than exercise, according to the latest research, is to cut your caloric intake.

So I work out. I try to watch what I eat. I try to exercise more. I think it's important.

But I know that I ate all that southern fried food and all that stuff when I was a kid, and I was overweight more years than I wasn't until I was an adult.

VAN SUSTEREN: Your wife, the secretary of state, is in Indonesia. And I read that she was on television there, and she was asked her favorite music. She said the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But then--

CLINTON: She's a child of the '60s.

VAN SUSTEREN: But she declined to sing. Does that surprise you?


VAN SUSTEREN: Why? She can't sing?

CLINTON: Yes, she always joked about how she had trouble carrying a tune. But she likes music. And she -- you know, I got it on all the time at home. And we've got a good sound system, and then I buy these little inexpensive CD players that have really good speakers now.

So I've got -- I have more than 200 saxophone CDs alone. So she has to like music, or she couldn't come in the house, because it's always playing somewhere.

VAN SUSTEREN: It must be fun to watch her on this trip.

CLINTON: Yes. She's doing well, I think. I'm really glad she went to Indonesia. It's the biggest Muslim country in the world, full of promise. I invested a lot of time and effort there.

And now I think they've got a good president. They did a terrific job on that tsunami reconstruction. And I think they can play a major role in our efforts to combat climate change and to build a peaceful future in Asia.

And I was -- I think she did very well there, well in Japan. And I talked to her this morning when she'd just gotten to Korea. So it's going to be -- that'll be an interesting part of her trip, too.


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