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Powell: Obama failed to focus on what's 'most important'

By the CNN Wire Staff
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'Obama should've focused on economy'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Colin Powell says Obama should have focused more on the economy
  • NEW: He says he consults frequently with Obama and his administration
  • NEW: Powell calls Sarah Palin a "political celebrity," challenges her to offer specifics
  • Powell, 73, says he has "no interest" in further government service

(CNN) -- While saying he talks regularly with President Obama and his administration's officials, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that the nation's 44th president has overreached and lost focus in his first term -- and lost votes because of it.

Powell, a self-described moderate Republican who served as a top military, national security and diplomatic official under presidents ranging from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, said he did not regret backing the then-Illinois senator over Republican Sen. John McCain during the 2008 election campaign.

But he said that Democrats suffered "a real body blow" in the recent midterm elections -- when the party lost seats in the Senate and control of the House -- in large part because Obama didn't prioritize or communicate effectively enough.

"He should have focused on the economy ... to the exclusion of most everything else domestically," Powell told CNN's Larry King. "When you're starting out as a president, you have to figure out (what) is most important."

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Powell said he has been "in regular touch with authorities within the administration and the president," including talking "all the time" about its approach to Afghanistan. He credited Obama for stabilizing the economic system, and "doing a good job in ... a number of directions with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan."

He also offered mixed reviews of former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, calling her a "fascinating individual, ... a political celebrity (and) a political force." Powell said that her positions were "very populist, but they are not very specific as to what she would cut and what she would eliminate."

He challenged Palin and Tea Party-backed politicians to offer precise ideas of what programs to eliminate from the federal government in order to simultaneously lower the federal deficit, freeze spending and cut taxes.

"How do we solve that equation, governor?" said Powell.

Still, for all his political opinions, the retired Army general insisted he had "no interest" in government service -- whether it would be as secretary of defense or, as recently suggested by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, as Obama's White House chief of staff.

"I haven't been asked, and I don't expect to be asked," said Powell, jocularly suggesting that Rendell himself would make "a terrific chief of staff." "I have no interest in government service."

The former Joint Chiefs of Staff chair said he's talked recently with Pakistani Gen. Ashfaq Kayani about the situation in his southwest Asian nation, including the hunt for al Qaeda and fight against pro-Taliban forces. Powell said he thinks Obama's administration understands the importance of supporting Pakistan but that efforts so far have been "inadequate."

As to Pakistan's neighbor, Afghanistan, Powell stressed that it is important to realize that the ultimate goal -- for Afghans as well as Americans -- is to create conditions so that political, military and law enforcement authorities there could take over and U.S. forces can get out.

Powell also said that previous decisions -- including U.S. and allied forces' military approach to Afghanistan in the years right after September 11 -- should be looked back at critically.

"Maybe we should have considered some years ago that the light footprint we had in the early years (to 2003) was not adequate," said Powell, who was secretary of state during that time. "I think we might have been better served by a larger footprint earlier."

Afghanistan was one of many topics Powell touched on from his tenure, between 2001 and 2005, in the State Department under Bush.

In his memoir and again Sunday night on CNN, Bush said he stands by his decision to support the use of waterboarding -- a form of simulated drowning -- as an interrogation technique against terror suspects. When its use came up after 9/11, Powell said "all of us felt that waterboarding was, if not over the line, that at least very close to the line."

He said that he understood why Bush authorized waterboarding, but said he himself wouldn't support something he said "could be called now torture."

The then-secretary of state stood by his presentation to the United Nations -- information he insisted that was vetted and approved by the U.S. intelligence community -- in early 2003 suggesting weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq. But he did have disappointment about the talk, which was critical in swaying public opinion in support for the war, in retrospect.

"I regret it now, because the information was wrong," he said.

For all his comments on the past, the 73-year-old former general and statesman said he was optimistic about the future.

"American people still believe in this country," said Powell. "What they're waiting for is for the political leaders in Washington to get on with the solution to problems and not continue to argue with each other. The next year is going to be important."

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