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From Cheney to China: 7 things we learned about Obama

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In a PBS interview, Obama dismisses criticism that "now he's Dick Cheney"
  • National security is his No. 1 priority -- then he adds middle class woes are important, too
  • Obama and China's president "had a very blunt conversation about cybersecurity"
  • Obama disagrees with those who say the U.S. is scarred by Iraq and should avoid Syria

(CNN) -- As his popularity has dropped to 45%, the lowest in a year and a half, President Barack Obama talked with PBS' Charlie Rose.

The president covered a world of issues, including how some critics now liken him to a particular Republican adversary. Here are his thoughts on seven of the topics he discussed on Monday evening.

Obama as the new Dick Cheney?

When asked if there is enough transparency in how government seeks secret court orders to obtain phone records, Obama abruptly brought up former Vice President Dick Cheney, who served under President George W. Bush.

"Some people say well, Obama was this raving liberal before, now he's Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney sometimes says, 'Yes, you know, he took it all, lock stock and barrel,'" Obama said, referring to the Bush-Cheney security agenda.

Obama bristles at suggestion he has shifted on snooping

"My concern has always been not that we shouldn't do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances?" Obama added.

His administration has advanced checks on security initiatives, he said. "You know, what amuses me is now folks on the right who were fine when it was a Republican president but now Obama's coming in with a black helicopter," Obama added.

Obama asserted that the process of securing secret rulings from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court is transparent and is examined by the U.S. Justice Department and Congress.

On surveillance

In the wake of revelations that his administration secured a secret court order to obtain Verizon phone logs, the president assured Americans that the National Security Agency isn't listening to phone calls or targeting personal e-mails -- unless the government has a specific court order to do so.

Obama's job is to balance national security and personal freedom.

"To say there's a trade-off doesn't mean somehow that we've abandoned freedom. I don't think anybody says we're no longer free because we have checkpoints at airports," Obama said.

"My job is both to protect the American people and to protect the American way of life, which includes our privacy. And so every program that we engage in, what I've said is, let's examine and make sure that we're making the right tradeoffs," Obama added.

His top priorities

National security is Obama's No. 1 priority, he said, but he quickly added he hasn't forgotten you -- the working person now reeling in the recession's aftermath and struggling to find or keep a job.

That's why he became president in the first place, he said.

"The biggest challenge we face right now, in addition to the ongoing challenge of national security, is having recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression, having dug our way out, with the economy now growing, jobs being created, auto industry back, stock market back, housing recovering by about 10% in terms of prices," Obama said, "how do we now go back to the issue that led me to run for president in the first place -- which is the fact that the economy is not working for everybody, that we have the structural problems that could lead us to second-rate status if they continue."

Growing economic inequality and declining wages for middle-class families is occurring in the United States -- and "worldwide," Obama added -- because of globalization and technology.

"We've got to address that if we are going to continue to be the greatest nation on Earth," the president said. "And that is the thing that I'm going to be focused on for the remainder of my presidency, along with the basics like making sure nobody blows us up."

Iran's new president

Obama noted how the newly elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is a centrist, which gives Obama optimism that Iran may now want to seriously address its nuclear program, which many feel is being used to eventually build weapons. In response, Iran is now being internationally punished with "the most powerful" economic sanctions ever applied against it, Obama said.

"The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything, anytime, anywhere," Obama said. "Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.

U.S. takes 'wait and see' stance on Iran's new president

"Our bottom lines have been, show the international community that you're abiding by international treaties and obligations, that you're not developing a nuclear weapon."

Supporting Syrian opposition

Though his administration has declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in his country's two-year civil war, and as a result he has pledged military support for the opposition, Obama avoided specifying what kind of military support that will be.

What complicates the matter is how some of the Syrian opposition is affiliated with al Qaeda.

G8 leaders agree on need but not methods to stop Syrian bloodshed

"One of the challenges that we have is that some of the most effective fighters within the opposition have been those who, frankly, are not particularly friendly toward the United States of America. And arming them willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term," Obama said.

He also spoke of avoiding a sectarian Islamic quagmire between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria.

The United States has learned some hard lessons from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he said.

"We know what it's like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through. And there are elements within the Middle East who see this entirely through the prism of a Shia/Sunni conflict and want the United States to simply take the side of the Sunnis. And that I do not think serves American interests," Obama said.

"Now on the other side there are folks who say, 'You know we are so scarred from Iraq, we should have learned our lesson, we should not have anything to do with it.'

"Well I reject that view as well because the fact of the matter is that we've got serious interests there and not only humanitarian interests. We can't have a situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan, which in turn borders Israel. And we have a legitimate need to be engaged and to be involved."

Meeting with China on alleged hacking

Last week, Obama met with new Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The U.S. president broached the serious allegations of hacking against China.

"You know, when you're having a conversation like this I don't think you ever expect a Chinese leader to say, 'You know what? You're right. You caught us red-handed. We're just stealing all your stuff and every day we try to figure out how we can get into Apple,'" Obama said.

'New model' for U.S.-China relations

But, he added: "We had a very blunt conversation about cybersecurity" with the Chinese president.

Ben Bernanke on way out?

Asked if he is going to reappoint Ben Bernanke to a third term as Federal Reserve chairman, Obama sidestepped a direct answer, opening the door to speculation that Bernanke's tenure may be ending.

"He's already stayed a lot longer than he wanted, or he was supposed to," Obama said. "He has been an outstanding partner along with the White House in helping us recover much stronger than, for example, our European partners from what could have been an economic crisis of epic proportions."

Bernanke led the central bank's response to the global financial collapse that began in fall 2007, keeping interest rates at historic lows and shepherding a massive Fed intervention in the government bond market.

He became chairman in February 2006 as an appointee of President George W. Bush. Obama appointed Bernanke to a second term in 2010. Bernanke's term expires on January 31, 2014.

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