President Obama said Sunday that he does not know when President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt will leave office but that the nation has been forever changed by the anti-government protesters who have held Tahrir Square in Cairo for nearly two weeks.
"Only he knows what he's going to do," Obama told Bill O'Reilly of Fox News in a 15-minute interview aired before the Super Bowl
on the Fox network. "But here's what we know, is that Egypt is not going to go back to what it was. the Egyptian people want freedom, they want free and fair elections, they want a representative government, they want a responsive government."
Obama said that the United States is urging all the groups in Egypt to get together to establish an orderly and meaningful transition.
A vocal critic of the Obama administration, O'Reilly began the interview, which was hyped only slightly less than the Super Bowl itself, by thanking the president for assisting two Fox News reporters who were severely beaten as they fled violence in Tahrir Square.
"Those guys showed enormous courage, as so many journalists do around the world," Obama said of Greg Palkot and Olaf Wiig. "And so not only was it important for us to make sure they were safe, for them and their families, but to uphold the basic principle of free speech and freedom of the press. That's a universal value we care about and I know Fox cares about."
But as grateful as O'Reilly was, he didn't soften up on his brusque interview style and tried, unsuccessfully, to engage Obama in some verbal jousting.
O'Reilly asked if Obama viewed the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the opposition groups in Egypt, as a threat.
"I think that the Muslim Brotherhood is one faction in Egypt," Obama said. "They don't have majority support in Egypt. But they are well organized and there are strains of their ideology that are anti-U.S., there is no doubt about it."
Obama emphasized that there are more moderate people and groups in Egypt who also want a role in any new government that emerges. "It's important for us not to say that our only two options are either the Muslim Brotherhood or a suppressed people."
O'Reilly chimed in: "Those are tough boys, the Muslim Brotherhood. I wouldn't want them anywhere near that government."
On the issue of health care, O'Reilly asked the president if he was concerned about a ruling by a federal judge in Florida that the health care overhaul is unconstitutional.
Obama replied: "Well, I think the judge in Florida was wrong. Keep in mind that we've had 12 judges that just threw this case out -- the notion that the health care law was unconstitutional." The president said the health care law was not an effort to bolster "big government," as some have contended. "In this country there is no reason why if you get sick you should go bankrupt," Obama said.
O'Reilly pressed the president on whether he has moved toward the center, especially since the midterm elections in which Republicans made big gains. Obama denied that he had changed ideologically at all. "Over the first two years of my presidency, we had a complete disaster," Obama said. "Right? We had a complete crisis. The financial markets were breaking down. We were slipping into a great depression. And we had to take a bunch of extraordinary steps in order to make sure that the economy was growing again -- which it is now growing -- making sure that the private sector was creating jobs again -- it's now doing that -- and now our focus is not on refighting the battles of the last two years."
The president said his focus is now on "how do we out-innovate, out-educate, out-build, out-compete the rest of the world."
The outspoken Fox television host wrote before the interview
that it was "fraught with danger. For me, not for the president" because of the deference that has to be shown to the chief executive as opposed to his interview with Obama in 2008 when Obama was a senator running for the White House.
"The president is an eloquent man; he can easily run out the clock if he wants to," O'Reilly said. "Also, the interview is live, so there's no editing. In other words, there's nowhere to hide if things don't go well."
And a lot of people were watching. While the interview came more than an hour before kick-off, last year's game attracted almost 100 million viewers.
In a nod to the timing of the interview, O'Reilly tried to get Obama to say which team would win. "Once my Bears lost," Obama said, "I don't pick sides."
"So you don't care," O'Reilly said.
"Well, no," Obama said. "I do care. I want a great game. I want a great game."
"You don't care who wins," O'Reilly interrupted.
Obama continued: "But these are pretty evenly matched teams. I think that Green Bay is probably a little faster. Steelers got a little more experience. I think the Steelers not having their starting center is something that they've got to be worried about."
O'Reilly asked repeatedly if Obama would actually watch the Super Bowl, and the president insisted he would, noting that he was having a party.
O'Reilly asked, "You know football? You know like blitzes and coverage and all that?"
"Oh, I know football, man," Obama said, adding that once the game starts "I don't want people coming up and chitting and chatting."
As part of the pre-interview publicity, O'Reilly told Laura Ingraham
on Fox about his 2008 interview
with Obama, i
n which he had to interrupt Obama often.
"Now it's easy to do that to a senator, but it's not that easy to do it to the president," O'Reilly said. "I'm hoping Mr. Obama will understand it's more of a conversation than an interview."
Apparently, O'Reilly had no problem with that. He interrupted the president more than 20 times in the 15-minute interview.
Bruce Drake contributed to this report.