Transcript of an Interview granted by Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) to reporter George Bistis on January 20, 2010
VOA: Congressman Sarbanes welcome to the Voice of America. It is always a pleasure to have you in our program.
MR. SARBANES: Thank you.
VOA: A year ago today, President Barack Obama was inaugurated to the White House and this historic event generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm all around the world. You, as a member of Congress, who started your second term at the same year with Mr. Obama's election and who also run on the same Democratic Party ticket with him, where do you attribute this enthusiasm for President Obama?
MR. SARBANES: Well, first George thank you for having me again. Let me also say what an important resource the Voice of America is and I want to thank you for all your years of service in that regard.
I remember that inauguration. It was a very cold day. We were sitting on a platform and there was tremendous excitement and enthusiasm. As you pointed out, it was the beginning of my second term. One of the reasons I was so excited is because when I came in during my first term and we changed the Congress over from Republican to Democratic, there were a lot of hopes for things that we could achieve, but the former President was still in place and many of the things we were pushing for he did not necessarily agree with. So, one of the reasons we were so excited as members of Congress who had the same agenda in mind as the President, was now we have an ally, we have somebody who was going to work with the Congress to try to implement a strong agenda, and not just domestically.
Right from the start, there was an expectation, which I think the President has fulfilled, that he would conduct American foreign policy in a more respectful way, in a way that promotes engagement and discussion and that would be a departure from the way things had been conducted before. I think that is one of the reasons that there was so much excitement in the international scene.
VOA: One of the students we interviewed this past week in connection with the first year of President Obama in office, pointed out that this hope (he generated) is beginning to diminish a little bit in view of the fact that many of the world's problems remain and we have nor really turned around all the difficulties domestically and in the foreign policy arena. What do you think are the prospects of working now in the second year of the Obama administration toward better relations with our European allies, perhaps addressing the challenge of climate change, which is very much in the European minds, and working toward the promotion of peace and human values?
MR. SARBANES: As you said, people had very high expectations when the President came in, impossibly high expectations, in some ways. There is always that period when things come down to earth a little bit, because all of the challenges that face us domestically in the United States and the international challenges. It is going to take a lot of hard work, sometimes tedious work, and consistent work and determination to meet these challenges. It is inevitable that there would be some short of downtick in these hopes and aspirations but I think that if people ask themselves the question, has there been a good beginning, are we beginning to set the foundation for discussion and engagement at the international level, that over time would improve many of the situations we face, I think the answer to that is absolutely yes.
I think you will continue to see the atmosphere improve in the second year for many of the reasons you just noted. The President has identified issues that are universal, universal concerns for people, opportunity, education, the environment, which are critical issues. Now the United States is moving, maybe not as quickly as I would like to see, to get these measures in place to address climate change, but moving much more dramatically than we had been. We have accelerated the pace there. The President is very committed to those things. When you identify issues like the environment, as something you are committed to, and recognize that others around the world have an equal level of commitment, it presents new opportunities and potential for collaboration.
VOA: You as an American of Greek descent and a leading member of the Congressional Hellenic Caucus, how do you see the first year of the Obama administration in relation to Greece? What has been the Greek-American experience?
ΜR. SARBANES: For starters, I think his idea of a more respectful level of engagement generally with our allies and other countries around the world, that idea applies in Greece's case as well. This is number one. So you have that kind of baseline new positive attitude in the way we deal one with the other.
Secondly, in the particular case of Greece, I think if you look at the administration, you will see that in key positions there are now very knowledgeable people when it comes to the issues that affect Greece, that Greece cares about and of course that they are important to the U.S. When you have knowledgeable people in place then they are going to conduct themselves in a way that is sensitive to those concerns. With that knowledge I think comes a level of sensitivity to Greece's perspective on some of these issues, which bold very well for continuing to build a strong relationship.
We are looking forward to the relationship developing between the new Prime Minister Mr. Papandreou and President Obama going forward, perhaps with a Washington visit in the coming year. So, I think that all of these issues that are of concerned to us, the Greek-American members of Congress, those are going to get the kind of sensitive attention and focus from knowledgeable people in this administration that we would like to see. And this would be in sharp contrast with some of the things, the initiatives and the attitudes that marked the past administration.
VOA: Now, in broader terms what should we expect to see in the second year of President Obama's administration?
MR. SARBANES: Well, it is no surprise that the economy for our nation and really the world continues to be the primary focus. To be very candid, the United States ability to be a constructive partner in the international community depends on being in a sound and strong position in terms of what is happening here at home. So, I think that the number one priority for the President is going to be getting the U.S. back on its feet in terms of the economy. That doesn't mean that the foreign policy issues won't continue to be very important. Thinking about how we can collaborate internationally and Greece, as you know, is facing a very difficult time as well right now with its economy, it is important for us to share ideas, to think about how we can cooperate and collaborate in terms of addressing some of these economic issues that are cutting across. That's going to be a number one focus.
Secondly, the ongoing attention we have to give to this battle against extremist elements internationally I think it is one that is on the top of the President's list. We had some recent incidents, as you know, in the United States, which have raised the anxiety level again and that would also be a focus. What is important, George, is that whatever the particular issue that it be approached and addressed in an atmosphere of engagement and cooperation, where we are listening to each other, where the U.S. is listening to its allies and others across the world, so that together we can find good solutions.
VOA: Congressman Sarbanes, we thank you for your great insight and analysis. I take the opportunity to wish all the very best to you for the New Year and of course to President Obama as well.
MR. SARBANES: Thank you very much George