In an Oval Office interview, the president discusses the Tea Party, the war, the economy and what’s at stake this November
by: Jann S. Wenner, 9/28/2010
We arrived at the southwest gate of the white house a little after one o’clock on the afternoon of September 17th. It was a warm fall day, but the capital felt quiet and half-empty, as it does on Fridays at the end of summer, with Congress still in recess. Rolling Stone had interviewed Barack Obama twice before, both times aboard his campaign plane — first in June 2008, a few days after he won the Democratic nomination, and again that October, a month before his election. This time executive editor Eric Bates and I sat down with the president in the Oval Office, flanked by busts of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. The conversation stretched on for nearly an hour and a quarter. The president began by complimenting my multi-colored striped socks. “If I wasn’t president,” he laughed, “I could wear socks like that.”
This article appeared in the October 14, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.
When you came into office, you felt you would be able to work with the other side. When did you realize that the Republicans had abandoned any real effort to work with you and create bipartisan policy?
Well, I’ll tell you that given the state of the economy during my transition, between my election and being sworn in, our working assumption was that everybody was going to want to pull together, because there was a sizable chance that we could have a financial meltdown and the entire country could plunge into a depression. So we had to work very rapidly to try to create a combination of measures that would stop the free-fall and cauterize the job loss.
The recovery package we shaped was put together on the theory that we shouldn’t exclude any ideas on the basis of ideological predispositions, and so a third of the Recovery Act were tax cuts. Now, they happened to be the most progressive tax cuts in history, very much geared toward middle-class families. There was not only a fairness rationale to that, but also an economic rationale — those were the folks who were most likely to spend the money and, hence, prop up demand at a time when the economy was really freezing up.
I still remember going over to the Republican caucus to meet with them and present our ideas, and to solicit ideas from them before we presented the final package. And on the way over, the caucus essentially released a statement that said, “We’re going to all vote ‘No’ as a caucus.” And this was before we’d even had the conversation. At that point, we realized that we weren’t going to get the kind of cooperation we’d anticipated. The strategy the Republicans were going to pursue was one of sitting on the sidelines, trying to gum up the works, based on the assumption that given the scope and size of the recovery, the economy probably wouldn’t be very good, even in 2010, and that they were better off being able to assign the blame to us than work with us to try to solve the problem.
The Case for Obama
How do you feel about the fact that day after day, there’s this really destructive attack on whatever you propose? Does that bother you? Has it shocked you?
I don’t think it’s a shock. I had served in the United States Senate; I had seen how the filibuster had become a routine tool to slow things down, as opposed to what it used to be, which was a selective tool — although often a very destructive one, because it was typically targeted at civil rights and the aspirations of African-Americans who were trying to be freed up from Jim Crow. But I’d been in the Senate long enough to know that the machinery there was breaking down.
What I was surprised somewhat by, and disappointed by, although I’ve got to give some grudging admiration for just how effective it’s been, was the degree to which [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell was able to keep his caucus together on a lot of issues. Eventually, we were able to wear them down, so that we were able to finally get really important laws passed, some of which haven’t gotten a lot of attention — the credit-card reform bill, or the anti-tobacco legislation, or preventing housing and mortgage fraud. We’d be able to pick off two or three Republicans who wanted to do the right thing.
But the delays, the cloture votes, the unprecedented obstruction that has taken place in the Senate took its toll. Even if you eventually got something done, it would take so long and it would be so contentious, that it sent a message to the public that “Gosh, Obama said he was going to come in and change Washington, and it’s exactly the same, it’s more contentious than ever.” Everything just seems to drag on — even what should be routine activities, like appointments, aren’t happening. So it created an atmosphere in which a public that is already very skeptical of government, but was maybe feeling hopeful right after my election, felt deflated and sort of felt, “We’re just seeing more of the same.”
Photos: Barack Obama’s Rock & Roll White House
What do you think the Republican Party stands for today?
Well, on the economic front, their only agenda seems to be tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If you ask their leadership what their agenda will be going into next year to bring about growth and improve the job numbers out there, what they will say is, “We just want these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which will cost us $700 billion and which we’re not going to pay for.”
Now what they’ll also say is, “We’re going to control spending.” But of course, when you say you’re going to borrow $700 billion to give an average $100,000-a-year tax break to people making a million dollars a year, or more, and you’re not going to pay for it; when Mitch McConnell’s overall tax package that he just announced recently was priced at about $4 trillion; when you, as a caucus, reject a bipartisan idea for a fiscal commission that originated from Judd Gregg, Republican budget chair, and Kent Conrad, Democratic budget chair, so that I had to end up putting the thing together administratively because we couldn’t get any support — you don’t get a sense that they’re actually serious on the deficit side.
What do you think of the Tea Party and the people behind it?
I think the Tea Party is an amalgam, a mixed bag of a lot of different strains in American politics that have been there for a long time. There are some strong and sincere libertarians who are in the Tea Party who generally don’t believe in government intervention in the market or socially. There are some social conservatives in the Tea Party who are rejecting me the same way they rejected Bill Clinton, the same way they would reject any Democratic president as being too liberal or too progressive. There are strains in the Tea Party that are troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington, but their anger is misdirected.
And then there are probably some aspects of the Tea Party that are a little darker, that have to do with anti-immigrant sentiment or are troubled by what I represent as the president. So I think it’s hard to characterize the Tea Party as a whole, and I think it’s still defining itself.
Do you think that it’s being manipulated?
There’s no doubt that the infrastructure and the financing of the Tea Party come from some very traditional, very powerful, special-interest lobbies. I don’t think this is a secret. Dick Armey and FreedomWorks, which was one of the first organizational mechanisms to bring Tea Party folks together, are financed by very conservative industries and forces that are opposed to enforcement of environmental laws, that are opposed to an energy policy that would be different than the fossil-fuel-based approach we’ve been taking, that don’t believe in regulations that protect workers from safety violations in the workplace, that want to make sure that we are not regulating the financial industries in ways that we have.
There’s no doubt that there is genuine anger, frustration and anxiety in the public at large about the worst financial crisis we’ve experienced since the Great Depression. Part of what we have to keep in mind here is this recession is worse than the Ronald Reagan recession of the Eighties, the 1990-91 recession, and the 2001 recession combined. The depths of it have been profound. This body politic took a big hit in the gut, and that always roils up our politics, and can make people angry. But because of the ability of a lot of very well-funded groups to point that anger — I think misdirect that anger — it is translating into a relevant political force in this election.
What do you think of Fox News? Do you think it’s a good institution for America and for democracy?
[Laughs] Look, as president, I swore to uphold the Constitution, and part of that Constitution is a free press. We’ve got a tradition in this country of a press that oftentimes is opinionated. The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition — it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It’s a point of view that I disagree with. It’s a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world. But as an economic enterprise, it’s been wildly successful. And I suspect that if you ask Mr. Murdoch what his number-one concern is, it’s that Fox is very successful.
You’ve passed more progressive legislation than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Yet your base does not seem nearly as fired up as the opposition, and you don’t seem to be getting the credit for those legislative victories. There was talk that you were going to mobilize your grass-roots volunteers and use them to pressure Congress, but you decided for whatever reason not to involve the public directly and not to force a filibuster on issues like health care. What do you say to those people who have developed a sense of frustration — your base — who feel that you need to fight harder?
That’s a bunch of different questions, so let me see if I can kind of knock them out one by one.
One of the healthy things about the Democratic Party is that it is diverse and opinionated. We have big arguments within the party because we got a big tent, and that tent grew during my election and in the midterm election previously. So making everybody happy within the Democratic Party is always going to be tough.
Some of it, also, has to do with — and I joke about it — that there’s a turn of mind among Democrats and progressives where a lot of times we see the glass as half-empty. It’s like, “Well, gosh, we’ve got this historic health care legislation that we’ve been trying to get for 100 years, but it didn’t have every bell and whistle that we wanted right now, so let’s focus on what we didn’t get instead of what we got.” That self-critical element of the progressive mind is probably a healthy thing, but it can also be debilitating.
When I talk to Democrats around the country, I tell them, “Guys, wake up here. We have accomplished an incredible amount in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.” I came in and had to prevent a Great Depression, restore the financial system so that it functions, and manage two wars. In the midst of all that, I ended one of those wars, at least in terms of combat operations. We passed historic health care legislation, historic financial regulatory reform and a huge number of legislative victories that people don’t even notice. We wrestled away billions of dollars of profit that were going to the banks and middlemen through the student-loan program, and now we have tens of billions of dollars that are going directly to students to help them pay for college. We expanded national service more than we ever have before.
The Recovery Act alone represented the largest investment in research and development in our history, the largest investment in infrastructure since Dwight Eisenhower, the largest investment in education — and that was combined, by the way, with the kind of education reform that we hadn’t seen in this country in 30 years — and the largest investment in clean energy in our history.
You look at all this, and you say, “Folks, that’s what you elected me to do.” I keep in my pocket a checklist of the promises I made during the campaign, and here I am, halfway through my first term, and we’ve probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we said we were going to do — and by the way, I’ve got two years left to finish the rest of the list, at minimum. So I think that it is very important for Democrats to take pride in what we’ve accomplished.
All that has taken place against a backdrop in which, because of the financial crisis, we’ve seen an increase in poverty, and an increase in unemployment, and people’s wages and incomes have stagnated. So it’s not surprising that a lot of folks out there don’t feel like these victories have had an impact. What is also true is our two biggest pieces of legislation, health care and financial regulatory reform, won’t take effect right away, so ordinary folks won’t see the impact of a lot of these things for another couple of years. It is very important for progressives to understand that just on the domestic side, we’ve accomplished a huge amount.
When you look at what we’ve been able to do internationally — resetting our relations with Russia and potentially having a new START treaty by the end of the year, reinvigorating the Middle East peace talks, ending the combat mission in Iraq, promoting a G-20 structure that has drained away a lot of the sense of north versus south, east versus west, so that now the whole world looks to America for leadership, and changing world opinion in terms of how we operate on issues like human rights and torture around the world — all those things have had an impact as well.
What is true, and this is part of what can frustrate folks, is that over the past 20 months, we made a series of decisions that were focused on governance, and sometimes there was a conflict between governance and politics. So there were some areas where we could have picked a fight with Republicans that might have gotten our base feeling good, but would have resulted in us not getting legislation done.
I could have had a knock-down, drag-out fight on the public option that might have energized you and The Huffington Post, and we would not have health care legislation now. I could have taken certain positions on aspects of the financial regulatory bill, where we got 90 percent of what we set out to get, and I could have held out for that last 10 percent, and we wouldn’t have a bill. You’ve got to make a set of decisions in terms of “What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to just keep everybody ginned up for the next election, or at some point do you try to win elections because you’re actually trying to govern?” I made a decision early on in my presidency that if I had an opportunity to do things that would make a difference for years to come, I’m going to go ahead and take it.
I just made the announcement about Elizabeth Warren setting up our Consumer Finance Protection Bureau out in the Rose Garden, right before you came in. Here’s an agency that has the potential to save consumers billions of dollars over the next 20 to 30 years — simple stuff like making sure that folks don’t jack up your credit cards without you knowing about it, making sure that mortgage companies don’t steer you to higher-rate mortgages because they’re getting a kickback, making sure that payday loans aren’t preying on poor people in ways that these folks don’t understand. And you know what? That’s what we say we stand for as progressives. If we can’t take pleasure and satisfaction in concretely helping middle-class families and working-class families save money, get a college education, get health care — if that’s not what we’re about, then we shouldn’t be in the business of politics. Then we’re no better than the other side, because all we’re thinking about is whether or not we’re in power.
Let me ask you about financial reform. Despite all the things like consumer protection that you did get accomplished, the regulation of Wall Street — especially the closing down of all the derivatives trading that was really at the heart of the financial meltdown — seems to have been eviscerated.
I’ve got to disagree with that. If you take a look at it, what we’ve essentially said is that the vast majority of derivatives are now going to be sold through a clearinghouse. And if you ask the experts what was the best way to make sure the derivative markets didn’t bring down the economy again, it’s transparency, so that everybody understands who the counterparties are, everybody understands what the deal is, what the risks are — it’s all aboveboard, it’s all in the light of day.
People have legitimate concerns that if the rules drafted by all these various agencies in charge of implementing financial reform wind up with exceptions that are so big you can drive a truck through them, and suddenly you can have these specially tailored derivatives that are sold outside of the clearinghouse, then you could end up with an inadequate regulatory structure.
But if the rules are written properly — and I have confidence that the people I appointed to these agencies intend to apply them properly — it’s going to make a difference. Is it going to solve every potential problem in Wall Street in a multi-trillion-dollar, worldwide, capital market? Probably not. There could end up being new schemes, new loopholes that folks are going to try to exploit. The special interests are already ginning up to try to influence the rulemaking process in all these issues, so we have to remain vigilant. But to say that we did not significantly improve oversight of the derivatives market, it just isn’t true.
There’s also a concern when it comes to financial reform that your economic team is closely identified with Wall Street and the deregulation that caused the collapse. These are the folks who were supposed to have had oversight of Wall Street, and many of them worked for or were close to banks like Goldman Sachs.
Let me first of all say this. . . .
You used to work for Goldman Sachs!
[Laughs] Exactly. I read some of the articles that Tim Dickinson and others have produced in Rolling Stone. I understand the point of view that they’re bringing. But look: Tim Geithner never worked for Goldman; Larry Summers didn’t work for Goldman. There is no doubt that I brought in a bunch of folks who understand the financial markets, the same way, by the way, that FDR brought in a lot of folks who understood the financial markets after the crash, including Joe Kennedy, because my number-one job at that point was making sure that we did not have a full-fledged financial meltdown.
The reason that was so important was not because I was concerned about making sure that the folks who had been making hundreds of millions of dollars were keeping their bonuses for the next year. The reason was because we were seeing 750,000 jobs a month being lost when I was sworn in. The consequence to Main Street, to ordinary folks, was catastrophic, and we had to make sure that we stopped the bleeding. We managed to stabilize the financial markets at a cost that is much less to taxpayers than anybody had anticipated. The truth of the matter is that TARP will end up costing probably less than $100 billion, when all is said and done. Which I promise you, two years ago, you could have asked any economist and any financial expert out there, and they would have said, “We’ll take that deal.”
One of the things that you realize when you’re in my seat is that, typically, the issues that come to my desk — there are no simple answers to them. Usually what I’m doing is operating on the basis of a bunch of probabilities: I’m looking at the best options available based on the fact that there are no easy choices. If there were easy choices, somebody else would have solved it, and it wouldn’t have come to my desk.
That’s true for financial regulatory reform, that’s true on Afghanistan, that’s true on how we deal with the terrorist threat. On all these issues, you’ve got a huge number of complex factors involved. When you’re sitting outside and watching, you think, “Well, that sounds simple,” and you can afford to operate on the basis of your ideological predispositions. What I’m trying to do — and certainly what we’ve tried to do in our economic team — is to keep a North Star out there: What are the core principles we’re abiding by? In the economic sphere, my core principle is that America works best when you’ve got a growing middle class, and you’ve got ladders so that people who aren’t yet in the middle class can aspire to the middle class, and if that broad base is rolling, then the country does well.
How do you personally feel about hedge-fund managers who are making $200 million a year and paying a 15 percent tax rate? Or the guy who made $700 million one year and compared you to Hitler for trying to raise his taxes above 15 percent — does that gall you?
I’ve gotta say that I have been surprised by some of the rhetoric in the business press, in which we are accused of being anti-business. I know a lot of these guys who started hedge funds. They are making large profits, taking home large incomes, but because of a rule called “carried interest,” they are paying lower tax rates than their secretaries, or the janitor that cleans up the building. Or folks who are out there as police officers and teachers and small-business people. So all we’ve said is that it makes sense for them to pay taxes on it like on ordinary income.
I understand why folks might disagree with that. I’ve yet to meet a broad base of people who are anxious to pay higher taxes. But the point you’re making, which is exactly right, is that what should be a pretty straightforward policy argument ends up generating the kind of rhetoric we’ve been seeing: where I’m anti-business, I’m socialist, our administration is trying to destroy capitalism. That, I think, is over-the-top.
The average American out there who is my primary concern and is making 60 grand a year and paying taxes on all that income and trying to send their kids through school, and partly as a consequence of bad decisions on Wall Street, feels that their job is insecure and has seen their 401(k) decline by 30 percent, and has seen the value of their home decline — I don’t think they’re that sympathetic to these guys, and neither am I.
Let’s talk about the war in Afghanistan. Where were you when you first heard about the comments made by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff, and how did you feel as you read them for yourself?
I was in my office in the residence, in the Treaty Room. Joe Biden called me — he was the first one who heard about it. I think it was Sunday night, and I had one of the staff here send me up a copy, and I read through the article. I will say at the outset that I think Gen. McChrystal is a fine man, an outstanding soldier, and has served this country very well. I do not think that he meant those comments maliciously. I think some of those comments were from his staff, and so he was poorly served. And it pained me to have to make the decision I did. Having said that, he showed bad judgment. When I put somebody in charge of the lives of 100,000 young men and women in a very hazardous situation, they’ve got to conduct themselves at the highest standards, and he didn’t meet those standards.
But it couldn’t have just been those remarks, which were casual and forgivable. The whole article was pretty damning.
The remarks themselves, I think, showed poor judgment. The rest of the article had to do with a series of very difficult, complex choices on the ground in Afghanistan, in which, as I said before, there are no easy answers. So Gen. McChrystal, in response to a very serious and legitimate concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, put out orders that have significantly reduced civilian casualties. The flip side of it is that it frustrates our troops, who feel that they may not be able to go on the offense as effectively, and it may put them in danger. That’s a profound strategic, tactical debate that takes place in the military. That’s not unique to Gen. McChrystal — that’s a debate that Gen. Petraeus is having to work his way through, that’s a debate that I have to work my way through as commander in chief.
To broaden the issue for a second, you were asking about the sources of frustration in the progressive community; clearly, Afghanistan has to be near the top of the list, maybe at the top of the list. I always try to point out, number one, that this shouldn’t have come as any surprise. When I was campaigning, I was very specific. I said, “We are going to end the war in Iraq, that was a mistake,” and I have done that. What I also said was that we need to plus up what we’re doing in Afghanistan, because that was where the original terrorist threat emanated, and we need to finish the job. That’s what we’re doing.
Now, I think that a lot of progressive supporters thought that maybe it would be easier than it has proven to be to try to bring Afghanistan to a place where we can see an end in sight. The fact of the matter is, when we came in, what we learned was that the neglect of Afghanistan had been more profound than we expected. Just simple examples: The Afghan National Army, the Afghan security forces, oftentimes were recruited, given a uniform, given a rifle, and that was it — they weren’t getting trained. As a functional matter, there was no way that they were going to start taking the place of U.S. troops.
What we’ve had to do after an extensive review that I engaged in was to say to our commanders on the ground, “You guys have to have a strategy in which we are training Afghan security forces, we’re going to break the Taliban momentum, but I am going to establish a date at which we start transitioning down and we start turning these security functions over to a newly trained Afghan security force.” That is what we’re in the process of doing.
It is exacting a terrible cost. Whenever I go over to Walter Reed or Bethesda, or when I was in Afghanistan, and I meet kids who lost their legs or were otherwise badly injured, I am reminded of that cost. Nobody wants more than me to be able to bring that war to a close in a way that makes sure that region is not used as a base for terrorist attacks against the United States. But what we have to do is see this process through. Starting July of 2011, we will begin a transition process, and if the strategy we’re engaged in isn’t working, we’re going to keep on re-examining it until we make sure that we’ve got a strategy that does work.
But by every index we know of, there seems to be no part of the Afghanistan strategy that is working. The Taliban control more of the country than ever. The Karzai regime is incredibly corrupt and has lost the trust of its own people. The program to buy the loyalty of Taliban soldiers, which was used with the Awakening during the surge in Iraq, can’t find enough takers for the $250 million that was allocated to it. The McChrystal offensive in Kandahar also failed. Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires.” In view of the fact that Great Britain failed there, the Soviet Union with millions of troops right on the border failed there — what makes you think we are going to succeed?
Number one, this is very hard stuff. I knew it was hard a year ago, and I suspect a year from now, I will conclude that it’s still hard, and it’s messy. Number two, when you tick off these metrics that have quote-unquote “failed” — well, they haven’t failed yet. They haven’t succeeded yet. We’ve made progress in terms of creating a line of security around Kandahar, but there’s no doubt that Kandahar is not yet a secure place any more than Mosul or Fallujah were secure in certain phases of the Iraq War.
I will also agree that Afghanistan is harder than Iraq. This is the second-poorest country in the world. You’ve got no tradition of a civil service or bureaucracy that is effective countrywide. We have been very successful in taking out the middle ranks of the Taliban. We have been very successful in recruiting and beginning to train Afghan security forces. There are elements that are working, and there are elements that are not working.
Keep in mind that the decision I have to make is always, “If we’re not doing this, then what does that mean? What are the consequences?” I don’t know anybody who has examined the region who thinks that if we completely pulled out of Afghanistan, the Karzai regime collapsed, Kabul was overrun once again by the Taliban, and Sharia law was imposed throughout the country, that we would be safer, or the Afghan people would be better off, or Pakistan would be better off, or India would be better off, or that we would see a reduction in potential terrorist attacks around the world. You can’t make that argument.
Some have argued that what we can do is have a smaller footprint in Afghanistan, focus on counterterrorism activities, but have less boots on the ground. We examined every option that’s out there. I assure you: With all the problems we’ve got here at home, and the fact that I have to sign letters to the family members of every soldier who is killed in Afghanistan, if I can find a way of reducing the costs to the American taxpayer, and more profoundly, to our young men and women in uniform, while making sure that we are not rendered much more vulnerable to a terrorist attack in the future, that’s going to be the option that I choose. But no matter what your ultimate belief is in terms of what will succeed in Afghanistan, it’s going to take us several years to work through this issue.
Ideally, what would have happened was that we didn’t go into Iraq. Right after our victory in 2001, if we had focused on rebuilding Afghanistan, and had been in much more direct day-to-day interaction with Karzai and his government, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in this circumstance.
But you know what: I have to play the cards that I’m dealt. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit and the worst recession since the Great Depression. But you work with what’s before you.
Let me ask you about the Gulf oil spill. British Petroleum fired Tony Hayward, so my question is: Why does Interior Secretary Ken Salazar still have his job? The corruption at Minerals Management Service was widely known at the time he came into office, as was reported several times in Rolling Stone and other places, and that’s what helped the Gulf disaster to happen.
When Ken Salazar came in, he said to me, “One of my top priorities is cleaning up MMS.” It was no secret. You had seen the kind of behavior in that office that was just over-the-top, and Ken did reform the agency to eliminate those core ethical lapses — the drugs, the other malfeasance that was reported there. What Ken would admit, and I would admit, and what we both have to take responsibility for, is that we did not fully change the institutional conflicts that were inherent in that office. If you ask why did we not get that done, the very simple answer is that this is a big government with a lot of people, and changing bureaucracies and agencies is a time-consuming process. We just didn’t get to it fast enough.
Having said that, the person who was put in charge of MMS was fired. We brought in Michael Bromwich, who by every account is somebody who is serious about cleaning up that agency. We are committed to making sure that that place works the way it is supposed to. But when I have somebody like Ken Salazar, who has been an outstanding public servant, who takes this stuff seriously, who bleeds when he sees what was happening in the Gulf, and had started on a path of reform but just didn’t get there as fast on every aspect of it as needed to be, I had to just let him know, “You’re accountable, you’re responsible, I expect you to change it.” I have confidence that he can change it, and I think he’s in the process of doing so.
James Hansen, the NASA scientist who is perhaps the most respected authority on global warming, says that climate change is the predominant moral issue of the 21st century, comparable to slavery faced by Lincoln and the response to Nazism faced by Churchill. Do you agree with that statement?
What I would agree with is that climate change has the potential to have devastating effects on people around the globe, and we’ve got to do something about it. In order to do something about it, we’re going to have to mobilize domestically, and we’re going to have to mobilize internationally.
During the past two years, we’ve not made as much progress as I wanted to make when I was sworn into office. It is very hard to make progress on these issues in the midst of a huge economic crisis, because the natural inclination around the world is to say, “You know what? That may be a huge problem, but right now what’s a really big problem is 10 percent unemployment,” or “What’s a really big problem is that our businesses can’t get loans.” That diverted attention from what I consider to be an urgent priority. The House of Representatives made an attempt to deal with the issue in a serious way. It wasn’t perfect, but it was serious. We could not get 60 votes for a comparable approach in the Senate.
One of my top priorities next year is to have an energy policy that begins to address all facets of our overreliance on fossil fuels. We may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation. But we’re going to stay on this because it is good for our economy, it’s good for our national security, and, ultimately, it’s good for our environment.
Understand, though, that even in the absence of legislation, we took steps over the past two years that have made a significant difference. I will give you one example, and this is an example where sometimes I think the progressive community just pockets whatever we do, takes it for granted, and then asks, “Well, why didn’t you get this done?”
We instituted the first increase in fuel-efficiency standards in this country in 30 years. It used to be that California would have some very rigorous rule, and then other states would have much weaker ones. Now we’ve got one rule. Not only that, it used to be that trucks weren’t covered, and there were all kinds of loopholes — that’s how SUVs were out there getting eight miles a gallon. Now everybody’s regulated — not only cars, but trucks. We did this with the agreement of the auto industry, which had never agreed to it before, we did it with the auto workers, who had never agreed to it before. We are taking the equivalent of millions of cars off the road, when it comes to the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced.
Is it enough? Absolutely not. The progress that we’re making on renewable energy, the progress that we’re making on retrofitting buildings and making sure that we are reducing electricity use — all those things, cumulatively, if we stay on it over the next several years, will allow us to meet the target that I set, which would be around a 17 percent reduction in our greenhouse gases.
But we’re going to have to do a lot more than that. When I talk to [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu, who, by the way, was an unsung hero in the Gulf oil spill — this guy went down and helped design the way to plug that hole with BP engineers — nobody’s a bigger champion for the cause of reducing climate change than he is. When I ask him how we are going to solve this problem internationally, what he’ll tell you is that we can get about a third of this done through efficiencies and existing technologies, we can get an additional chunk through some sort of pricing in carbon, but ultimately we’re going to need some technological breakthroughs. So the investments we’re making in research and development around clean energy are also going to be important if we’re going to be able to get all the way there. Am I satisfied with what we’ve gotten done? Absolutely not.
Do you see a point at which you’re going to throw the whole weight of the presidency behind this, like you did on health care or financial reform?
Yes. Not only can I foresee it, but I am committed to making sure that we get an energy policy that makes sense for the country and that helps us grow at the same time as it deals with climate change in a serious way. I am just as committed to getting immigration reform done.
I’ve been here two years, guys. And one of the things that I just try to remember is that if we have accomplished 70 percent of what we committed to in the campaign, historic legislation, and we’ve got 30 percent of it undone — well, that’s what the next two years is for, or maybe the next six.
Understandably, everybody has a great sense of urgency about these issues. But one of the things that I constantly want to counsel my friends is to keep the long view in mind. On social issues, something like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Here, I’ve got the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff both committed to changing the policy. That’s a big deal.
You get credit for that.
Now, I am also the commander in chief of an armed forces that is in the midst of one war and wrapping up another one. So I don’t think it’s too much to ask, to say “Let’s do this in an orderly way” — to ensure, by the way, that gays and lesbians who are serving honorably in our armed forces aren’t subject to harassment and bullying and a whole bunch of other stuff once we implement the policy. I use that as an example because on each of these areas, even those where we did not get some grand legislative victory, we have made progress. We have moved in the right direction.
When people start being concerned about, “You haven’t closed Guantánamo yet,” I say, listen, that’s something I wanted to get done by now, and I haven’t gotten done because of recalcitrance from the other side. Frankly, it’s an easy issue to demagogue. But what I have been able to do is to ban torture. I have been able to make sure that our intelligence agencies and our military operate under a core set of principles and rules that are true to our traditions of due process. People will say, “I don’t know — you’ve got your Justice Department out there that’s still using the state-secrets doctrine to defend against some of these previous actions.” Well, I gave very specific instructions to the Department of Justice. What I’ve said is that we are not going to use a shroud of secrecy to excuse illegal behavior on our part. On the other hand, there are occasions where I’ve got to protect operatives in the field, their sources and their methods, because if those were revealed in open court, they could be subject to very great danger. There are going to be circumstances in which, yes, I can’t have every operation that we’re engaged in to deal with a very real terrorist threat published in Rolling Stone.
These things don’t happen overnight. But we’re moving in the right direction, and that’s what people have to keep in mind.
What has surprised you the most about these first two years in office? What advice would you give your successor about the first two years?
Over the past two years, what I probably anticipated but you don’t fully appreciate until you’re in the job, is something I said earlier, which is if a problem is easy, it doesn’t hit my desk. If there’s an obvious solution, it never arrives here — somebody else has solved it a long time ago. The issues that cross my desk are hard and complicated, and oftentimes involve the clash not of right and wrong, but of two rights. And you’re having to balance and reconcile against competing values that are equally legitimate.
What I’m very proud of is that we have, as an administration, kept our moral compass, even as we’ve worked through these very difficult issues. Doesn’t mean we haven’t made mistakes, but I think we’ve moved the country in a profoundly better direction just in the past two years.
What music have you been listening to lately? What have you discovered, what speaks to you these days?
My iPod now has about 2,000 songs, and it is a source of great pleasure to me. I am probably still more heavily weighted toward the music of my childhood than I am the new stuff. There’s still a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Rolling Stones, a lot of R&B, a lot of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Those are the old standards.
A lot of classical music. I’m not a big opera buff in terms of going to opera, but there are days where Maria Callas is exactly what I need.
Thanks to Reggie [Love, the president's personal aide], my rap palate has greatly improved. Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated, but now I’ve got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff, but I would not claim to be an expert. Malia and Sasha are now getting old enough to where they start hipping me to things. Music is still a great source of joy and occasional solace in the midst of what can be some difficult days.
You had Bob Dylan here. How did that go?
Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.
Having Paul McCartney here was also incredible. He’s just a very gracious guy. When he was up there singing “Michelle” to Michelle, I was thinking to myself, “Imagine when Michelle was growing up, this little girl on the South Side of Chicago, from a working-class family.” The notion that someday one of the Beatles would be singing his song to her in the White House — you couldn’t imagine something like that.
Did you cry?
Whenever I think about my wife, she can choke me up. My wife and my kids, they’ll get to me.
[Signaled by his aides, the president brings the interview to a close and leaves the Oval Office. A moment later, however, he returns to the office and says that he has one more thing to add. He speaks with intensity and passion, repeatedly stabbing the air with his finger.]
One closing remark that I want to make: It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we’ve got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.
The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.
Everybody out there has to be thinking about what’s at stake in this election and if they want to move forward over the next two years or six years or 10 years on key issues like climate change, key issues like how we restore a sense of equity and optimism to middle-class families who have seen their incomes decline by five percent over the last decade. If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election. And right now, we are getting outspent eight to one by these 527s that the Roberts court says can spend with impunity without disclosing where their money’s coming from. In every single one of these congressional districts, you are seeing these independent organizations outspend political parties and the candidates by, as I said, factors of four to one, five to one, eight to one, 10 to one.
We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that’s what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we’ve got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.