Barack Obama photo

Interview by Phone with the Daily Targum inside WRSU-FM

May 09, 2016

The Daily Targum: Hello, is this President Obama?

The President. It is.

The Daily Targum: Hi, thank you very much, Mr. President, for agreeing to talk with us again. My name is Dan.

The President. Dan — I know, with The (Daily Targum). Well I try to keep my promises, man.

The Daily Targum: I appreciate it. As it stands now, the FAFSA involves a complicated formula that computes how much a student and their family can afford to pay for college. But while the FAFSA asks about income, it fails to collect expense information such as housing costs, taxes and other costs of living that vary widely by state. As a result, New Jersey students are often shocked by the calculation of their Expected Family Contribution.

Would you favor an overhaul of the application to make it fairer to students who live and go to college in states with a higher cost of living, such as New Jersey?

The President. First of all, I think it's important to note how much work we've been doing just to simplify the form itself and encourage more people to use it, because it really is the gateway for a lot of young people to understand what financial aid they may be able to receive in order to go to college. So we have slashed the amount of time it takes to fill out, tried to make it much simpler and more user-friendly and by all accounts we've made significant progress there.

With respect to how the calculations are made — and what variations we may be willing to make depending on where you're going to school — that's something that probably cannot be done administratively, but would require some work with Congress. And I do think that it's important for us to continually evaluate whether or not the way that data's collected and the way the calculations are made are accurately reflecting the costs of college. Now ultimately — the key to all of this, though — is going to be, "What can we do to get all colleges, everywhere, to reduce their overall costs?" And we've been convening a number of meetings with a range of university presidents and experts on college and university costs to see what we can do to reduce cost inflation — and some schools have done a better job than others.

Some of it involves how you're using personnel and how you're organizing classes and credits so that students can more efficiently graduate on time. Our proposal for two years of free community college would make a huge difference for a lot of students. We tend to think of college students as the traditional four-year student. But a whole lot of students are using community college first, and then potentially transferring those credits to get a four-year degree. So if we could make those first two years cheaper, that would make a big difference. How we're using technology and online learning can also reduce costs in a significant way.

This is going to be, I think, a major topic of conversation for everyone — parents, students, professors and administrators going forward. And I think the basic principle that we should be working towards is that everyone needs more than just a secondary school education, whether it's a two-year or four-year degree — that lifelong learning is increasingly what's going to be necessary to be competitive in this dynamic economy — and that it's got to be affordable. We can't have situations where young people are loaded up with $50,000, $75,000 or $100,000 worth of debt coming out of school.

The Daily Targum: You have pointed out many times that voter turnout in the United States is very low, especially compared to other developed nations. But in many other countries, the government automatically registers voters and holds elections on days that are weekend days or national holidays. Do you think it's time for the U.S. to follow their lead?

The President. Absolutely. We are the only advanced democracy that makes it deliberately difficult for people to vote. And some of it has to do with the nature of our history and our Constitution, where we allow individual states to determine their own processes for structuring elections within certain boundaries.

I think that we know some states like Oregon are doing a much better job at extending mail-in voting, increasing tools like online voting that are safe and secure, give people flexibility over a long period of time, (and) early voting. And so everything we can do to make sure that we're increasing participation is something that we should promote and encourage. Our democracy is not going to function well when only half or a third of eligible voters are participating.

The single most dramatic political change that could occur in this country — and the best way for us to relieve the frustrations that people feel around the political process — would be if we had greater participation that was more reflective of the day-to-day concerns that people have.

The Daily Targum: During your time in office, your administration has arguably been more severe with prosecuting government employees who leaked information to journalists compared to past presidents who essentially slapped them on the wrist — for better or for worse. In light of the recent news regarding Ben Rhodes, how do you see a journalist's role today in U.S. politics?

The President. Well, look — I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and the need for journalists to pursue every lead and every angle. I think that when you hear stories about us cracking down on whistleblowers or whatnot, we're talking about a really small sample.

Many of the cases that are often lumped into, you know, my ledger, essentially were cases that were brought before we came into office. Some of them are serious, where you had purposeful leaks of information that could harm or threaten operations or individuals who were in the field involved with really sensitive national security issues.

But the general approach that I have consistently advocated for is maximum freedom of the press. And what I've found personally is that — although there are times (when) it can be frustrating for a president or an administration where you feel as if the way something is reported is not accurate or is sensationalized — it is greatly preferable to the alternative. And that is something that I think we have to continue to fight for and uphold.

The Daily Targum: From day one of your presidency, Republican leaders vowed to oppose your legislative agenda. You never really got a "honeymoon" period. And now, at the end of your tenure, you're faced with Senate refusal to even hold hearings on your Supreme Court pick.

During your tenure, the federal government was shut down in 2013 because many legislative leaders opposed your agenda. Do you think you could have done more to compromise with these leaders, or do you think the hostility against you was too much to overcome?

The President. Well the truth is we did overcome it in all sorts of ways. We passed historic healthcare legislation, we expanded Pell grants and transferred student loan programs from banks that were syphoning off billions of dollars, and that money is now going to students. We've been able to, you know, move forward the single largest recovery package in history that helped avert a great depression. We were able to negotiate a deal that got nuclear stockpiles out of Iran, and that will make the world safer. So we've been able to overcome a lot of resistance, but there's no doubt that we could've got a lot more had we had greater cooperation from Republicans.

I've always shown myself willing to compromise — principled compromises that would still advance the interests of the American people. What we've seen within the Republican Party has been a refusal even to engage on a whole range of issues like climate change, for example, that are vitally important. The issue here has never been both sides stuck in a corner, unwilling to meet in the middle. The challenge has been a Republican Party that has become increasingly ideological and extreme, and I think that's reflected in the current presidential race.

Now the good news is that political parties go through these moments, and there are a lot of good people out there who are Republicans who don't recognize the direction that the party is taking. My sense is that there will be a corrective at some point, perhaps after this next presidential election. In the mean time, what's going to be most important is making sure that young people like you and your readership are participating and voting actively — and (understanding) that whatever cynical views may be out there, our political process is pretty straightforward.

People who vote and elect representatives who share their views end up determining the agenda — and that is not just at the presidential level, people have to vote and participate on everything from congressional races to state's attorneys races to state legislative races because we live in a system where political power is dispersed. And if you want to move an agenda forward, you've got to make sure that your views and voice are heard at every level of government.

The Daily Targum: I realize that our time together is about to be up, but just moving forward — considering that your domestic legacy is likely to be rooted in how the economy has recovered under your administration — despite 73 straight months of private sector growth and a sharp decline in the (unemployment) rate under your administration, many Americans feel less economically secure as a result of mass layoffs, stagnant wages and the loss of benefits, such as pension plans.

Many of those Americans are looking to candidates like Bernie Sanders, who has focused his campaign on income inequality and the shrinking middle class. He actually spoke here at Rutgers last night. Do you think the anger and despair caused by the upheavals of globalization have been adequately addressed by our elected officials? And if not, what more can be done?

The President. Well first of all, it is absolutely true that there are a lot of folks who still are struggling out there, and we can't minimize that. There (are) trends that have been taking place over the last 20 (or) 30 years that have dampened wage growth, that have made it tougher for folks to save for retirement or for their kids' college education — and there's a whole range of things that can make a difference. Some of them we've done — we've worked on — like improving the education system and making sure that we are making college accessible.

But more needs to be done there. And some of the steps that we've taken are going to pay off over the course of the next 20 years. There are things like raising the federal minimum wage or rebuilding our infrastructure — that would put people back to work right away and that would accelerate growth. And so the key is to remind ourselves No. 1, that actually we've made significant progress over the last seven and a half years that we are better positioned than any country on earth to continue to grow and to prosper in the years to come. And (No. 2), that the solutions that are out there are not beyond reach.

If we are changing just a few laws that make it easier, for example, for workers to organize, that close corporate tax loopholes or tax loopholes used by wealthy individuals so that they're not paying their fair share — if we take that money and make sure that we're investing in the kinds of things that make an economy grow, if we ensure that we've got a healthcare system that is affordable and accessible for all people, then I'm confident that America's best days are still ahead. I do think it's important, even as people may be frustrated, to remind ourselves both of all the terrific advantages that America still has in terms of the best universities in the world and the best scientists and researchers, and some of the most innovative companies and the ease of doing business. But that's not a cause for complacency — that just tells us that when we put our shoulder behind the wheel and we're focused, that we can get things done.

We have to make sure we also recognize this is a big country, and there's very rarely a single set of silver bullets out there that would immediately solve all of these problems. We're part of an interconnected global economy now, and there's no going back from that. It's important for us to not oversimplify how we're going to bring about the kind of change we need.

We've got to also recognize that, in a democracy like this, it's not going to happen overnight. We have to make incremental changes where we can, and every once in a while you'll get a breakthrough and make the kind of big changes that are necessary. That consensus building is important because that's historically how change has happened in America.

Those are the kinds of things that I'll be talking about at the commencement, and I'm looking forward to seeing you, Dan on Sunday.

The Daily Targum: I appreciate that, Mr. President. Thank you again for sitting down with us.

The President. I'll talk to you soon.

Barack Obama, Interview by Phone with the Daily Targum inside WRSU-FM Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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