Barack Obama photo

Interview on The Tom Joyner Morning Show With Tom Joyner and Sybil Wilkes

August 30, 2011

Tom Joyner. On the line right now is the president of the United States, Barack Obama. Good morning, Big Chief.

The President. Tom Joyner, how are you, my friend?

Tom Joyner. I'm good. I'm good. I heard you're busy.

The President. Well, obviously we spent the weekend dealing with this hurricane situation. And as I was mentioning, it obviously is heartbreaking for families who lost loved ones, people who are seeing their homes flooded out. But it could have been a lot worse. So, thanks to the great preparations done at the state, local and federal levels, it looks like we're going to have some clean-up to do, but we averted what could have been a real tragedy.

Tom Joyner. You got a price tag yet?

The President. No, don't have a price tag yet - a lot of assessments still being done. There's still a lot of flooding going on up in the Northeast - states like Vermont are getting very hard hit. But we'll be able to dig our way out of this thing. And it was a testament, though, to the outstanding work that a lot of public officials did in terms of making sure that the preparations were there. Right now, we're probably going to be dealing with a lot of power outages, a lot of road clean-up, transit, things like that.

Sybil Wilkes. How about your girls, sir? Did they sustain any damage at your vacation spot?

The President. No. Look, it was fine in Massachusetts up through the time that we left, and so they spent yesterday inside pondering the fact that they need to go back to school. [laughter] So the fun and games are over. Mom said it's time to start turning off the TV and hitting the books.

Tom Joyner. Yes, it is that time, huh?

The President. It is, absolutely.

Tom Joyner. Okay. Let's talk about, first of all, the MLK dedication. They're going to reschedule it. You don't have a time or date yet?

The President. We don't have a date yet. But those who've had a chance to see the monument, it is a moving and powerful thing. When you think about how this is a man who didn't have a title, didn't have a rank in the military, but just led a nation in rediscovering its ideals and its values, and to have him staring out across the water towards the Jefferson Monument is a reminder of what's possible in this country. So I know those who've already seen it have just been moved to tears by its presence, and it's going to be an extraordinary legacy for this country for many years to come.

But obviously what I hope it reminds us of is how much more work we still have to do. Dr. King helped to catalyze, along with that entire generation of heroes, the progress that allowed me to be sitting in this Oval Office right now. But I think it's always important to remember that when Dr. King gave the "I Have a Dream" speech, that was a march for jobs and justice, not just justice. And in the last part of his life, when he went down to Memphis, that was all about sanitation workers saying, "I am a man," and looking for economic justice and dealing with poverty. And so it's not enough for us to just remember the sanitized versions of what Dr. King stood for; he made a real call for—he made a real call for us to dig deep and be thinking about our fellow citizens and people around the world who are in desperate need and figuring out how we can help them.

Tom Joyner. Was that part of your dedication speech that you were going to give on Sunday?

Sybil Wilkes. Did we get a preview of it?

The President. That was a little impromptu [laughter], but I think those themes are ones that I think about every single day. We've got - somebody mentioned - I think there was an article that we've got on loan that famous Norman Rockwell painting, right outside the Oval Office, of Ruby Bridges walking to school. And we pass that every single day. She was a little six-year-old girl surrounded by marshals, going into that schoolhouse all by herself. And inside my office I've got - a friend of mine framed the original program from the March on Washington.

And so they're reminders, as we go through the day, and we're working hard here to make sure that we're putting people back to work and getting the economy going again, that we stand on the shoulders of a lot of people who made a lot of sacrifices. And it's important for us to make sure that we're following through on those commitments, even if it's slow and frustrating sometimes.

Tom Joyner. Yeah, it is slow and frustrating. And a lot of people are voicing their opinion about how frustrating it is for us in the black community and the unemployment rate being almost twice as much what the general market employment rate is. I understand. I understand people complaining, but I don't agree with people who are trying to - black people, black leaders who are trying to make you look bad, as if this is all your fault.

The President. Well, look, the fact of the matter is that when you occupy this office, when things are going good then you get the credit, and when things are going tough then you get the blame. And that's the nature of the office. And so I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that. I do spend a lot of time thinking about what can we do to make sure that this economy starts growing faster.

We've made enormous progress over the last two years in stabilizing the economy, but we've stabilized it at an unemployment rate that's way too high. And so the economy is going to have to grow faster. Next week, I'll be unveiling additional plans that we can take to move the ball forward, put people back to work. But I ...

Tom Joyner. Can I talk to you about that after the break?

The President. Absolutely, absolutely.

Tom Joyner. Okay. I've got to take a break. When we come back, let's talk about what's the plan to get America working again - and especially black America.

[commercial break]

And we're back with the president. Mr. President, what's the plan?

The President. Well, look, there are no magic bullets because what we went through was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and typically after financial recession, financial crises like this, it takes a long time for the patient to heal. This is a situation where the economy essentially had a heart attack, and the patient lived, and the patient is getting better, but it's getting better very slowly.

So we don't have magic bullets, but what we do have, I think, is the capacity to do some things right now that would make a big difference and ...

Tom Joyner. Like?

The President. For example, putting people to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools all across America. A big chunk of the loss of employment was in the construction industry. Well, the fact of the matter is that although the housing market is going to take some time to recover, we've got a lot of stuff that needs to get done. There are schools all across the country that right now you could put people to work fixing up. There are roads and bridges right now that need to be improved.

And so we've called for the creation of a special fund that can leverage not only public dollars but also private dollars to start getting those projects moving. So that's an example.

We've got the capacity right now to help local school districts make sure that they're not laying off more teachers. We haven't been as aggressive as we need to, both at the state and federal level.

There are a whole range of tax provisions that are helping small businesses that need to be continued that would expire if the Republicans aren't willing to act in Congress. Same thing with payroll tax cut that put $1,000 in the pockets of the average family. That not only helps them keep their head above water, but it also circulates that money in the economy and makeS sure that businesses have customers.

So all these ideas are ones that have been presented to Congress. We'll be putting out several other additional ideas. We've got to do it, unfortunately, at a time when money is tight. George Bush left us $1 trillion deficit, and so it's a lot harder to climb out of this hole when we don't have a lot of money in the federal coffers.

But there is no doubt that we can take steps that would mean the economy was growing a percent or a percentage and a half faster. That could mean half a million to a million additional jobs. That gets the economy moving; it makes businesses more confident that they're going to have customers. And it starts putting people back to work.

Sybil Wilkes. Could you talk — I'm sorry, Mr. President. Could you talk about the long-term unemployment? Because is there going to be something to do with people who are saying that — employers are saying the law — if you're unemployed, we don't want to hear from you. And these are people that are saying that they're not getting the looks that they need to get from employers regarding possible jobs.

The President. Well, there is no doubt that folks who have been unemployed longer than six months have a tougher time getting back into the job market. Now, the single most important thing we can do is just have the economy strong so that employers aren't as choosy because they've got to hire because their businesses are expanding.

But we have seen instances in which employers are explicitly saying we don't want to take a look at folks who've been unemployed. Well, that makes absolutely no sense, and I know there's legislation that I'm supportive of that says you cannot discriminate against folks because they've been unemployed, particularly when you've seen so many folks who, through no fault of their own, ended up being laid off because of the difficulty of this recession.

Tom Joyner. Mr. President, those plans sound great. It makes a lot of sense. But you're dealing with a bunch of people who seem to want to say no to anything that you want to do. And so, when you come next week with your jobs plan, how are you going to get it passed when everybody in the Republican Party seems to say no to everything you say yes to?

The President. Well, look, this has been a problem for two and a half years now, but despite that fact, we've been able to get health care passed. Despite that fact, we've been able to make sure that we put more money into the Pell Grant program. Despite that fact, we've been able to try to fix the financial system so that we don't have another train wreck like we've had in the past.

So we're going to continue to see resistance, but the main thing is to communicate directly with the American people. Now, these folks so far have not been very responsive to public opinion and - which is why they are very unpopular right now. But they're speaking only to a very narrow segment of the population, their base.

We've just got to keep on putting the pressure on. My attitude is that my job is to present the best plans possible. Congress needs to act. If Congress does not act, then I'm going to be going on the road and talking to folks, and this next election very well may end up being a referendum on whose vision of America is better. Because the fact of the matter is, is that the American people voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for dysfunctional government. And if they see one side not willing to work with the other to move the country forward, then that's what elections are all about. So we're going to be in a struggle for probably the next 16, 17 months.

Tom Joyner. And I'm going to be right there in the foxhole struggling with you.

The President. Well, because the key always is if the American people are mobilized, then change happens. When they're not mobilized, then special interests, lobbyists, the folks who put party ahead of country - those folks are going to benefit.

And that's why, Tom, your doing political education outreach, making sure that folks understand what's at stake right now, that's going to be critical not just during election time, but that's critical all the time.

Tom Joyner. Yes, sir.

Sybil Wilkes. You don't want anybody else but Tom Joyner in the foxhole with you, Mr. President. [laughter]

The President. Tom is rock-solid.

Sybil Wilkes. Yes, sir. [laughter] He has a "Take a Loved One to the Doctor" coming up season - actually we're in Tom Joyner's "Take a Loved One to the Doctor" season through September. And I know that you are a healthy guy, and you take care of yourself. And, of course, you've given us this great health care plan. Is there anything that you'd like to share with the public in encouraging them to participate?

The President. Well, I think one of the things that we really emphasized during health care reform was prevention. And nobody benefits more than the African-American community from that because we have so many preventable diseases. And that's why what Tom is doing is so important.

But as a consequence of the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform bill, insurance companies have to cover preventive services and checkups. Because of the Affordable Care Act, senior citizens can go and get a free checkup under Medicare. We put a lot of money into community health centers and various prevention programs. And obviously the First Lady has been doing tremendous work with "Let's Move" and making sure that folks are watching what they eat and making sure that they get exercise.

And so I think it is really important for everybody to take advantage of these new resources because, frankly, a lot of times the African-American community doesn't think about prevention, and then we end up in the emergency room when it's too late. And so many of these diseases, like diabetes, can be prevented just by getting into better habits.

And so, hopefully, that is going to be a strong message that's promoted through your show, Tom, and making sure that everybody is getting their checkups, catching things early, listening to their doctor, getting into better habits. All those things can make a huge difference.

And by the way, when people talk about the deficit and why are we spending all this money at the federal level - so much of this has to do with the rising cost of health care and Medicare and Medicaid programs. We could be saving trillions of dollars if people were taking better care of themselves. So I'm glad that, Tom, you're out there trumpeting the need for folks to visit their doctor and follow the advice of health care professionals.

Tom Joyner. And their wives. [laughter]

The President. Absolutely. Well, listen, Tom, the fact is that everybody knows your wife is in a lot better shape than you are, so you need to be listening to her. [laughter] I know you're sneaking those rib tips in when she's trying to get you ...

Sybil Wilkes. Oatmeal cookies. [laughter]

The President. ... to eat the salad. Exactly. [laughter]

Tom Joyner. Okay, oatmeal cookies. [laughter] Thanks, Mr. President.

The President. Great to talk to you, and you guys take care of yourselves.

Tom Joyner. All right.

Sybil Wilkes. You take care of yourself, sir.

The President. Okay. Bye-bye.

Tom Joyner. God bless.

Barack Obama, Interview on The Tom Joyner Morning Show With Tom Joyner and Sybil Wilkes Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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