Barack Obama photo

Interview with Ben Smith of BuzzFeed

February 10, 2015

Smith. So, eight years ago, today actually, you announced your campaign in Springfield. I read that speech last night and I was struck by how much it's a generational call to your generation, I guess to some degree mine. You use the word "generation" 13 times in the speech. Now, two of the leading candidates for the next presidential nomination are of the previous generation, and I wonder if you find that at all disappointing?

The President. : Well, they're both obviously highly qualified candidates. Hillary Clinton I know much better than I know Jeb Bush, and I think she'd be an outstanding president. My understanding is that everybody else is younger than me, which—

Smith. Wasn't that the idea?

The President. —I guess matches up with my gray hair. But, you know ultimately what people are going to be looking for in the next president is what they always look for in a president and that is somebody who is attuned to the hopes and dreams of the American people at a particular moment in time. When I ran in 2008, I think what people understood was that the middle class had been left behind for a pretty long stretch of time. We had been involved in very costly wars that didn't seem to have necessarily made us safer and they were looking for change and, you know, I suspect that the next candidates are going to be grappling with some of the issues that I talked about at the State of the Union: How can we make sure that we have broad-based prosperity now that we're out of crisis? How do we deal with terrorism in a way that's smart and effective? How do we address long-term issues like climate change that sometimes are really hard to do politically? So I think it will be a fascinating debate.

Smith. You were elected with this new coalition of young people, people of color, women, and I wonder, is that a coalition that the next Democratic nominee — Hillary Clinton or not — inherits?

The President. I don't think any president inherits a coalition. I think any candidate has to win over people based on what they stand for, what their message is, what their vision is for the future. I think what's true is that I've done very well among younger Americans, and that's always been something I've been very proud of: our ability to reach out to get people involved who traditionally have not always gotten involved or have been skeptical about politics. I think the fact that we got a lot of support from African-Americans or Latinos or Asian-Americans is just reflective of the shifts in the country. I think it's also important to remember that I won Iowa, which doesn't have one of the most diverse populations in the country. I think there's been, you know, talk that there's a need to reach out more to older Americans or middle America or white working-class families that Democrats haven't done as well on, but that hasn't been unique to me, that's been going on for a while.

Smith. Do you think that's right, that there is a need to reach out to them more?

The President. I absolutely do. I think that one of the biggest challenges in our politics is always how do we get all of us to recognize what we have in common. And there's so many forces that push us apart. Race is just one of them. You've got the rural-urban divide. You have states that are traditionally very Republican versus very Democrat. North-South. But one of the great things about being president is you travel around and it turns out everybody's struggling with the same things, everybody's hoping for the same things. People's values are pretty common, and what I said during the State of the Union is something I still believe, which is that we are more unified than our politics would let on, and the question — particularly during presidential elections — is can we get our politics to give voice to those common things?

Smith. If I can move on to the Affordable Care Act. We reported yesterday that the office supply store Staples is — I'm sure this is an issue you've heard about before — is telling its workers that it will fire them if they work more than 25 hours a week. A manager had told a worker we talked to that "Obama's responsible for this policy," and they're putting these notices on the wall of their break room saying that. I wonder what you'd say to the CEO of Staples, Ronald Sargent, about that policy?

The President. What I would say is that millions of people are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act. Satisfaction is high. The typical premium is less than 100 bucks.

Smith. But this is a specific consequence…

The President. No, I'm gonna answer the question. And that there is no reason for an employer who is not currently providing health care to their workers to discourage them from either getting health insurance on the job or being able to avail themselves of the Affordable Care Act. I haven't looked at Staples stock lately or what the compensation of the CEO is, but I suspect that they could well afford to treat their workers favorably and give them some basic financial security, and if they can't, then they should be willing to allow those workers to get the Affordable Care Act without cutting wages.

This is the same argument that I've made with respect to something like paid sick leave. We have 43 million Americans who, if they get sick or their child gets sick, are looking at either losing their paycheck or going to the job sick or leaving their child at home sick. It's one thing when you've got a mom-and-pop store who can't afford to provide paid sick leave or health insurance or minimum wage to workers — even though a large percentage of those small businesses do it because they know it's the right thing to do — but when I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers' wages, shame on them.

Smith. Moving on to Russia. You started this presidency with a very productive relationship with President Medvedev and the relations are now probably at their worst since the Cold War. How much of that do you ascribe to Vladimir Putin's character?

The President. You know, I don't want to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin. I will say that he has a foot very much in the Soviet past. That's how he came of age. He ran the KGB. Those were his formative experiences. So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he's missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression. You know, I continue to hold out the prospect of Russia taking a diplomatic offering from what they've done in Ukraine. I think, to their credit, they've been able to compartmentalize and continue to work with us on issues like Iran's nuclear program. But, if you look at what's happened to the Russian economy, even before oil prices collapsed, it is not an economy that's built for the 21st century. Unfortunately, those forces for modernization inside of Russia, I think, have been sidelined. That's bad for Russia and, over time, it's bad for the United States, because if Russia is doing badly, the concern is that they revert to old expansionist ideas that really shouldn't have any application in the 21st century.

Smith. We asked our readers [for] questions and we got a lot of questions about weed. One guy, Shawn Gould from Wilmington, it's a familiar situation. He has a felony marijuana possession conviction, so he can't get a job. He said he can't get a job at Boston Market. A kind of problem that disproportionately affects young black men like him. This is obviously a policy challenge you've spent your whole career — one of them — thinking about, but you've been president for six years. What do you say to him?

The President. We have tried to begin a process of reforming how we deal with nonviolent drug offenses, starting with Eric Holder, our attorney general, providing different criteria for evaluation for U.S. attorneys, suggesting to them they don't always just have to charge the maximum in order for them to do a good job. In fact, sometimes it's more appropriate to look at whether a charge against a nonviolent drug offender is the right charge. We are reaching out to judges and lawyers — both prosecutors and defense bar — to look at how we can begin to more systematically change sentencing when it comes to nonviolent drug offenses. We've revamped the pardoning office in the Justice Department because, traditionally, we weren't reaching a lot of nonviolent offenders who, if they received a pardon, perhaps would be in a better position to get employed. Overall — and the final thing is our office of drug prevention policy, one of the things we're trying to do is move off just an enforcement/incarceration strategy more to a public health, treatment strategy. When you look at the progress we've made in reducing teen smoking, for example, or promoting seatbelt use: It's not because we criminalize things, alone — although in the case of seatbelts, obviously, you can get a ticket — a lot of it just had to do with public education. The same is true on drug abuse. Unfortunately, we've short-changed that side and the consequences have been particularly devastating in certain segments of the community that need to be addressed.

Smith. I want to move to the big LGBT news of yesterday, but first we had a very specific question from a reader who worked for you, a federal lawyer who's transgender named Emily Prince. Federal policy bars discrimination against transgender people under health care plans covered under the ACA, but federal worker plans largely don't cover gender reassignment surgery. Should they?

The President. You know, I haven't looked at that policy. My general view is that transgender persons, just like gays and lesbians, are deserving of equal treatment under the law. And that's a basic principle. As you mentioned, my sense is that the Supreme Court is about to make a shift, one that I welcome, which is to recognize that — having hit a critical mass of states that have recognized same-sex marriage — it doesn't make sense for us to now have this patchwork system and that it's time to recognize that, under the equal protection clause of the United States, same-sex couples should have the same rights as anybody else.

Smith. There are a few officials in Alabama, starting with Judge Roy Moore, but also a number of probate judges, who are resisting that. Do you see shades of George Wallace in the schoolhouse door?

The President. Well, I… look, I won't… I won't say it's a perfect analogy, but there's a core principle here that's at stake, which is we have a supremacy clause in our constitution. When federal law is in conflict with state law, federal law wins out. My understanding — my recollection is that Judge Moore had a similar problem with a federal court ruling that you couldn't put a huge Ten Commandments statue in the middle of your courthouse and, ultimately, federal law was obeyed, and I think that the same thing will end up happening here.

Smith. Is there anything you'd say to him?

The President. You know, I think that the courts at the federal level will have something to say to him.

Smith. David Axelrod wrote in his book that you hated and weren't good at, he said, "bullshitting" about your position on marriage in '08. Why did you feel you had to do it?

The President. Well, you know, I think David is mixing up my personal feelings with my position on the issue. I always felt that same-sex couples should be able to enjoy the same rights, legally, as anybody else, and so it was frustrating to me not to, I think, be able to square that with what were a whole bunch of religious sensitivities out there. So my thinking at the time was that civil unions — which I always supported — was a sufficient way of squaring the circle. That, OK, we won't call it "marriage," we'll call it "civil unions," same-sex couples will have the same rights as anybody else, but the word "marriage" with its religious connotations historically would be preserved for marriages between men and women.

Where my evolution took place was not in my attitude toward same-sex couples, it was in understanding the pain and the sense of stigma that was being placed on same-sex couples who are friends of mine, where they'd say, "You know what, if you're not calling it marriage, it doesn't feel like the same thing. Even if you gave me the same rights, the fact that I'm being treated differently or the love that we feel is somehow segmented off, that hurts." It was because of those conversations that I ended up shifting positions, that civil unions, in fact, were not sufficient rather than marriage. But I think the notion that somehow I was always in favor of marriage per se isn't quite accurate. What I was in favor of is making sure that…

Smith. Despite that old questionnaire?

The President. Well, yeah. The old questionnaire, you know, is an example of struggling with what was a real issue at the time, which is how do you make sure that people's rights are enjoyed and these religious sensitivities were taken into account? You know, these are the kinds of things you learn as you… move forward in public life: that sometimes you can't split the difference. That sometimes you just have to be very clear that this is what's right. And what I'm very proud of is to see how rapidly the country has shifted and maybe the small part that I've played, but certainly my Justice Department and others have played, in this administration in getting to where we need to be.

Smith. I have sort of an organizing question about that, which is if you talk to people who were involved in your initial coalition — you have labor union activists, civil rights activists, environmentalists, and LGBT rights activists — it's the LGBT rights activists right now who feel most totally fulfilled by your administration, by what you've done. I wonder, did they do something right? Did they push you harder? Or was it just their moment and it really wasn't about what they did?

The President. Yeah, I, you know, I think it was a matter of… It was an idea whose time had come. I also think that, unlike sometimes issues of race or even in some cases economic status, I think that there are a lot of people, including Supreme Court justices, who have somebody in their family or somebody that they know who's gay and, as more and more people came out of the closet and they said, "Well, gosh, well, I love that person." It changed—

Smith. So you don't give the organized community credit as much as the cultural change?

The President. Well, no no no. I mean, I think the organized community did an excellent job. But, look, the immigrants' rights organizations have done an excellent job, the civil rights organizations have done an excellent job. I think that a lot of it had to do with the willingness of people to recognize the regard they had for the LGBT communities or people in their families. But part of it is also, frankly, that an issue like nondiscrimination for the LGBT community is a little bit easier than the issues of inner-city poverty, right? You not discriminating against a gay person may require you to undergo some change of mind, but it doesn't require you to potentially — calling on the government to provide more support for impoverished children so that they've got day care that's high quality.

Smith. We've just got a couple more minutes and there are a couple national security questions I wanted to get in in that time. First, lot of complicated parts in this surveillance debate, but there's one thing you could do with the stroke of the pen, which is ending the bulk collection of metadata. Why haven't you?

The President. Well, what we've done is called on Congress to create a program that preserves what we need in order to fight against potential terror attacks on the homeland while addressing the concerns of privacy critics and libertarians.

Smith. But why not stop the program now?

The President. Well, because I'm still hopeful that we can actually get a bill passed… You know, there is bipartisan support for the bill, and, as has been true in a lot of instances, including on immigration, my preference is always to actually get legislation passed because it's a little longer lasting.

Smith. And finally I wanted to ask you about Kayla Mueller. She was confirmed dead today, and I wondered both if you had any reaction to her murder and, really, how do you tell a family that the United States government is not going to do all it can or we have a policy of not doing all we can in these situations?

The President. Well, first of all, my immediate reaction is heartbreak. I've been in touch with Kayla's family. She was an outstanding young woman and a great spirit, and I think that spirit will live on. I think the more people learn about her, the more they appreciate what she stood for and how it stands in contrast with the barbaric organization that held her captive. But I don't think it's accurate then to say that the United States government hasn't done everything that we could. We devoted enormous resources — and always devote enormous resources — to freeing captives or hostages anywhere in the world, and I deployed an entire operation at significant risk to rescue not only her, but the other individuals that had been held, and probably missed them by a day or two precisely because we had that commitment. The one thing that we have held to is a policy of not paying ransoms with an organization like ISIL. And the reason is that once we start doing that, not only are we financing their slaughter of innocent people and strengthening their organization, but we're actually making Americans even greater targets for future kidnappings… You know, it's as tough as anything that I do, having conversation with parents who understandably want — by any means necessary — for their children to be safe, and we will do everything we can, short of providing an incentive for future Americans to be caught.

Smith. And I understand the policy review underway, you're ruling out ransoms. Is anything even being considered there?

The President. Just as a general rule, what we don't want to do is make other American citizens riper targets for the actions of organizations like this.

Barack Obama, Interview with Ben Smith of BuzzFeed Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives