Barack Obama photo

Interview with Emmett Miller of Black Entertainment Television

September 26, 2011

Emmett Miller. You've just announced a new $447 billion dollar Jobs' Bill.

The President. Right.

Emmett Miller. And we all know that African-American unemployment is running really high, above 16%, nearly double that of whites. How does this bill specifically target them?

The President. Well, first of all, I think it's important to remember that we are going through the worst financial crisis and subsequent economy that we've seen since the Great Depression and so the challenges for everybody out there is tough. You're right; it's especially tough for the African-American community. The steps we took in the first two and a half years made a difference. It made sure that a lot of folks were still on the job that otherwise wouldn't be. It made sure that states were able to stabilize their budgets, so they weren't laying off as many teachers or fire fighters or civil servants that are providing services every day. But, you know, what we realized over the last couple of months is that because of a whole range of issues, including what's happened overseas in Europe, that the economy needs another boost, and we've got to focus more on putting people back to work now.

Emmett Miller. And that's what this Jobs' Bill is?

The President. So the Jobs' Bill, overall, is designed to make sure that we're rebuilding schools and bridges and putting construction workers back to work. It makes sure that we're putting teachers back in the classroom. It makes certain that we are providing incentives to hire veterans who have been out of work, but also the long-term unemployed who are out of work. And it makes sure that we're providing tax breaks and tax credits to just about every family and every middle class person and every small business around the country. Now, with respect to the African-American community, they benefit from all of that, but in addition, we are making sure that summer jobs for youth are included in the package. Making sure that we reform our unemployment insurance so that, in addition to 1.4 million African-Americans getting unemployment insurance, we're also providing them a pathway so that they start getting some on-the-jobs training. All those things are going to have a huge impact in the African-American community. That's why we've got to get this bill passed now.

Emmett Miller. Why not target the African-American community? Why not say then, "This is for you. This is for African-Americans?" If there was a banking crisis, then you'd target money for the banks. If there was a national disaster, you'd target your money for—for the National Disaster Relief.

The President. No. That—that's not how America works. America works when all of us are pulling together and everybody is focused on making sure that every single person has opportunity. And so when we put forward a program like, for example, the Health Care Bill, our focus is people who don't have health care. Now it turns out that the majority of folks who don't have health care are also working families, and are disproportionately African-American and Latino, but that doesn't mean that it's only for them. There are a whole bunch of folks all across the country who need help. And we are going to help every single person who needs help.

Emmett Miller. Were their [African Americans'] expectations way back when in 2009 too high?

The President. I don't think their expectations were too high. I think that people understood that it took us a long time to get into this mess; it's going to take a long time to get out of this mess. And I look folks in the eye all the time who don't have a job or who have lost their home or who are struggling otherwise. And what they tell me is, as long as I feel like you're fighting for me, as long as I feel like you have my interests at heart, then we are going to stand behind you. And that ultimately is the test. The test is not going to be whether we solve this problem overnight. The test is are we projecting a vision for the future. That is going to be one that makes sure that every kid in this country has a shot and that the middle class is still growing and the African-American middle class is growing. Because look, the fact of the matter is that it is a test for America how well those at the bottom do, not just how well those at the top do. And what's always made this country great is the belief that everybody's got a chance regardless of race, regardless of creed. And that's a vision that I think the vast majority of Americans still share. It's been tested over the last three years, but my job is to keep on pushing in that direction.

Emmett Miller. African-American leaders have been critical of late. And it's true; you've said you're the president for all people, not just for one group. But once again, if you have a disaster in a certain area of the country, you're going to target money there. If I'm a 16-year-old kid on the south side of Chicago, okay? My dad's gone. My mom's working 10 hours a day for peanuts. All I see around me is blight. There are no help wanted signs. And you won't even say, "Look. I'm going to help you, a young African-American?" How do I feel?

The President. Emmett, first of all, that's not what people are saying. What people are saying all across the country is we're hurting and we've been hurting for a long time. And the question is how can we make sure that the economy is working for every single person? And the truth of the matter is, the vast majority of African-Americans understand that. They understand that when the economy goes well, then everybody does well. Now, there's certain communities that have been struggling even when the economy does well, which is why, for example, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program is going to be targeting communities that are having the toughest time. But the other thing I want to make sure that you don't just kind of slip in there with this notion that African-American leaders of late have been critical. There have been a handful of African-American leaders who have been critical. They were critical when I was running for president. There's always going to be somebody who's critical of the President of the United States. That's my job, in part, is particularly when the economy is going as badly as it is right now, people are going to have concerns. And they should.

What I think you're seeing all across the board in every community is that when unemployment is high and people are having a tough time, then they have to feel as if there's some hope, there's some prospects out there. And right now, the economy has been bad for a long time. It was bad before I got elected, and it has continued to be very tough for a lot of folks. Until people actually feel better about the economy, they—they're going to continue to have problems and they're going to continue to hope that the White House can do more.

Emmett Miller. What would you say to the man who stood on the podium back in 2009 that he didn't know then what he knows now?

The President. Well look, there are a lot of things we know now that we didn't know then. I mean, the day I took the oath of office we didn't know that the economy had just contracted nine percent in the previous quarter. We didn't know that 400,000 people had lost their jobs the month before and another 600,000 were going to lose their jobs the month after. So, I think the depth of the economic crisis worldwide was something that had—was glimmering on the horizon, but I don't think we fully appreciated it. The decisions we made were the right decisions: Making sure that a U.S. auto industry still existed and we didn't lose a million jobs. That's a controversial decision, but it was the right decision. The Recovery Act, which saved a whole lot of jobs in America, even though the folks who didn't lose their jobs may not have known that they might otherwise have lost their jobs. It was the right decision. So, you know, what I would tell myself if I traveled back in time? I would say it's going to be a long hard slog and the American people are going to, you know, feel kind of worn down after this much difficulty. But I'd also tell—tell that less gray person to hang in there because the American people are resilient and they have good values and they care about the right stuff, and we'll get through this.

Emmett Miller. What would you have now done differently? You talked about the rings you did right with respect to jobs, you talked about the programs you were able to put through, you talked about some of the objectives you had. What would you have now done differently in retrospect?

The President. I think if we had had better information, it would have been important for me to able to communicate to the American people the fact that this was going to be a long process. That we weren't going to fix this in six months. This was not your usual recession. This was a once-in-a-generation recession. And I think that might have helped brace people for the difficulties that—that were to come. The other thing that, as I reflect on it, is that in the first year or so we spent a lot of time just doing the right thing and not worrying about selling what we were doing. And I think that the more you're in this office, the more you have to say to yourself that telling a story to the American people is just as important as the actual policies that you're implementing. And they've got to have a sense of where it is that we're going to go, particularly during hard times.

Emmett Miller. I sat down with you five years ago in the hallway of a junior college when you were still Senator. It was "The Audacity of Hope" book tour. Do you ever think back on those times? What reflections do you have, considering who you are now?

The President. You know, Michelle tells me at least that I'm the same man now that I was when she met me when I was still in law school. I have a pretty clear idea about what's right and what—what America is all about. And it involves a belief that everybody gets a chance, that there is a sense that we're in this together. You know, we're a country that values individual initiative and everybody's got to work hard and everybody's got to be pulling their weight, but—but we look out for one another. And my politics really is based on those values, and those values haven't changed. They're constant. And the longer I'm in this office, the more I believe that when Americans are working together, there's nothing we can't accomplish. I've seen it time and time again. When we're divided, then we get less done than we need to. And part of my job is to help usher America through a very difficult time but still maintain that sense that we're in this together.

Emmett Miller. One of the questions we had was, When? When is it going to change and how long will we have to wait?

The President. Well look, you know, right now we are in a situation where the economy is stabilized, but it's stabilized with too high unemployment rate. And I think if we get this Jobs Bill passed, that's going to make a difference right away. Some of the things though that have been plaguing the African-American community for too long, those things are going to take years to change. The school system in particular.

Young people, it was just reported are — one group for example, is more insured than it's ever been because of the American, or Affordable Care Act. But, how we think about our health habits, all the things the First Lady's doing in terms of what we're eating, in terms of getting exercise, instilling good health habits in our kids— those are things that will take place over the years to reduce the diabetes rate, in the African-American community, for example.

Emmett Miller. How do you get it through Congress? How do you make it successful this time?

The President. Well, we'll get some of it through Congress. And we will just keep pounding away until we get all of it through Congress. And if we don't get all of it through Congress, and we haven't seen enough done to help the American people, then we'll get a new Congress. Because the bottom line is, that the vision that we put forward in the Jobs' Bill and the ways, by the way, that we intend to pay for it, by making sure that millionaires and billionaires are paying their fair share, that they're not paying lower tax rates effectively than folks who are making 50,000 dollars a year, that combination of efforts to rebuild America, put people back to work, get teachers back in the classroom and paying for it in a responsible way, that vision is one that the American people believe in. I mean, you were citing polls earlier. If you look at specifics of the Jobs' Bill, overwhelmingly, people support it, including a lot of Republicans. When you look at how we propose to pay for it, overwhelmingly the American people support it, including a number of Republicans. Now, this particular Congress may not be responsive to the American people, but we are going to keep on putting pressure on them until we can get as much of it done as possible. And if they're not doing enough to help the American people during a time of great need, then we'll make sure that we have a new Congress.

Emmett Miller. African-Americans are going to be watching you and asking themselves, "Who is this man and does he care about me?" What is it that they don't understand about you, do you think, that you would have them understand?

The President. All I get from the African-American community as I travel around the country is we know it's hard and we're praying for you. And we're behind you. And so, I think the main thing I want the African-American community to know is just those prayers are appreciated. Them rooting for me is appreciated. And that I am spending all my time in this office trying to make sure that if there's some kid in the south side of Chicago that doesn't have a shot right now, isn't going to a good school, parent doesn't have a job, that I'm fighting for him. And that is true if they're in a barrio somewhere in, you know, Los Angeles. It's true of some kid in Appalachia. That the values that brought me here to this office are the ones that I'm going to carry with me when I leave office. And, you know, that's all I care about, is making sure that I'm delivering on behalf of those folks who have invested so much in me.

Emmett Miller. Mr. President, thank you.

The President. Thank you. Appreciate it.

Barack Obama, Interview with Emmett Miller of Black Entertainment Television Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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