Barack Obama photo

Interview with Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union"

February 02, 2014

THE PRESIDENT: My big push is making sure we're focused on opportunity, making sure that every single day, all of us in Washington are trying to think about ways that we can help folks get good jobs, make sure that they're trained for the good jobs that are out there, make sure that those jobs pay, make sure our kids are getting a great education. Those are the issues that the American people still very much are concerned about.

And obviously there is going to be more that we can do if Congress is able to break through some of the gridlock. And if we're able to, for example, pass immigration reform, that is going to add growth to our economy, reduce our deficits.

TAPPER: You don't seem confident that that's going to happen, though.

THE PRESIDENT: No, actually, I actually think that we have a good chance of getting immigration reform --

TAPPER: Oh, I don't mean immigration reform, I mean the jobs issue, though.

THE PRESIDENT: I think there are going to be some issues where it's going to be tough for them to move forward. And I am going to continue to reach out to them and say here are my best ideas, I want to hear yours.

But as I said at the State of the Union, I can't wait. And the American people, more importantly, cannot wait. We know that one of the biggest problems right now in the jobs market is the long-term unemployed.

TAPPER: Yeah, they're having trouble. People won't hire them because they've been unemployed so long.

THE PRESIDENT: Because they've been employed -- unemployed so long, folks are looking at that gap in the resume and they're weeding them out before these folks even get a chance for an interview.

So what we have done is to gather together 300 companies, just to start with, including some of the top 50 companies in the country, companies like Walmart and Apple and Ford and others, to say let's establish best practices. Do not screen people out of the hiring process just because they've been out of work for a long time.

We just went through the worst recession since the Great Depression. All those things cumulatively are going to have an impact. Will we be able to have more of an impact if we can get Congress, for example, to pass a minimum-wage law that applies to everybody as opposed to me just through executive order making sure that folks who are contractors to the federal government have to pay a minimum wage? Absolutely. And that's why I'm going to keep on reaching out to them. But I'm not going to wait for them.

TAPPER: Your critics say this is diminished expectations. And I've been covering you for a long, long time, as you remember, 2005, 2006 in the Senate. I remember during the campaign when you talked about your presidency being a moment when the rise of the oceans would slow and the nation and the world would heal.

And now you're talking about pen and phone and executive orders and executive actions.

Do you think you were naive back then or have you recalibrated your expectations and your ambitions?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, part of it is we got a lot of that stuff done. We've got in this country a health care reform that has already signed up millions of people and makes sure that everybody who is watching, anybody who already has insurance will not be dropped because of a preexisting condition. And if they don't have health insurance, they can get it on

We have made enormous strides on the education front, changing our student loan programs so that millions more young people get student loans.

And so part of what's happened is that checklist that I had when I came into office, we have passed a lot of that and we're implementing a lot of it.

And so in no way are my expectations diminished or my ambitions diminished, but what is obviously true is we've got divided government right now. The House Republicans in particular have had difficulty rallying around any agenda, much less mine. And in that kind of environment, what I don't want is the American people to think that the only way for us to make big change is through legislation. We've all got to work together to continue to provide opportunity for the next generation.

TAPPER: And let's talk about House Republicans, because -- and Senate Republicans -- because there has been a large contingency of Republicans critical of your new approach. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who might run for president, calls this the imperial presidency. And in the House, there is this thing, as you know, called the Stop Act. They want to rein in what you're trying to do.

How do you respond to that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't think that's very serious. The truth of the matter is, is that every president engages in executive actions. In fact, we've been very disciplined and sparing in terms of the executive actions that we have taken. We make sure that we're doing it within the authority that we have under statute.

But I am not going to make an apology for saying that if I can help middle-class families and folks who are working hard to try to get in the middle class do a little bit better, then I'm going to do it.

And you know, I think it's a tough argument for the other side to make that not only are they willing to do an -- not do anything, but they also want me not to do anything, in which case I think the American people, whose right now estimation of Congress is already pretty low, might might have an even lower opinion of.

TAPPER: The Stop Act is not something you take seriously?

THE PRESIDENT: I -- I am not particularly worried about it.

TAPPER: Let's talk about areas where you might be able to make some progress.


TAPPER: I know that a pathway to citizenship and immigration reform is very important to you. And it's very important to Democrats and others. It's possible that you might be able to get an immigration reform bill on your desk that has legal status for the millions of undocumented workers who are in this country, but not citizenship.

Would you veto that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I'm not going to prejudge what gets to my desk.

TAPPER: Right. But how important is that principle?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the principle that we don't want two classes of people in America is a principle that a lot of people agree with, not just me and not just Democrats. But I am encouraged by, you know, what Speaker Boehner has said. Obviously, I was encouraged by the bipartisan bill that passed out of the Senate. I genuinely believe that Speaker Boehner and a number of House Republicans, folks like Paul Ryan, really do want to get a serious immigration reform bill done.

If the speaker proposes something that says right away folks aren't being deported, families aren't being separated, we're able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here and then there's a regular process of citizenship, I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being. That's why I don't want to prejudge it.

TAPPER: I just wonder if you see this all -- this at all in terms of especially the pathway to citizenship in the way that you seemed to when we were -- when you were passing health care reform and I was covering it, the public option.

In other words, it would be great, in your view, if you could do it. It's not going to happen and there might be some expectation- setting you have to do, because I, having reported on this, I don't think House Republicans can pass anything that has a pathway to citizenship.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, here's the good news, though. Number one, there is a desire to get it done. And that, particularly in this Congress, is a huge piece of business, because they haven't gotten a lot done over the last couple of years out of the House Republican Caucus. They've been willing to say what they're against, not so much what they're for.

I do know that for a lot of families, the fear of deportation is one of the biggest concerns that they've got. And that's why we took executive actions, given my prosecutorial discretion, to make sure we're not deporting kids who grew up here and are Americans, for all practical purposes. But we need to get that codified.

And the question is, is there more that we can do in this legislation that gets both Democratic and Republican support, but solves these broader problems, including strengthening borders and making sure that we have a legal immigration system that works better than it currently does.

The fact that they're for something, I think, is progress. The second thing here, though, I want to make sure that I'm not just making decisions, that - about what makes sense or not. We're going to be consulting with the people who stand to be affected themselves. The - not just the immigrant - immigration rights groups and organizations and advocates, but also ordinary folks. How do they feel? What is it that they're looking for? What do they aspire to? And, you know, this is something that - where you've got to have a serious conversation around the country. I do know that for a lot of families the fear of deportation is one of the biggest concerns that they've got. And that's why we took executive actions given my prosecutorial discretion, to make sure we're not deporting kids who grew up here and are Americans for all practical purposes. But we need to get that codified. And the question is, are - is there more that we can do in this legislation that gets both Democratic and Republican support, but solves these broader problems, including strengthening borders and making sure that we have a legal immigration system that works better than it currently does.

TAPPER: Another big issue in this country right now has to do with the legalization of marijuana. You gave an interview to the New Yorker's David Remnick and you said that you thought smoking pot was a bad habit, but you didn't think it was any worse for a person than drinking.

Now, that contradicts the official Obama administration policy, both on the website of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also the fact that marijuana is considered a Schedule One narcotic, along with heroin and Ecstasy.

Now, do you think you were maybe talking just a little too casually about it with Remnick and the New Yorker? Or are you considering not making marijuana a Schedule One narcotic?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, what is and isn't a Schedule One narcotic is a job for Congress. It's not --

TAPPER: I think it's the DEA that decides that.

THE PRESIDENT: It's -- it's not -- it's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws undergirding those determinations.

TAPPER: Would you support that move?

THE PRESIDENT: But the broader point, I stand by my belief based, I think, on the scientific evidence, that marijuana, for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge.

But as I said in the interview, my concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly and, in some cases, with a racial disparity. I think that is a problem.

Over the long term, what I believe is, if we can deal with some of the criminal-penalty issues, then we can really tackle what is a problem, not just for marijuana, but also alcohol, also cigarettes, also harder drugs, and that is, try to make sure that our kids don't get don't get into these habits in the first place.

And you know, the incarceration model that we've taken particularly around marijuana does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we've set.

But I do offer a cautionary note. And I said this in the interview, those who think legalization is a panacea, I think they have to ask themselves --

TAPPER: Right.

THE PRESIDENT: -- some tough questions, too, because if we start having a situation where big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher.

TAPPER: Are going to be higher.

Barack Obama, Interview with Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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