Barack Obama photo

Interview With Michel Martin of National Public Radio

July 22, 2011

MARTIN: Mr. President, welcome to the program, thank you so much for joining us.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Of course, we want to talk about the negotiations over the debt and the debt ceiling on Wednesday. You said that you like the compromise offered by the so-called Gang of Six, that bipartisan group of three Republican and three Democratic senators. What's in this plan that's been missing from earlier efforts, that makes it appealing to you?

THE PRESIDENT: Well actually, it's not so much that it's hugely different from some of the previous frameworks that were, for example, put out by my fiscal commission or that I talked about several months ago. What was different was that you had Republican senators acknowledging that revenues need to be part of a balanced package. And you had Democratic senators acknowledge that we're going to have to make some difficult spending cuts in order to achieve the kinds of debt and deficit reduction that are important to the economy. So what I've said consistently, and what I think this bipartisan group of senators confirmed — and frankly, what everybody who has looked at this who's outside the political process has acknowledged - is, is that in order for us to solve the debt and deficit problems, we've got to cut spending that we don't need; we have to eliminate programs that may not be working; we've got to make some tough decisions around things like defense spending as well as domestic spending.

But we're also going to have to have more revenues, and we can do that in a way that is not hurting the economy; in fact, that could potentially help the economy by closing up some loopholes that distort the economy. So my hope is, is that with that acknowledgement that we need a balanced approach, that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are going to be willing to engage in the kind of compromise that can resolve this problem.

MARTIN: What do you think the hold-up has been so far? Do you think that people - there are people who really do not believe the consequences will really be as dire as many people say they will be if the debt ceiling is not raised? Do you think it's the case that some people won't support a compromise just because you do? What - what do you think the hold up's been?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, probably a little bit of all of the above. You've got some members of the Republican Party who've been downplaying the consequences of default. The irony is, you know, Ronald Reagan, I think, when he was president, repeatedly talked about how irresponsible it would be to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any kind of way. I think that there is some politics. And compromising with me, among some Republican leaders, is bad politics for them.

I also think that — in fairness — that the decisions we've got to make right now are tough ones, and nobody likes them. I mean, it's always easier to give people more benefits and cut their taxes than it is to raise more revenue and reduce benefits. And so what we've got to do is to have an honest conversation with each other about each side taking on some of their sacred cows.

And frankly, that's what the American people expect. I mean, what you've been seeing in recent polling is, the American people agree with the approach that I've talked about — a balanced approach. Even the majority of Republicans agree that it shouldn't just be spending cuts; that those, like myself, who've been incredibly blessed and can afford to pay a little more, or oil companies that are doing very well and don't need the tax breaks that are currently in the tax code, that we've got to make some sacrifices as well to solve the problem.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit more about those sacrifices, though. We've talked a lot about taxes and raising taxes, and the argument around that. But let's talk about it the other way. Specifically this plan, this bipartisan plan would trim the amount that goes into entitlement programs. Now, you've been saying everybody's got to give something...


MARTIN: ...and you're willing to give up on some things that are important to other Democrats, to progressives. But what about — what is your message to Democrats — and perhaps I should say progressives — who say that the most vulnerable people in this country have already suffered too much in recent years and gotten too little?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think what's absolutely true is, is that core commitments that we make to the most vulnerable have to be maintained. And so a lot of the spending cuts that we're making should be around areas like defense spending, as opposed to food stamps. I do think that when it comes to entitlements, when we're talking about Social Security and Medicare, that those aren't entitlement programs where people aren't contributing; it would be that they are social insurance programs that people have been making contributions to, and they are the most important part of our social safety net so that when people retire, they can retire with dignity and respect.

What is true is that given the rising number of seniors, and given the huge escalation in health-care costs, that if we don't structure those programs so that they are sustainable, then it's going to be hard for the next generation to enjoy those kinds — same kinds of benefits. And so we are going to have to make some modest changes that retain the integrity of the program, but make sure that they're there for years to come. And that's not even just a deficit problem, that's a — a step that even if we were all Democrats up here on Capitol Hill, we'd have to start making, to make sure that the integrity of those programs are preserved.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the unemployed for a minute.


MARTIN: I think you probably know the numbers better than I do...


MARTIN: But just for those who don't, that there are 14 million Americans who don't have jobs right now. Perhaps the real number might be as high as 16 million, and the overall rate is 9.2 percent. Among Latinos, it's 11.6 percent; among African Americans, it's 16 — 16.2 percent, which is a very large number. You know, there's — so much of the conversation in recent days has been around the debt, the $14 trillion debt. What do you say to people who might be listening to our conversation right now, who are unemployed, and who are saying: When will there be daily meetings about us?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, in the White House there are daily meetings about the unemployed. The single most important thing we can do for the economy is putting people back to work. And by the way, if we put more people back to work, that in and of itself reduces the deficit because those folks are paying taxes and less in need of things like unemployment insurance and — and that's part of the reason why the deficit exploded over the last decade. But also over the last two years, in particular, is because a lot of folks have been not getting raises, not seeing their wages increase. Or they've been losing their jobs, or they don't have health care and so they make more demands on government. So we've got to focus on jobs.

Now, there are some things that we can do right now that would make a difference. Some of the tax breaks to small business, the payroll tax cut that put a thousand dollars into the pockets of the average family — all those things are designed to boost the economy, allow businesses to hire back workers. I've talked about the need for infrastructure. We've got all sorts of work that needs to be done on roads and bridges and broadband lines and high-speed rail that could put folks who've been laid off from the housing industry and construction back to work right now in rebuilding America.

We've got trade deals pending that could create tens of thousands of jobs here in the United States of America. So there are things that we can do right now. The argument that I've consistently made is that if we are able to do some serious work on debts and deficits, then it removes the focus solely on what we can't do— what government can't do — and we can get back to talking about what are some things that we can do, that can really make a difference.

And you know, I don't think that it's contradictory to say that we want to get our fiscal house in order so that we can really make sure that we're doing everything we can on education, and doing everything we can on research and development, everything we can on promoting clean energy jobs, because as long as our fiscal house isn't in order, then it's very hard to move forward on new initiatives that would make a big dent on the unemployment front.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is the president of the United States, Barack Obama.

I wanted to dig in a little bit more on the 16.2 percent unemployment figure, which is — it seems to set off a fairly intense debate, particularly among African- American intellectuals. The Princeton professor Cornell West, whom you know, who was a supporter of yours in the last election, recently called you — forgive me — a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.

And the question is, do you think you have any special responsibility to look out for the interest of African-Americans?

THE PRESIDENT: I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American. That's my job as president of the United States, and I wake up every morning trying to promote the kinds of policies that are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people so that they can live out their American Dream.

And you know, I think that everybody who's looked at what the economy has gone through over the last two years understands that we went through a once-in-a-generation crisis. It's painful for a lot of folks, and I completely understand that. But I don't think that there's a single step that we've taken that has not been designed to make sure that more people are out there working, that more people are out there getting the kinds of incomes that can support their families. And we're just going to keep on doing those things that we think are going to be best for all Americans.

MARTIN: But you know, of course, many people said that Dr. West's remarks were over the top and out of bounds, but their criticism of his remarks were that number one, talking about race is just not productive and two, that those remarks enable people who are not according you and your presidency respect — the respect that they feel is owed, in part, because of your race. And I wonder if you think that any of that is true.

THE PRESIDENT: I think that when you're president of the United States, it comes with the territory that folks are going to criticize you. That's what I signed up for.

MARTIN: OK. Well, speaking of which, you're not the only Obama in the White House who's faced some criticism of late, you know. The first lady, Mrs. Obama, was criticized for a high-calorie meal that she ordered at the Shake Shack, which is a new, popular burger spot in Washington, D.C. And I wonder if you think that that's fair, or do you think that's out of bounds?

THE PRESIDENT: I've — Michelle doesn't take that too seriously. Michelle knows that - well, let me put it this way. Michelle's never hid the fact that her favorite food is french fries, or that she's going to have a burger once in a while. The whole point that she's been making — which is common sense, and so this should be a non-issue — is how do we make sure that our kids, in particular, have balanced meals on a regular basis? Because it'll make them healthier; it'll make them do better in school; and it forms lifelong habits that will improve their quality of life.

And you know, I think that she has been adamant about saying that there's nothing wrong with having a treat once in a while. There's nothing wrong with going ahead and having a milkshake or a piece of pie, or whatever else you crave. The question is, what — what is it that on a regular basis you're doing, and what can we do as a society to make sure that, for example, folks in low-income communities have access to a grocery store that actually sells fresh - fresh produce?

And in fact, she — they did a wonderful announcement yesterday talking about food deserts, communities where you cannot - you know, in any reasonable way find fresh and healthy foods and if you do find it, then the prices are jacked up in those communities. And there was an announcement, cooperation from a whole bunch of retailers all across the country. They're going to - they're going to start building new stores that will not only create jobs but also give people healthier options.

And that's what this is all about- - empowering people to have better options so that they can make better decisions for their family. It's not about people not having a hamburger once in a while.

MARTIN: OK, but did she get the sweet potato fries or the regular — never mind, I'm not asking that.

THE PRESIDENT: You know, she likes both, actually.

MARTIN: She likes the sweet potato fries and the regular...

THE PRESIDENT: And you should try them in the White House, too, because sometimes we make them, and they're outstanding.

MARTIN: All right. Well, before we let you go, you've got a big birthday coming up in two weeks. And it's the big — can we mention this? — the big 5-0.

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I feel real good about 5-0. The - obviously, I've gotten a little grayer since I took this job but otherwise, I feel pretty good. And Michelle, you know, says that, you know, she - she — she still thinks I'm, I'm cute, you know. And I guess that's — that's all that matters, isn't it?

MARTIN: Well, do you want anything special that we should pass along?


MARTIN: Anything special for the big birthday?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, what I really want right now is to — to get a debt-ceiling deal for my birthday. That's kind of sad, I know. [laughter]

MARTIN: And maybe some french fries...

THE PRESIDENT: And maybe some — you know, maybe I'll have a good hamburger on my birthday as well.

MARTIN: President Barack Obama joined us on the line from the White House. Thank you, Mr. President.

Barack Obama, Interview With Michel Martin of National Public Radio Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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