Barack Obama photo

Interview with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered"

September 30, 2013

MR. INSKEEP: As you have watched what's happening in Congress, do you feel that House Republicans are coming any closer to anything that you could sign?


MR. INSKEEP: If they offered you more, Mr. President, would you be willing then to negotiate things, like a delay in Obamacare in the individual mandate?

THE PRESIDENT: Steve, let's be clear: We're not going to delay the Affordable Care Act. There are millions of Americans right now who do not have health insurance. And they are finally, after decades, going to be in a position where they can get affordable health care just like everybody else. And that means that their families, their kids, themselves, they've got the basic security that you and I enjoy. And the notion that we would even delay them getting that kind of peace of mind, potentially going to a doctor to get treated for illnesses that they currently have simply because the Republicans have decided, ideologically, that they're opposed to the Affordable Care Act is not something that we're going to be discussing.

MR. INSKEEP: As we talk, Mr. President, we're on a day when, obviously, a shut-down is looming. You said earlier that you were going to be talking to the leaders. Did you mean Republican leaders and if so, which one?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm going to be talking to all of them. And we still have a window; there's still an opportunity during the course of this day to avert a shut down and make sure that we are paying our bills. And if we --

MR. INSKEEP: What can you offer?

THE PRESIDENT: Steve, when you say what can I offer, I shouldn't have to offer anything. They're not doing me a favor by paying for things that they have already approved for the government to do. That's part of their basic function of government. That's not doing me a favor. That's doing what the American people sent them here to do, carrying out their responsibilities.

I have said consistently that I'm always happy to talk to Republicans and Democrats about how we shape a budget that is investing in things like early childhood education, rebuilding our roads and bridges and putting people back to work, growing our economy, making sure that we've got the research and development we need to stay at the cutting edge and that deals with some of our long- term debt issues. But we're not going to accomplish those things if one party to this conversation says that the only way that they come to the table is if they get 100 percent of what they want. And if they don't, they threaten to burn down the house.

October 1, 2013 Tuesday

[Part Two of Interview broadcast on October 1, 2013]

MR. INSKEEP: People who follow this closely, Mr. President, will know that you've negotiated in the past with Speaker Boehner and those negotiations have often fallen apart; that your vice president has negotiated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and sometimes those negotiations have succeeded, but there don't appear to be negotiations going on now. Do you believe there is anyone in Congress in a position of authority you can deal with who could deliver an agreement to you?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look. I like Speaker Boehner. I like Mitch McConnell. I think they are, you know, in challenging positions because right now they have been unwilling to say no to the most extreme parts of their caucus. And at the point where they're willing to say no to the most extreme parts of their caucus, I think that there are a whole bunch of Republicans both in the Senate and the House who recognize this is a bad strategy. They've said so publicly. I'm in conversations with those senators on a regular basis, and some of those House members, and they recognize that the greatest country on Earth should not be doing business this way.

And I think if John Boehner stood up and said, we're going to make sure that the government stays open, we're going to make sure that basic government functions are being carried out, we're going to make sure that America pays its bills on time, like we always have throughout our history, but I'm still going to take principled stands on a whole range of issues where I differ with the president. I think the vast majority of American people and the majority of Republicans would say that's the kind of leadership we expect.

MR. INSKEEP: Would he lose his job?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't think he would. But it requires some willingness on his part to put the long-term interests of the country ahead of short-term political interests. Ironically, over time, I actually think that would be good politics.

Look, I want a successful Republican Party in the sense of one that is interested in governing. There's not going to be a Democratic president here permanently. You know, Congress is going to go back and forth over the next five, 10, 20 years. And what we want is both parties to be able to have principled disagreements, to have very tough fights, but to make sure that the underlying stability of the country is maintained and that we're not demonizing the other side, we're not locking ourselves into ideological positions that we can't move off of, we're not boxing ourselves in. And unfortunately, that's what we've seen -- that's the pattern that we've seen over the last several years.

MR. INSKEEP: Let me mention, Mr. President, that one reason this is such an emotional moment is that people on both sides of the debate over the Affordable Care Act seem to believe that once the individual mandate takes effect and people begin receiving subsidies, the Affordable Care Act, "Obamacare," stays forever -- cannot be removed, because there will be political support for it. Do you believe that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I do, but that's a pretty strange argument. Keep in mind -- [chuckles] -- if you're a Republican -- and we've heard some Republicans make this argument -- some of those who are leading the charge on this make this argument -- and essentially, what they're saying is, once this is fully implemented and millions of people who currently don't have health care have health care at reasonable prices and protections are in place for consumers across the board, that it will be sufficiently successful and popular that people won't want to repeal it.

Well, that's a strange argument. So the notion is we've got to stop it before people like it too much. That's not an argument that I think most people buy.

MR. INSKEEP: Well, part of the argument is sometimes, people come to like things that the government can't afford anymore.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, this is -- this is the argument that was made with respect to Social Security; this is the argument that was made to Medicare. It turns out, actually, people liked it, and we could afford it. And unlike the prescription drug plan that was passed by Republicans, which now is very popular with seniors, although at the time that it was passed was actually less popular than the Affordable Care Act, according to the polls -- we paid for the Affordable Care Act. It doesn't add to the deficit. In fact, repealing it would increase the deficit, and so --

MR. INSKEEP: If the assumptions in current law held.

THE PRESIDENT: Well -- but the assumptions so far not only have held, they've actually exceed expectations. Health care costs have gone up slower since we passed the Affordable Care Act. There were great predictions coming from the Republicans that health care costs would go up even faster; that hasn't happened. There were predictions that the market places that we're setting up -- essentially, the group plans where people buy health insurance -- would not offer a good deal to consumers. And so far, the bids have come in from insurance companies, and lo and behold, they've actually come under the estimates that the government had so far.

So the truth is that every prediction about how bad the Affordable Care Act would be for individual consumers out there has not proven to be true.

MR. INSKEEP: That's President Obama speaking yesterday at the White House.

Now, Medicare -- the program for seniors the president mentioned -- has actually turned out to be hard work to afford. The cost of all health care has been rising for years. And one major question about the Affordable Care Act is whether it will meet its goal of containing those costs over time.

Despite the government shutdown, the main parts of the law take effect today. Health exchanges are supposed to open; websites and other locations across the country where people without insurance can shop for private plans.

I asked the president if he was prepared for significant glitches as the exchanges open. And he answer was, absolutely.

THE PRESIDENT: In the first week, first month, first three months, I would suspect that there will be glitches. This is 50 states, a lot of people signing up for something, and there are going to be problems. And I guarantee you, there will be problems because we've got precedent. When Massachusetts, just one state, set this up, it took quite a long time. It took several months before everything was smoothed out. Of course, the same was true with Medicare and Social Security and every other social program that we've set up -- the Children's Health Insurance Program.

But what we're confident about is that people will be able to take a look and find out whether this is something that is going to be good for their families.

MR. INSKEEP: You've talked a lot during your time in office about the widening gap between the rich and everybody else. This is a decades-long trend, but a good part of that trend has now taken part -- taken place on your watch. There was a study I was reading, 2009 to 2012: Overwhelming majority of the increase in income in this country went to the wealthiest 1 percent. Why is that happening on your watch?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it's one of my biggest concerns. And part of it has to do with the fact that these long-term trends have accelerated. Globalization, combined with technology, have stripped away a lot of the basic security that middle-income people had because a lot of those middle-income jobs have left. Either they were moved overseas, they were replaced with technology -- whether you're talking about a bank teller, a travel agent, a high-level administrator in a lot of companies, if you go to many manufacturers, it's all roboticized. So some of the -- that's part of the trend. But --

MR. INSKEEP: Are your efforts not helping with this?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, there's no doubt --

MR. INSKEEP: The law was passed under a Democratic Congress.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, no -- there are no doubts that what we've done has helped. So for example, the changes we made in the tax law that increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans while locking in tax cuts for middle-class Americans, that helped. That made the tax system more progressive.

MR. INSKEEP: The economist Tyler Cowen was on our program the other day. He'd written a book about income inequality. And he argued, based on his analysis, that it's really inevitable, it's going to get worse, and the thing for public officials to do is to adapt to it rather than try to change it.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't accept that. America is, always been, at its best when everybody who's willing to work hard has a chance to succeed. There is no doubt that these trends are powerful and they're global. I mean, we're seeing the same trends in Scandinavian countries that historically were -- prided themselves on great equality. We've seen it magnified in less developed countries and emerging markets. So these are global trends that we're going to have to fight against.

But if we are educating a workforce that has the skills they need to compete, if we have a tax system that is fair and not rewarding those who can afford high-priced accountants and lawyers, if we are rebuilding our infrastructure in this country, not only to make us more competitive but because those create jobs that can't be exported, if we are increasing a minimum wage so that it is reflective of the same purchasing power that existed many years ago, if we're creating more ladders of opportunity for people who are locked in neighborhoods that have been abandoned and small towns where factories have closed, if we do those things, then we can lessen the impact of these broader market forces.

But what is true is that globalization and technology are a mixed bag. On the one hand, they create a situation in which consumer goods are cheap and they create a situation in which we can have access to goods and services that we would never have had before. On the other hand, it does create a situation in which a lot of the jobs that are created are at the very top, high-skilled, you know, creative work that can't be replicated, or at the bottom, low-skilled jobs. What we don't have are those jobs in the middle that we have to really focus on building, because we can outcompete anybody when we have smart policies.

MR. INSKEEP: Regardless of the budget situation, there is a debt ceiling approaching in a little more than two weeks. You've said you will not negotiate over an extension of the debt ceiling. I just want to make sure that I'm clear on that. If there is no agreement, if the debt ceiling is -- the debt limit is reached, if the United States is going into default or at risk of going into default, you absolutely will not negotiate, even in that circumstance?

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely, I will not negotiate. And the reason, Steve, is because if we establish a pattern whereby one faction of one party controlling one chamber in Congress can threaten default, that the United States of America is no longer meeting its obligations and fulfilling the full faith and credit of the United States unless they get a hundred percent of what they want, then we've established a pattern that fundamentally changes the nature of our government. At that point, any president -- not just me -- any president is subject to that kind of blackmail continuously.

If you had a Republican president in here and a Democratic speaker said, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling unless you pass background checks on guns; we're not going to pass the debt ceiling unless you raise the corporate income tax by 30 percent, you know, that Republican president would find him or herself in a similar position. That's not how our Constitution was designed. Raising the debt ceiling is not raising the debt, it is simply saying Congress is authorizing the Treasury to pay for those things that Congress has already approved.

MR. INSKEEP: So a potential debt-ceiling crisis approaches, even as the president tries to manage ordinary business. He had hoped to name a new Fed chairman by now, giving Congress time to act this year to find a successor to Ben Bernanke. As he pondered that decision, I asked if the president wants the next Fed chair to change course for the Fed. He began by noting that the Fed is a dual mandate, one part is protecting the currency.

THE PRESIDENT: Part of that mandate is also full employment, making sure that the economy is growing in such a way that people have the chance to succeed. And --

MR. INSKEEP: Should the Fed be doing more in that department?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that the Fed has to constantly monitor where the economy is moving, but we can't put the entire burden on the Fed. And this brings us back to the original point about potential government shutdowns or potential default because we're not paying our bills. The -- we have dug ourselves out of a deep hole, and the economy now has grown. We've created jobs for 42 consecutive months. We've created 7.5 million new jobs. Manufacturing's come back in ways that many people would not have anticipated. The deficit, which was the main rationale back in 2011 for Republicans to engage in this brinkmanship, has gone down faster than any time since World War II and has been cut by more than half since I came into office.

So when you combine that with the fact that we're producing more energy than ever before, that we still have the most creative businesses in the world, the most creative and effective and productive workforce in the world, we've got all the ingredients we need to succeed.

What's holding us back are the bad policy decisions that have been forced on the American people by a faction of the Republican Party. And if we can just get out of gridlock and stalemate mode, make some basic decisions, deal with our long-term debts but recognize that we also have to invest in what it takes to grow the middle class right here and right now, then the burden won't be all on the Fed. The Fed won't have to take as many extraordinary measures to make up for the failures of the political system. And now is the time for us to do that because we've --

MR. INSKEEP: Has the delay in choosing a new chairman hurt the Fed?

THE PRESIDENT: No, because I think that Ben Bernanke's done an outstanding job. He's maintained confidence. And whoever I appoint I think will continue many of the smart policy's that Ben Bernanke's made. But Ben Bernanke himself has said that his job would be a whole lot easier and the next Fed chairman's job would be a whole lot easier if Congress started doing what it's supposed to be doing.

MR. INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks very much.

THE PRESIDENT: Thanks you so much, Steve.

Barack Obama, Interview with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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