Time interviews President Obama in the Oval Office on Dec. 12, 2012. From left: Rick Stengel, White House press secretary Jay Carney, White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne, Radhika Jones and Michael Scherer
On Dec. 12, President Barack Obama spoke with TIME managing editor Richard Stengel, White House correspondent Michael Scherer and executive editor Radhika Jones about Lincoln, marijuana, the Middle East and Hawaii moments. The full conversation follows.
TIME: So we’ll start right in. In fact, we’re going to go so far ahead. If we were sitting here four years from now and you were looking back on what your legacy is as a two-term Democratic President — we know what Ronald Reagan did and we know what FDR did — what would you want people to say about your two terms?
THE PRESIDENT: I think what I’d want people to say is that having come in at a time when our economy was on the brink of collapse, when we had gone through a decade in which middle-class families were doing worse and worse, and the ladders of opportunity into the middle class for people who were willing to work hard had begun to deteriorate; at a time when, internationally, we were embroiled in two wars but our leadership around the world was being questioned, that we had steered this ship of state so that we once again had an economy that worked for everybody; that we had laid the foundation for broad-based prosperity; and that internationally we had created the framework for continued American leadership in the world throughout the 21st century, while recognizing that the world is changing and that we should encourage the kind of growth and development in other parts of the world, but over the long term will be good for us and good for the world.
So I think about this eight-year project as one in which domestically on education, on energy, on tax policy, on manufacturing, on research and science we have gotten our — we’ve shaken off some ongoing problems that have hampered our growth, we have reasserted the idea that if you work hard in this country, you can make it. And that we’ve also accommodated all the demographic changes, andcultural and technological changes that are taking place, and been able to marry those with some of the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and discipline and responsibility — all in a way that allows us to succeed and to thrive, and not just for a few at the top, but for the many.
I had a question about one part of the exit polls — that one of the things that came out comparing 2012 to 2008 is that numbers saying they think the government should be doing more versus the government is already doing too much dropped a bit. I mean, there’s a different feeling. And what you just laid out, a lot of that is the government doing more to bring fairness to the economy — a fair shot, fair share. How do you interpret that result?
Well, I’m not arguing for government to do more; I’m arguing for government to do more of the right thing. So I haven’t been arguing for greater government spending per se. I think it makes sense for us to spend less on wars and more on research and development. In sectors like energy, I haven’t been arguing for more spending per se; I’ve been arguing that it doesn’t make sense for us to spend $4 billion subsidizing an oil industry that’s mature and very profitable. We should be using that money to finance clean energy of the future.
So some of this is how do we prioritize what government does in a way that fills the holes, the gaps that the market may not be able to address and that creates platforms and toolkits for individuals to succeed.
And I think that’s true within government operations. We’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years having every agency go back and look at what are the existing regulations on the books. And if the regulations don’t work, let’s get rid of them.
On the other hand, given the better science and knowledge that we have now, there may be some new regulations that do make sense. And, certainly, when it comes to the financial industry or the health care industry, I think we learned a lesson from 2007 and 2008 that a lack of smart regulation can be just as damaging as too much regulation.
I wanted to ask you, Mr. President, about the film Lincoln. We know that you gathered a group to see it here. And for me watching that movie, it was as if I had spent three hours with Lincoln. And I wondered how — it was a very emotional experience. And I wondered how you felt watching that movie. What was it like for you to spend that time with Lincoln?
Well, first of all, Daniel Day-Lewis was sitting next to me, or right behind me. (Laughter.) And so, even after the movie, I felt like I was still hanging out with Lincoln. He was masterful in that role. I think it’s well publicized that Lincoln is my favorite President, and so to see an intimate depiction of him in his work and the challenges that faced him even in a relatively compressed period of time was incredibly powerful.
I think it’s generally a good idea for any President not to compare himself to Lincoln. (Laughter.) And so the magnitude of his challenges and the magnitude of his gifts are of a different scope and scale of any subsequent President.
I do think that there are lessons to be drawn. Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you also engage and get your hands dirty. And there are trade-offs and there are compromises. And what made him such a remarkable individual, as well as a remarkable President, was his capacity to balance the idea that there are some eternal truths with the fact that we live in the here and now, and the here and now is messy and difficult. And anything we do is going to be somewhat imperfect. And so what we try to do is just tack in the right direction.
And you do understand that as President of the United States, the amount of power you have is overstated in some ways, but what you do have the capacity to do is to set a direction. And you recognize you’re not going to arrive with — you’ll never arrive at that promised land, and whatever seeds you plant now may bear fruit many years later.
So being able to project across a very long timeline while still being focused on the immediate tug and pull of politics I think is a useful lesson, and an accurate portrayal of how I think about my work day to day.
I would love to pick up on this direction idea. Basically, in your reelection, you created a new kind of governing coalition that — the seeds of which were planted a long time ago. How long will that last? I mean, if you’re looking ahead — there was a Reagan era that lasted a long time; will this be an Obama-era realignment that lasts a long time?
Well, look, there are a couple of forces at work here. There is the much-noted demographic shift in this society, and that obviously was reflected in this election. I think some people thought that 2008 was an anomaly; that everybody was excited about the idea of the first African American President, but once that excitement ebbed that somehow we would revert back to the old voting models. And that didn’t prove to be the case, and we didn’t think it was going to be the case.
It’s more than just demographics, though; it’s also generational. One of the things that I’m very proud of during my first four years is I think I’ve helped to solidify this incredibly rapid transformation in people’s attitudes around LGBT issues — how we think about gays and lesbians and transgender persons. A lot of that just has to do with the fact that if you talk to Malia, the idea of making an anti-gay remark at her school is just unimaginable. They just don’t get that.
And so, there are those attitudinal shifts that make up this new coalition as well. For all the divisions that you read about in our politics — and many of them are real and powerful — the truth is, is that we have steadily become a more diverse and tolerant country that embraces people’s differences, and respects people who are not like us. And that’s a profoundly good thing. That’s one of the strengths of America. It was hard-fought. And there’s been the occasional backlash, and this is not to argue that somehow racism or sexism or homophobia are going to be eliminated or ever will be eliminated. It is to argue that our norms have changed in a way that prizes inclusion more than exclusion.
And I do think that my eight years as President, reflecting those values and giving voice to those values, helps to validate or solidify that transformation, and I think that’s a good thing for the country. And, by the way, it’s part of what will make America a continued leader of the 21st century — because the world is shrinking, and one of our greatest assets is the fact that we have people from everywhere who want to come here because they know this is an open society, and they know that they will be judged more on their talents and their skills and their commitment to an ideal and a creed, as opposed to what tribe they come from or what God they worship. And that’s something that we should be grateful for.
I have a couple of policy questions growing out of that shift. Do you expect your administration will join the gay marriage cases at the Supreme Court?
We are looking at the cases right now. I’ve already been very clear about DOMA, so there is no doubt that we would continue the position we’re on, that DOMA is unconstitutional and should be struck down. And I think the Prop-8 case, because the briefs are still being written, I should probably be careful about making any specific comments on it.
One of the other big things that happened in the election was in Washington State and Colorado, marijuana for recreational use was legalized. And, again, the same base — the younger people, more progressive people are in favor of that. Is a recreational marijuana user who is following state law someone who should be a federal law enforcement priority?
No. And I think what the Justice Department has consistently asserted is that it’s got finite resources. Our focus has to be on threats to safety, threats to property. When it comes to drug enforcement, big-time drug dealers, folks who are preying on our kids, those who are engaging in violence — that has to be our focus.
Now, obviously, you’ve got a challenge, which is federal laws that are still on the books making marijuana a Class I drug that is subject to significant penalties, and you’ve got state laws now that say it’s legal. We’re going to have to have a conversation about how to reconcile that, because it puts the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorneys in a pretty tough position; they don’t want to look like they’re nullifying laws that are on the books; their job is to carry out the laws of the federal government. On the other hand, I think not only have these states indicated that they’ve got a different view, but what’s also true isthat the public as a whole — even those who don’t necessarily agree with decriminalization of marijuana — don’t think that this should be a top priority for law enforcement.
So this will be something that we navigate over the next several months and next several years. I think that the broader lesson to draw here is that substance abuse is a big problem in oursociety, and we should be doing everything we can to prevent our kids from being trapped by substance abuse. I think a law enforcement model alone, or an emphasis on a law enforcement strategy and not enough emphasis on the public health approach and treatment has not yielded the kind of results that I think we would like. And we’re going to have to have a serious discussion about that.
One of the other things that I’ve heard is being discussed when you think about a second term is the idea of criminal justice reform. What would your goals be in that area? What is the problem you think can be solved in the next few years?
Well, I don’t think it’s any secret that we have one of the two or three highest incarceration rates in the world, per capita. I tend to be pretty conservative, pretty law and order, when it comes to violent crime. My attitude is, is that when you rape, murder, assault somebody, that you’ve made a choice; the society has every right to not only make sure you pay for that crime, but in some cases to disable you from continuing to engage in violent behavior.
But there’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal justice system that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities. Obviously, inner city communities are most obvious, but when you go into rural communities, you see a similar impact. You have entire populations that are rendered incapable of getting a legitimate job because of a prison record. And it gobbles up a huge amount of resources. If you look at state budgets, part of the reason that tuition has been rising in public universities across the country is because more and more resources were going into paying for prisons, and that left less money to provide to colleges and universities.
But this is a complicated problem. One of the incredible transformations in this society that precedes me, but has continued through my presidency, even continued through the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, is this decline in violent crime. And that’s something that we want to continue. And so I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also are there millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process.
That means alternative sentencing?
Potentially. I mean, I think there was an article today in the New York Times about a lot of social scientists taking a look and seeing when it comes to nonviolent crime are there smarter, better ways — and cheaper ways — of doing this. And you can’t put a price on public safety; on the other hand, we’re going to be in an era of fiscal constraint at the state, federal, and local levels. It makes sense for us to just ask some tough questions.
And I think this is one of those things where I don’t think you should anticipate that I’m leading with an issue like this. My primary focus is going to continue to be on the economy, on immigration, on climate change and energy. But I could see using the next year to convene some folks, ask some tough questions, report back to me and to the American people, and give us some recommendations, and then engage Congress, law enforcement, local and state officials to see if there’s some things we can do smarter.
You told us about listening to Malia on the topic of gay marriage and taking her outlook into account. I was wondering, as your daughters are growing older, in what other ways are they changing the way you think about policy?
Well, it’s a cliché, but it’s obviously true that for any parent, as you watch your kids age, you are reminded that everything you do has to have their futures in mind. You fervently hope they’re going to outlive you; that the world will be better for them when you’re not around. You start thinking about their kids.
And so, on an issue like climate change, for example, I think for this country and the world to ask some very tough questions about what are we leaving behind, that weighs on you. And not to mention the fact I think that generation is much more environmentally aware than previous generations.
There is that sense of we’ve got to get this right, and at least give them a fighting chance. In the same waythat as a parent you recognize that no matter what you do, your kids are going to have challenges — because that’s the human condition — but you don’t want them dealing with stuff that’s the result of you making bad choices. They’ll have enough bad choices that they make on their own that you don’t want them inheriting the consequences of bad choices that you make. We have to think about that as a society as a whole.
And so when we think about getting our fiscal house in order, when we think about climate change, when we think about the kind of economy that they’ll be inheriting and what opportunities they have, again, taking the long view is something that I’m constantly pushing for. And that’s particularly challenging in this job where your inbox of immediate crises are always coming at you. And that’s been even more true over the last four years than it has I think for most Presidents. I mean, obviously, we’ve had a lot incoming, and so there’s a temptation to just deal with the next immediate thing as opposed to thinking about what kind of impact are we going to have 20 years from now.
So in talking about creating that next world for our children, if, again, we look four years ahead and you look outside of the boundaries of the U.S., where do you see there will be some improvement — in the Middle East, in Africa? What are the places that keep you up at night now and you hope, I’m going to make these places better four years from now?
Well, you look at the pivot we’ve tried to make towards Asia, which I think has been very successful over the last four years. We’ve strengthened our presence, we’ve strengthened our diplomatic engagement. We are helping to shape and frame what the Asia Pacific region will look like. That’s critically important because that’s where the growth and population and increasing center of gravity is going to be. And there is a genuine desire for American leadership in that region. It has to be a leadership that recognizes that China is going to continue to rise, and we should hope for China’s success. A stable China that over time is transitioning to a more open, democratic society would be really good for us economically and politically, and from a security standpoint. India — same thing.
The trip I took to Burma — here’s a country that has basically been on lockdown for 40 years. And to see the possibility, at least, that 20 years from now 55 million people suddenly can vote, can assemble, can speak freely, have opened themselves up to the world, can catch up with what’s happening in places like Thailand and Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore — 55 million people suddenly being free is a big deal, and American leadership can be a part of that.
Now, the Middle East is going through its own transformation. And I am — maybe by nature — just cautiously optimistic about us being able to see a Middle East that is — and North Africa — that is freer, more open, and more economically successful. But I think we’re going to go through a transition period that’s bumpy. We see it in Egypt. Obviously, there are tragic convulsions in Syria.
The trend line, though, is going to be one in which the Middle East has to catch up with the 21st century; that young people there are going to expect to have a say in their future. Because of their access to technology and information, they’re going to be exposed to the broader world, and they’re not going to want to be locked out of that. They’re going to want to be integrated into the world economy because they’ll recognize that that’s where opportunity and wealth is going to come from, from participating in an open market system.
And there’s going to be backlash, and there are going to be moments where we go backwards rather than forwards in that region. And it is going to be important for the U.S. to remain vigilant during this tumultuous time because the retrograde extremist forces in thatregion will continue to try to target the United States, and we’re going to have to make sure that we can protect American citizens.
So there will be a significant military component and counterterrorism intelligence component to our policies there. On the other hand, there’s no going backwards. And I think the idea that somehow that we’d be better off, that there was some mechanism whereby we could cling to the old models of a handful of autocrats that we are cutting deals with and we look the other way if they’re repressing their people, I think that model is going to necessarily erode over time.
The other big piece of this is that the transformation and energy could have a huge geopolitical consequence. The United States is going to be a net exporter of energy because of new technologies and what we’re doing with natural gas and oil. We’ve, during my first four years, reduced our dependence on foreign oil each and every year; we’re now down to under 50 percent. We can maintain those trendlines. And that, I think, gives us more freedom of movement to speak to the kind of Middle East that we want to see and the world we want to see.
I’ve heard talk of you keeping a diary but never heard you talk about it. Are you keeping a diary?
I will tell you that in the first four years, I was not as diligent as I should have been. There’s all kinds of stuff that I’ve forgotten that I’m going to have to ask other people about. There are stretches that are a blur. So I have not been as religious about keeping a diary over the last four years as I was when I was a younger man. And I’ll have some catching up to do over the next four years.
But what was the purpose of a diary?
Well, I don’t have as much time to write as I used to, but in my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are; that there’s — that the process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions.
And going back to Lincoln, probably part of the reason he’s my favorite President is he’s also one of the best writers in American history. But you see the power of his writing evolve and shape what his policies are. He has to work through things. How does he think about slavery? How does he think about union? How does hethink about the Constitution? How does he think about the role of popular opinion? All these things are just completely formed at the start of his political career.
The Lincoln who is a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois isn’t the same Lincoln as the one who addresses Gettysburg. For that matter, the Lincoln who’s elected President is not the same as the Lincoln who delivers the second inaugural. They’re different people. And part of it has to do with his ability to filter these extraordinary debates and these conflicting forces into some coherent vision of what America is and should be. I’m also not as good a writer as him — (laughter) — to state the obvious.
And going from the sublime to the ridiculous here, but I — and Michael’s story looks both backwards and forwards. And I ran into, during the campaign, a fellow who used to work for you who is now the mayor of a major American city, and I said to him, what happened to the President in the first debate? And Rahm said, he had a Hawaii moment. (Laughter.) And I said, what doesthat mean? And he was gone. What does that mean?
What he was probably referring to — he and I, when we were in the Oval Office sometimes, and the banks looked like they were melting down and the Afghan war is raging, and the auto industry is on the verge of collapse, and we’d sit here at the end of the day and we’d have little fantasies about us taking our families and just moving to Hawaii and opening up a t-shirt shack on the North Shore, and we’d just sell t-shirts and maybe smoothies, and sit there and watch the waves. So that might have been the reference he was making.
Look, the truth is, is that during the course of a campaign, there’s never been any candidate, including certainly me in 2008, who doesn’t have moments where you just — you don’t deliver your A-game. I think a testimony to what a great job our team did in running this campaign is we didn’t have a lot of those moments. Part of the reason why the first debate actually has become this sort of legend in the minds of political pundits is we just didn’t screw up a lot this time. It was really a well-run campaign. We didn’t make a lot of mistakes. So that was the one identifiable mistake, and it got magnified, I think, as a consequence.
But part of it also just has to do with the fact that that particular format has never been a strength of mine. Idon’t approach most interactions with people trying to insult them or show how stupid they are. And that’s how you score points in those things. It’s a very artificial construct. It’s theater. And I think there are times — and this was true back in ’08 — where I find it sort of hard to engage in those theatrics because I’m thinking we’ve got really important issues, and what we say should be based in facts, and there should be the capacity to check whether what you’re saying now corresponds with what you said two weeks ago. And that’s just not the format.
But the bottom line is that I didn’t communicate effectively with the American people in that debate what was atstake, and so it was important for me to remind myself that as artificial as that format may be, whenever I’ve got 60 to 70 million people watching, I’ve got to make sure that they understand what is at stake. And I think in the second and third debate, and certainly throughout the campaign, the American people did understand eventually, ultimately, that what was at stake here was the kind of America we want.
Are we satisfied with an American that is becoming more unequal, in which the combination of globalization and technology are creating a wider and wider divide between a few who do extraordinarily well and the majority of people who see their prospects diminish? Or do webelieve in an America in which our prosperity is broad-based and everybody is getting the tools they need to succeed? Do we believe in an America that says some folks are more American than others, or more worthy than others or more valued than others? Or do we believe in an America where that Declaration means what it says: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men — (women, gays, straights, blacks, whites, disabled, not disabled) — that all people are created equal, endowed by our Creator withcertain unalienable rights. That was a decision that we had to make.
In our foreign policy, do we believe that sort of a garrison state and that our leadership is dependent on bluster and bullying other countries to bend to our will, or do we think that our leadership is driven in part by our values and our ideals? And even if that makes things more difficult for us sometimes, that’s a more lasting kind of leadership.
So there are a set of questions that, as petty and trivial and frustrating, farcical as the campaign could seem sometimes, surfaced — the American people made up their minds. But I think the choice that they made was less about me and more about them, more about who they saw themselves to be. And in that sense, 2012 may havebeen more satisfying a win than 2008 — because 2008 was all fun and exciting and — (laughter) — at least that’s how people remember it. And it seemed like lightning in a bottle and all these forces converged. So I think it was easy to think that maybe 2008 was the anomaly, and I think 2012 was an indication that no, this is not an anomaly.
We’ve gone through a very difficult time. The American people have rightly been frustrated at the pace of change, and the economy is still struggling, and this President we elected is imperfect, and yet, despite all that, this is who we want to be. That’s a good thing. All right?