Politics
3:03 am
Tue October 1, 2013

Transcript And Audio: NPR Interview With President Obama

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NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed President Obama on Monday about the looming government shutdown, the upcoming debt ceiling fight and more. A full transcript of the interview follows:

STEVE 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?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No. And that's unfortunate because I think what the American people have made clear and what I've made clear is that they do not believe ideological differences, the usual partisan politics around here, should result in a government shutdown.

People understand that when a government is shut down, not only is that hurting small businesses that aren't getting loans or rural families who can't get a loan for a house or the people who work for the federal government across the country who are neighbors and fellow churchgoers and customers and are obviously impacted because they still have mortgages and bills that they got to pay, even though they're no longer at work and getting paid, but it affects the overall economy.

The last time we had a government shutdown — every time we have a government shutdown — the economy is adversely impacted. And I think what Americans right now believe is that we should be focused on jobs and growth and building our middle class.

Some of their proposals have narrowed down from canceling out funding for Obamacare and focused on items like the medical devices tax, which they want to repeal. Isn't that something that you could discuss? There's a lot of Democrats who have been concerned about that tax.

Keep in mind that from the start what I have said is I am happy to talk to Republicans about any issue. What we're not going to do is to negotiate whether or not Congress pays its bills and whether or not Congress passes a budget that keeps government open. And the reason for that, particularly when it comes to Congress paying its bills, is that we cannot be a country that is lurching every two months or three months from crisis to crisis to crisis.

Essentially the bill that they've presented is they want to extract concessions for something they're supposed to do anyway, and then two months from now we'll be going through the exact same thing. This is a two-month extension of funding. This isn't a broad-based solution to our fiscal problems.

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

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.

You're saying that even a larger budget deal — this is not on the table — the individual mandate must go into effect immediately?

The individual mandate is the only way that you can assure that people with pre-existing conditions are able to get health care like everybody else. And the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that you should not be barred from getting health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, partly because people understand that the majority of Americans over 50 have pre-existing conditions; huge swaths of the population right now, if they lost their job, would have trouble buying insurance on the open market, because of those pre-existing conditions. And they understand that we should not have a system in which people are regularly going to the emergency room, driving up costs for everybody else, because they haven't acted responsibly.

As we talk, Mr. President, we're on a day when, obviously, a shutdown is looming. You said earlier that you were going to be talking to the leaders. Did you mean Republican leaders? And if so, which ones?

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 shutdown and make sure that we are paying our bills.

What can you offer?

And — if — if we — 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 am 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. That's not a negotiation.

So we're not going to do that. We've seen what happens. The last time this took place in 2011, the economy did not grow. It went backwards. It hurt our recession. It ironically probably added to the deficit because of the lost economic growth; it hurt a lot of people; we got downgraded; and this perpetual cycle of brinksmanship and crisis has to end once and for all.

Let me ask about that, Mr. President, because as many people know, 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 — 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?

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 100 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.

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?

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."

Would he lose his job?

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, you know, 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.

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 — it cannot be removed, because there will be political support for it. Do you believe that?

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.

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

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 --

If the assumptions in current law held, yeah.

Well — but the assumptions so far not only have held; they've actually exceeded 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 marketplaces 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, and so I understand why some Republicans who have made great political hay over the last two, three years about what a disaster this is going to be are worried about when — (chuckles) — it's fully implemented and it turns out not to be a disaster — I get that. But that's certainly not an argument for us to leave a whole bunch of people out there who don't have health insurance to continue to suffer. We're not going to do that.

Are you prepared for significant glitches as health care exchanges go up for business in the coming days and months?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Keep in mind that the way this is going to work — and for everybody who's listening, if you don't have health insurance, if you got family members who don't have health insurance, starting tomorrow you'll be able to go on the website healthcare.gov. It'll direct you to your respective states, where you can look and see exactly what plans are available, how much they cost, whether you're available for subsidies or not, what your bottom line is, and you can choose what's best for you.

But there will be a six-month enrollment period. 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. They don't have to take my word for it. They don't have to take the word of some of these groups that have been running ads saying Obamacare is a disaster. Discount all the political talk, go to the website healthcare.gov directly, and see whether or not this is something that's good for you.

And I am very confident that despite some glitches — right, there may be some websites that, you know, crash early; there may be some call centers where it's taking a little bit too long — that despite all that, the basic prices that are going to be available to people and the choices that are going to be available to people provide us for the first time the possibility, the prospect that any American out there who does not currently have health insurance can get high-quality health insurance.

That's setting aside all of the consumer protections and benefits that are currently provided by the Affordable Care Act that a lot of people don't know they're getting from, quote-unquote, Obamacare. So if your kid is getting health insurance and staying on your plan until the age of 26, that's because of Obamacare. If — if the insurance companies are providing you free preventive care right now on your insurance plan, that's because of Obamacare. If you are getting a rebate because insurance companies weren't spending enough money on care and too much money on administrative costs, that's because of Obamacare. Seniors who are getting discounts on their prescription drugs, they're getting it right now because of what we're doing. And we're certainly not going to repeal benefits that right now a lot of people are enjoying and appreciating, even if they don't know that Obamacare is a — the — the responsible party for making sure they've got those protections.

I want to ask you a couple of other questions, Mr. President. 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?

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 robotized. So some of the — that's part of the trend. But —

Are your efforts not helping with this?

Well, there's no doubt —

The law was passed under a Democratic Congress.

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. The Affordable Care Act means that we are providing the opportunity for security and avoiding bankruptcy to a huge swath of Americans right now who are very vulnerable.

But what you are absolutely right about is, for all the work we've done on taxes, for all the work we've done on health care, for all the work we've done on education, making sure that more young people are able to get student loans and grants — despite all those things, the market trends that have been occurring have kept moving. And that's why certain parts of my economic agenda — early-childhood education, rebuilding infrastructure, making sure that we're closing corporate tax loopholes and making the tax system more efficient — all those things would further contribute to reducing some of this income inequality, in part because the economy would start growing faster and in a more broad-based way instead of a situation where you've got record corporate profits and high bonuses but you're not seeing enough of that wealth reflected in higher incomes, higher wages for working people.

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.

Well, I don't accept that. America is, always [has] 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.

Very briefly, as you choose a new head of the Federal Reserve, do you want to choose someone who will change in some way the operations or the priorities of the Federal Reserve?

The main task of the Federal Reserve chairman is to make sure that it keeps its dual mandate in mind. Part of that mandate is making sure that we have a stable currency and a stable financial system. And that means making sure that inflation doesn't get out of control, that we're not seeing bubbles redevelop like the housing bubble that developed and that we are implementing the kind of regulations following up on the bank reforms that we put into place so that we don't have a repeat of 2008. But 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 —

Should the Fed be doing more in that department?

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 brinksmanship, 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 —

Has the delay in choosing a new chairman hurt the Fed?

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 policies 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. President, thanks very much.

Thank you so much, Steve.

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