INTERVIEW JANUARY 27, 2013
Barack Obama's pre-presidential manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, has only one extended riff on gun control—not a homily on behalf of the cause or even a meditation on the deep divisions opened by the debate, but a story of crummy luck. While State Senator Barack Obama was vacationing in Hawaii, visiting his grandmother and hoping to "reacquaint myself with Michelle," the Illinois legislature abruptly returned to consider bills making the possession of illegal firearms a felony offense. Joining this special session would have required him to backtrack thousands of miles with a sick 18-month old in tow. So Obama stayed put on the islands, while back in Springfield, the package failed by a slim margin. His campaign manager warned him that a political opponent would likely pillory his absence in an attack ad featuring a beach chair and a Mai Tai.
That Obama didn't include the substantive case for gun control in his treatise was characteristic. A strain of wisdom ruled a generation of Democratic Party politics: You might pay a price for reticence on the issue in a big city like Chicago, but in the rest of the country, it was a noble loser, bait for backlash in electorally crucial Rust Belt states with not even the remotest hope for legislative victory. In 2010, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence judged Obama's efforts on behalf of its issue worthy of an "F."
So when the president learned of the massacre in Newtown, how could he not have felt at least a pang of guilt about the failure of his party and administration to keep gun control on even a low simmer? Indeed, his aides described the massacre as having knocked his tightly held interior life into full view like no other event. "I had never seen him like that as long as I've known him," his speechwriter Jon Favreau later told The New York Times, recalling the day of the killings, when Obama sat gob-smacked behind his desk.
On the day we visited the White House, about a month later, the president had just finished presenting his robust slate of gun control proposals—so robust, in fact, that the next morning's newspaper would declare it almost certainly doomed to failure in Congress. But that was the point. On gun control, the president never expected John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to join him on a surveying expedition in search of the mythic land of Common Ground. Compromise was a conversation for the distant future, one he would entertain only after making a muscular argument and creating the political space for his ideas. It was an approach emblematic of a new pugnacity, which also revealed itself in our interview.
That morning's event included parents of the Sandy Hook dead. And as Obama walked with us along the colonnade to the Oval Office, he initially seemed a bit drained. But he perked up as he asked us in granular detail about the health of the media business.1 He bemoaned his own difficulty accessing newspapers and magazines on his ultra-secure presidential iPad, which doesn't allow him to enter required subscriber information. (Chris Hughes worked on his 2008 presidential campaign and has donated money to him since.)
As he sunk into his leather chair and began to answer our questions, he spoke in his characteristic languid pace, often allowing seconds to elapse between words.2 Although he hardly sounded angry, he voiced an impatience with Republicans and the media (and college football) that he once carefully reserved for private conversations. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Chris Hughes: Can you tell us a little bit about how you've gone about intellectually preparing for your second term as president?
Barack Obama: I'm not sure it's an intellectual exercise as much as it is reminding myself of why I ran for president and tapping into what I consider to be the innate common sense of the American people.
The truth is that most of the big issues that are going to make a difference in the life of this country for the next thirty or forty years are complicated and require tough decisions, but are not rocket science. We know that to fix our economy, we've got to make sure: that we have the most competitive workforce in the world, that we have a better education system, that we are investing in research and development, that we've got world-class infrastructure, that we're reducing our health care costs, and that we're expanding our exports. On issues like immigration, we have a pretty good sense of what's broken in the system and how to fix it. On climate change, it's a daunting task. But we know what releases carbon into the atmosphere, and we have tools right now that would start scaling that back, although we'd still need some big technological breakthrough.
So the question is not, Do we have policies that might work? It is, Can we mobilize the political will to act? And so, I've been spending a lot of time just thinking about how do I communicate more effectively with the American people? How do I try to bridge some of the divides that are longstanding in our culture? How do I project a sense of confidence in our future at a time when people are feeling anxious? They are more questions of values and emotions and tapping into people's spirit.
Up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.
CH: Have you looked back in history, particularly at the second terms of other presidents, for inspiration?
There are all sorts of lessons to be learned both from past presidents and my own first term. I've said this before, but one of the things that happened in the first term was that we had so many fires going on at the same time that we were focusing on policy and getting it right, which means that we were spending less time communicating with the American people about why we were doing what we were doing and how it tied together with our overarching desire of strengthening our middle class and making the economy work.
I always read a lot of Lincoln, and I'm reminded of his adage that, with public opinion, there's nothing you can't accomplish; without it, you're not going to get very far. And spending a lot more time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington is an example of the kinds of change in orientation that I think we've undergone, not just me personally, but the entire White House.
Franklin Foer: Let's talk about that in terms of guns. How do you speak to gun owners in a way that doesn't make them feel as if you're impinging upon their liberty?
So much of the challenge that we have in our politics right now is that people feel as if the game here in Washington is completely detached from their day-to-day realities. And that's not an unjustifiable view. So everything we do combines both a legislative strategy with a broad-based communications and outreach strategy to get people engaged and involved, so that it's not Washington over here and the rest of America over there.
That does not mean that you don't have some real big differences. The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they're really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies.
There are going to be a whole bunch of initiatives where I can get more than fifty percent support of the country, but I can't get enough votes out of the House of Representatives to actually get something passed.
CH: You spoke last summer about your election potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans. The hope being that, once you were reelected, they would seek to do more than just block your presidency. Do you feel that you've made headway on that?
Not yet, obviously.
CH: How do you imagine it happening?
I never expected that it would happen overnight. I think it will be a process. And the Republican Party is undergoing a still-early effort at reexamining what their agenda is and what they care about. I think there is still shock on the part of some in the party that I won reelection. There's been a little bit of self-examination among some in the party, but that hasn't gone to the party as a whole yet.
And I think part of the reason that it's going to take a little bit of time is that, almost immediately after the election, we went straight to core issues around taxes and spending and size of government, which are central to how today's Republicans think about their party. Those issues are harder to find common ground on.
But if we can get through this first period and arrive at a sensible package that reduces our deficits, stabilizes our debts, and involves smart reforms to Medicare and judicious spending cuts with some increased revenues and maybe tax reform, and you can get a package together that doesn't satisfy either Democrats or Republicans entirely, but puts us on a growth trajectory because it leaves enough spending on education, research and development, and infrastructure to boost growth now, but also deals with our long-term challenges on health care costs, then you can imagine the Republicans saying to themselves, "OK, we need to get on the side of the American majority on issues like immigration. We need to make progress on rebuilding our roads and bridges."
There are going to be some areas where that change is going to be very hard for Republicans. I suspect, for example, that already there are some Republicans who embrace the changing attitudes in the country as a whole around LGBT issues and same-sex marriage. But there's a big chunk of their constituency that is going to be deeply opposed to that, and they're going to have to figure out how they navigate what could end up being divisions in their own party. And that will play itself out over years.
FF: Are there any forces for reform within the Republican Party, people you've been able to establish some sort of working relationship with?
Well, look, I've always believed that there are a bunch of Republicans of goodwill who would rather get something done than suffer through the sort of nasty atmosphere that prevails in Washington right now. It's not a fun time to be a member of Congress.
And I think if you talk privately to Democrats and Republicans, particularly those who have been around for a while, they long for the days when they could socialize and introduce bipartisan legislation and feel productive. So I don't think the issue is whether or not there are people of goodwill in either party that want to get something done. I think what we really have to do is change some of the incentive structures so that people feel liberated to pursue some common ground.
One of the biggest factors is going to be how the media shapes debates. If a Republican member of Congress is not punished on Fox News or by Rush Limbaugh for working with a Democrat on a bill of common interest, then you'll see more of them doing it.
It's not a fun time to be a member of Congress.
I think John Boehner genuinely wanted to get a deal done, but it was hard to do in part because his caucus is more conservative probably than most Republican leaders are, and partly because he is vulnerable to attack for compromising Republican principles and working with Obama.
The same dynamic happens on the Democratic side. I think the difference is just that the more left-leaning media outlets recognize that compromise is not a dirty word. And I think at least leaders like myself—and I include Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in this—are willing to buck the more absolutist-wing elements in our party to try to get stuff done.
CH: You inspired a lot of people in your first presidential campaign, and with your books, by talking about a new kind of politics. And now, four years later, it's a time in Washington that's characterized by nastiness more often that not. How do you reconcile those two things four years in?
I believe that what I talked about in 2008 is still where the country is. And it describes my real-world view of how politics should work. I've always been suspicious of absolutism. I've always been suspicious of ideological litmus tests. I'm not somebody—when I look back on American history—who believes that one party has got a monopoly on wisdom.
So I guess the issue is not that the concept in 2008 was wrong. I think the issue is that we have these institutional barriers that prevent what the American people want from happening. Some of them are internal to Congress, like the filibuster in the Senate. Some of them have to do with our media and what gets attention. Nobody gets on TV saying, "I agree with my colleague from the other party." People get on TV for calling each other names and saying the most outlandish things.
Even on issues like the response to Hurricane Sandy, Chris Christie was getting hammered by certain members of his own party and media outlets for cooperating with me to respond to his constituents. That gives you an indication of how difficult I think the political environment has become for a lot of these folks. And I think what will change that is politicians seeing more upside to cooperation than downside, and right now that isn't the case. Public opinion is going to be what changes that.
FF: When you talk about Washington, oftentimes you use it as a way to describe this type of dysfunction. But it's a very broad brush. It can seem as if you're apportioning blame not just to one party, but to both parties—
Well, no, let me be clear. There's not a—there's no equivalence there. In fact, that's one of the biggest problems we've got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, "A plague on both their houses." On almost every issue, it's, "Well, Democrats and Republicans can't agree"—as opposed to looking at why is it that they can't agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?
And I want to be very clear here that Democrats, we've got a lot of warts, and some of the bad habits here in Washington when it comes to lobbyists and money and access really goes to the political system generally. It's not unique to one party. But when it comes to certain positions on issues, when it comes to trying to do what's best for the country, when it comes to really trying to make decisions based on fact as opposed to ideology, when it comes to being willing to compromise, the Democrats, not just here in this White House, but I would say in Congress also, have shown themselves consistently to be willing to do tough things even when it's not convenient, because it's the right thing to do. And we haven't seen that same kind of attitude on the other side.
Until Republicans feel that there's a real price to pay for them just saying no and being obstructionist, you'll probably see at least a number of them arguing that we should keep on doing it. It worked for them in the 2010 election cycle, and I think there are those who believe that it can work again. I disagree with them, and I think the cost to the country has been enormous.
But if you look at the most recent fiscal deal, I presented to Speaker Boehner a package that would have called for $1.2 trillion in new revenue—less than I actually think we need, but in the spirit of compromise—and over nine hundred billion dollars in spending cuts, some of which are very difficult. And yet, I'm confident we could have gotten Democratic votes for that package, despite the fact that we were going after some Democratic sacred cows. And had we gotten that done, it would have been good for the economy, and I think it would have changed the political environment in this town.
Democrats, as painful as it was, as much as we got attacked by some of our core constituencies, were willing to step up because it was the right thing to do. And the other side could not do that.
CH: It seems as if you're relying more on executive orders to get around these problems. You've done it for gun control, for immigration. Has your view on executive authority changed now that you've been president for four years?
I don't think it's changed. I continue to believe that whenever we can codify something through legislation, it is on firmer ground. It's not going to be reversed by a future president. It is something that will be long lasting and sturdier and more stable.
So a great example of that is the work we did on "don't ask, don't tell." There were advocates in the LGBT community who were furious at me, saying, "Why don't you just sign with a pen ordering the Pentagon to do this?" And my argument was that we could build a coalition to get this done, that having the Pentagon on our side and having them work through that process so that they felt confident they could continue to carry out their missions effectively would make it last and make it work for the brave men and women, gays and lesbians, who were serving not just now but in the future.
And the proof of the pudding here is that not only did we get the law passed, but it's caused almost no controversy. It's been almost thoroughly embraced, whereas had I just moved ahead with an executive order, there would have been a huge blowback that might have set back the cause for a long time.
But what I do see is that there are certain issues where a judicious use of executive power can move the argument forward or solve problems that are of immediate-enough import that we can't afford not to do it. And today, just to take an example, the notion that we wouldn't be collecting information on gun violence just to understand how it happens, why it happens, what might reduce it—that makes no sense. We shouldn't require legislation for the CDC to be able to gather information about one of the leading causes of death in the United States of America.
FF: Have you ever fired a gun?
Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.
FF: The whole family?
Not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there. And I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations. And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake.
Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas. And if you grew up and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were ten, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family's traditions, you can see why you'd be pretty protective of that.
So it's trying to bridge those gaps that I think is going to be part of the biggest task over the next several months. And that means that advocates of gun control have to do a little more listening than they do sometimes.
FF: Sticking with the culture of violence, but on a much less dramatic scale: I'm wondering if you, as a fan, take less pleasure in watching football, knowing the impact that the game takes on its players.
I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much.
How do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?
I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they're grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about.3
CH: The last question is about Syria. I wonder if you can speak about how you personally, morally, wrestle with the ongoing violence there.
Every morning, I have what's called the PDB—presidential daily briefing—and our intelligence and national security teams come in here and they essentially brief me on the events of the previous day. And very rarely is there good news. And a big chunk of my day is occupied by news of war, terrorism, ethnic clashes, violence done to innocents. And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.
And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?
Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good.