The biggest push since the inauguration has been on gun control. The president made you the point person, and yet the background-check measure failed in the Senate, even though it was supported by 90 percent of the American people. What does it mean that we can't pass even the weakest measures to curb gun violence?
It means two things. One, that we have had an impact on the public's thinking. If we did that poll a week before Sandy Hook, my guess is you wouldn't have 90 percent of the American people. They said, "You have to do something." So we've already won the battle with the American public on this, not just on background checks but on magazines, on assault weapons, et cetera. This is a case where the public is way ahead of Congress, and the Congress hadn't figured it out, just like they were . . .
With gay marriage?
Remember, I got criticized for saying I support gay marriage . . . . I just decided I couldn't be quiet about it anymore, and everybody was stunned that that's where the public is. And I'm not stunned; it's where the public's been for a while. Talk to any of your kids, for God's sake.
Did you get blowback from the president or people in general?
I got blowback from everybody but the president. I walked in that Monday, he had a big grin on his face, he put his arms around me and said, "Well, Joe, God love you, you say what you think." I knew he agreed with me. It wasn't like he was in a different place. My point is: That's where the public is on guns. There has been a seminal shift in the attitude of the American public toward gun safety.
Is the Senate really that insulated from the rest of the country?
A lot of our colleagues – a few Democrats and a lot of Republicans who know better – thought, "The public hasn't changed, if I vote with you, I get beat up. . . ." The 17 or 18 people I called and spoke to thought they would get in trouble supporting any additional, quote, "burden on gun ownership." The ones who still said no, the four Democrats and remaining nine or 10 Republicans, they didn't offer any substantive reasoning to be against it. In one form or another, they all said the same thing: "Joe, don't ask me to walk the plank, because the House isn't going to do anything, anyway." The other one was, "Joe, I know it's 85-15, 80-20, 90-10 in my state. You know how it works: The 10 percent that are against, they're all going to be energized; they're going to organize against me. And the 90 percent who are for it, it's not going to be a determining vote for them." My argument was, "You've got it wrong. The public has changed." And guess what? It turns out we were right. To use the vernacular, there's suddenly a lot of senators out there who have seen the Lord. You find out that the senator from New Hampshire is in trouble; she voted no. I can name you four senators who called me and said, "Jesus, I guess you were right – maybe we can find some other way of doing this. Can we bring this back up?"
So what's the next move?
We're going right back at it. The biggest thing that's changed is that the people who were for the background checks are saying it will be a determining issue. There's pace on the ball now; this is a different country. I'm convinced we'll be able to bring this back up, and I'm convinced we can win this.
After the Boston Marathon bombings, your language was typically direct. At a memorial service for the slain MIT campus policeman Sean Collier, you called the bombers "two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis," which, of course, is exactly what everyone in America was thinking. Are these kind of remarks spontaneous?
No, I actually wrote that speech. I wanted to communicate two things: first, to make it clear that there is not this sort of gigantic, coordinated network run by Al Qaeda that has cells all around the country and, second, that the republic is not in jeopardy and there's no reason for us to jettison the Constitution and erect a police state in order to protect people. The moment we change, they win. That's the only way they win. Because what they hate about us is what we stand for. It makes a lie of everything they argue – that there's only one way to run your life and there has to be this constraint on humanity.
My whole point in that speech was, we cannot let them win by buying into what was immediately being argued – that we shouldn't have an immigration bill, that we should try them as enemy combatants, that we should put up more lights, cameras and invade people's privacy more. It was a terrible tragedy, but we found the guys, and we'll find anyone else who was involved. We'll make rational adjustments in plugging holes within our law that could have been plugged, if it turns out to be that way. But do not, do not, do not yield in any way to the intimidation.
Why doesn't the Obama administration use the bully pulpit to talk about climate change like it does for gun control?
We have. The president used the biggest settings he had, in the inaugural address and the State of the Union. In his inaugural address, he said, "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."
In the very beginning, we decided that we had to move on this. And we thought, cap-and-trade. But it got shut down, even when we had a Democratic Congress. So from that point on, the president has been trying to figure out how he can use his executive authority to make some real changes. We've been dealing with a Congress where a significant portion of the other party thinks there's no such thing as global warming. On top of that, we were in the midst of the deepest recession we've had since the Great Depression. So it was easy for the energy-interest guys to make the case that anything we would do to deal with global warming would be a job-killer. You'd see ads all over the country, an African American or a hard-hat guy – classic Democrat, you'd think – saying, "I'm an energy voter, and this idea the Obama administration has is going to cost you your jobs."
Despite the congressional opposition, do you feel the Obama administration has made inroads in the climate fight?
The thing I'm proudest of that we were able to get done in the first term was the Recovery Act. It had $90 billion in clean-energy programs. We had a lot of money going into research and development, and also tax credits for wind and solar energy. Republicans say to me, "That's not government's role," and I say, "Why in the devil do you think we have the investment tax credit you guys get for drilling for oil? How did that start?" The reason it started was six, seven decades ago, we didn't have the technology to know how many dry wells you had to dig before you hit a gusher, so we rewarded people for going out and exploring. We still spend $4 billion a year on that – and they don't even need it anymore. And yet they fight us on renewable-energy tax credits.
In terms of conservation, we've doubled the fuel-economy standards, which is going to save hundreds of millions of barrels of oil and about $1.7 trillion over time – without, basically, any Republican support. In the meantime, also, there has been at least a near-term boom in terms of natural gas. Theoretically, it would be nice not to have any carbon fuels. But natural gas is a hell of a lot less polluting. So in this budget, we're continuing to push for the transition from coal-fired plants to natural-gas electric plants. If you moved the trucking fleet in this nation to natural-gas-run vehicles, you'd save hundreds of millions of dollars and cut greenhouse-gas emissions. And you'd reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
But it's been hard to get our arms around, with this Congress, what you know you should be doing. You should be attacking the carbon emissions, period, and whether it's cap-and-trade or carbon tax or whatever, that's the realm in which we should be playing. In the meantime, the president is going to use his executive authority to, essentially, clean up the bad stuff, encourage the good stuff and promote private industry moving in that direction. If we had a different Congress, I think you'd see a more aggressive emissions legislation.
You mentioned a carbon tax. Is the Obama administration going to follow the lead of China and propose such a policy?
The truth is, right now, no, because we know it will go nowhere. Look, one of the things we are doing, and the president is asking me to kind of get ahead of here, is that we have a real chance, both in this hemisphere and with China, to enter into joint ventures on renewable energy and on cleaner-burning natural gas. Let me give you an example: The Chinese are building something like one new coal-fired plant a week – a week. So pick the biggest coal-fired plant you know around here that's spewing pollution, and they're building them every week, and they've been doing that for the last six or seven years.
The Chinese have figured out that they have a giant environmental problem. Folks in Beijing, some days, literally can't breathe. Over a million Chinese die prematurely every year because of air pollution. And the pollution generated in China is choking us, not just the Chinese. One of the examples I used on the campaign trail last year was that after the Japanese tsunami, we had huge chunks of cement, chunks of piers, washing up on the beach in Oregon. If the current can carry that stuff across the ocean, imagine what's coming across in the atmosphere. So we have a great opportunity here to figure out how we can not only begin to wean ourselves off of carbon-based fuels but wean the world off of them too. It's just a gigantic opportunity, and it produces a boatload of jobs. There are going to be 600,000 new jobs out there in the gas industry over the next 10 to 12 years.
Sen. John McCain and others have criticized the administration's foreign policy for not being tough enough, for issuing veiled threats, at best, and being overly cautious, especially when it comes to Syria, North Korea and Iran. Now that we know Syria is using chemical weapons on its own people, how does that change the administration's approach?
Let me say, for the record, I disagree with the basic premise. I want to just put this in perspective. When we came into office, there were two wars raging: one without any sense of how to end it and the other without any sense of how to manage it. Iran was on the ascendancy; it was incredibly influential in the Middle East. When we came to office, our alliances were more frayed than at any time in at least the 40 years I've been here. When we came to office, we found ourselves in this position where we were among the least-respected major nations in the world, and that counts for something. When we came to office, we continued to condone the notion of torture. Al Qaeda was on the ascendancy; it was not on the decline. In the meantime, all of that has changed. The phrase I've used all the time is, "We have to lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example."
We are stronger today, by a long shot, than when we came into office, and in this period we also got a new nuclear-arms-control agreement with the Russians. We have a growing nonadversarial relationship with the Chinese. Latin America is stronger and better than before. Just go around the globe. And for the first time since I've been involved, since the Shah was overthrown, the world is uniting with us in putting the blame on Iran. For the first time since I've been around, China is talking about cooperating with us with regard to North Korea. So the whole premise, I fundamentally reject.
Now, I love John McCain – I just went out to do an event for him. We used to be close friends, and we're trying to get that back a little bit. Campaigns have a way of causing those things to wane. . . . But here's where we are with regard to Syria. With all the credibility we've gained in the world, we don't want to blow it like the last administration did in Iraq, saying "weapons of mass destruction." We know that there have been traces found of what are probably chemical weapons. What we don't know yet – and we're drilling down on it as hard as we can – is whether they were accidentally released in an exchange of gunfire or artillery fire, or blown up or something. We also don't have a chain of ownership. We don't know for certain whether they were used by some of the opposition, including the radicals who have aligned themselves with Al Qaeda. It's probable, but we don't know for certain, that they were used by the regime.
If the judgment is chemical weapons were used, then the president is likely to use a proportional response in terms of meaningful action. We also believe that no matter how this ends, there is going to be political unrest in Syria for some time to come, and we want to make sure that, in the transition from Assad, there is, as best we can form it with the rest of the world, an inclusive, nonsectarian government that has institutions that still exist to be able to govern a country. The one lesson we learned from Iraq and the last administration is . . . how can I say it? In managing the affairs in Iraq, they destroyed every institution. There was no structure left. There wasn't even a Department of Public Works. And we know we can fix that, if we're willing to spend a trillion dollars and 160,000 troops and 6,000 dead, but that we cannot do. So what we're trying to do now is – and we're having some success – is get the opposition in coordination and not have, indiscriminately, weapons going to Al Nusra, who are very extreme. We've declared them a terrorist organization, and its leader has said he's pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, so it's not like we're making it up. This is a very, very tough process to manage.
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