Do you have any fear that Roe v. Wade could be overturned if the Republicans win the presidency and appoint another Supreme Court justice?
I don't think there's any doubt. Governor Romney has made clear that's his position. His running mate has made this one of the central principles of his public life. Typically, a president is going to have one or two Supreme Court nominees during the course of his presidency, and we know that the current Supreme Court has at least four members who would overturn Roe v. Wade. All it takes is one more for that to happen.
How do you feel about Justice Roberts' ruling on the Affordable Care Act? Were you surprised?
I wasn't surprised. I was always confident that the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, was constitutional. It was interesting to see them, or Justice Roberts in particular, take the approach that this was constitutional under the taxing power. The truth is that if you look at the precedents dating back to the 1930s, this was clearly constitutional under the Commerce Clause. I think Justice Roberts made a decision that allowed him to preserve the law but allowed him to keep in reserve the desire, maybe, to scale back Congress' power under the Commerce Clause in future cases.
What made you so certain that the law was constitutional?
It's hard to dispute that health care is a national issue of massive importance. It takes up 17 or 18 percent of our entire economy; it touches on everybody's lives; it is a massive burden on businesses, on our federal budget and on families. It's practiced across state lines. So the notion that Congress could not take a comprehensive approach to that problem the way we have makes no sense.
I am very proud of the steps we've taken already: making sure that insurance companies can't impose lifetime limits that could leave families high and dry if somebody gets a severe illness. Parents being able to keep their kids on their own plans until they're 26 years old. The rebates that are already going out to customers because we've said to insurance companies that you've got to spend the dollars you collect in premiums on actually providing care, not just on overhead and CEO salaries. The $600 a year that seniors are saving on their prescription drugs. The tax breaks we're providing small businesses in order to provide health insurance for their families. The cost-control measures that are trying to develop better ways of providing care. All those things are already happening. By 2014, people who have pre-existing conditions or individuals who are paying 18 or 20 percent more for health insurance than somebody on a big group plan – they're going to have a chance to get affordable care, and we'll provide tax credits to the folks who need it.
So this is a model that we know can work. It's working in Massachusetts right now – you have 98 percent of adults and 99.5 percent of kids in Massachusetts with health insurance. For the greatest nation on Earth not to make sure that people aren't going bankrupt when they get sick – that was a blot on our society. And for us to take this step forward is something that is really going to make a big difference for millions of families for decades to come. It also gives us our best opportunity to start really going after the waste and inefficiencies of the system, so that we can start cutting back on the health care inflation that is driving our deficit and hurting families and businesses every single day.
You said, "a.k.a. Obamacare." Do you mind if historians call the achievement Obamacare? I'll be very proud. Because I'm confident that I'm going to win this election, and that we're going to implement it over the next four years. Just like Medicare and Social Security, as time goes on, as people see what it does, as it gets refined and improved, people will say, "This was the last piece to our basic social compact" – providing people with some core security from the financial burdens of an illness or bad luck.
You sometimes use the term "fair shake." FDR had the New Deal, Lyndon Johnson had the Great Society. Is the Fair Shake something you'd be comfortable with to describe your legacy?
I'd be comfortable with that, and hearing it from a historian, it sounds pretty good to me.
But look, the key thing I've tried to communicate, and I will continue to try to communicate to the American people, is that when you talk about economic fairness, it's not just an issue of fairness – it's also an issue of growth. It's how the economy succeeds. Republicans, and certainly Mitt Romney, often tries to frame this as "Obama's a redistributionist, whereas we want to grow the pie instead of taking from Peter to pay Paul." But look at our history: When we've been successful, it's because everybody is in on the action. Everybody feels a sense of ownership, because everybody is benefitting from rising productivity, everybody is benefitting from a growing economy. When prosperity is broad-based, it is stable, it is steady, it is robust.
But when you have just a few people at the very top benefitting from what we do together as an economy, then growth gets constrained. On one end, you've got a lot of money in the hands of a very few people who are speculating and engaging in a lot of financial transactions that can get our economy in trouble. We saw that in 2007 and 2008. On the other end, you've got middle-income people and low-income people who are overextended, taking on too much debt, and that can create problems. You don't have enough customers to buy the products and services that are being produced, so businesses then pull back and you get into a negative cycle. When the opposite is the case, you get into a virtuous cycle, and that's what we're constantly trying to push.
The success we've had, although we've got a long way to go, is based on making sure that everybody feels they've got a stake in the system. Look at what happened in the auto industry: You've got management and workers coming together, everybody making some sacrifices. Suddenly, what was an industry on the brink of collapse is now resurgent. GM's on top again, Chrysler is making profits like it hasn't made before, all the supplier chains that employ people all across the Midwest are benefitting. And that model, I think, is one that the American people instinctively get.
The auto bailout helped rescue states like Ohio from economic disaster. What, in turn, have you learned from the people of Ohio during your many visits to the state?
They just want to work hard, but they want to make sure that hard work is rewarded. When you go into these auto plants, you get folks who not only have been working at the plant for 15 years, their dad worked at the plant, sometimes their grandfather worked at the plant. It's not just a paycheck for them – they really take great pride in making great products, making a great car. One plant we went to, a bunch of workers had just won the lottery, and they were still showing up to work every single day. One of them had bought his wife one of the cars he had made, for her birthday, and he had bought flags for his entire town, because he was proud of his country and there was no place he'd rather be. That's what you see in Ohio, that's what you see across the country. People want to work hard, they want to feel like they're contributing, they want to feel like they're helping to build the country. All they want is just a chance.
Have you ever read Ayn Rand?
What do you think Paul Ryan's obsession with her work would mean if he were vice president?
Well, you'd have to ask Paul Ryan what that means to him. Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we'd pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we're only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we're considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that's a pretty narrow vision. It's not one that, I think, describes what's best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a "you're on your own" society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.
Of course, that's not the Republican tradition. I made this point in the first debate. You look at Abraham Lincoln: He very much believed in self-sufficiency and self-reliance. He embodied it – that you work hard and you make it, that your efforts should take you as far as your dreams can take you. But he also understood that there's some things we do better together. That we make investments in our infrastructure and railroads and canals and land-grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences, because that provides us all with an opportunity to fulfill our potential, and we'll all be better off as a consequence. He also had a sense of deep, profound empathy, a sense of the intrinsic worth of every individual, which led him to his opposition to slavery and ultimately to signing the Emancipation Proclamation. That view of life – as one in which we're all connected, as opposed to all isolated and looking out only for ourselves – that's a view that has made America great and allowed us to stitch together a sense of national identity out of all these different immigrant groups who have come here in waves throughout our history.
If Americans re-elect you, what will be different in your second term? What is your plan to avoid four more years of gridlock?
It's important for people to understand how much we've gotten done, because sometimes folks obsess with gridlock and the ugliness of the process here in Washington. We passed health care – something that presidents have tried to do for 100 years, and we will implement it. We passed the toughest Wall Street reform since the 1930s, and we will implement it and continue to strengthen it. We have put in place a Consumer Finance Protection Agency that's going to be an ongoing advocate for every American out there who is involved in a financial transaction, saving people billions of dollars. We have expanded access to college through the Pell Grant program and by keeping student loans low. The list of things that we've accomplished, even once the Republicans took over, is significant.
Now, there are some things that are undone. We are going to have to get a handle on our deficit and debt, but we need to do it in a balanced way that doesn't simply stick it to middle-class families. I'm confident we can get that accomplished, in part, because the Bush tax cuts lapse at the end of this year, and we'll have a showdown about how we're going to fund the government that we need to grow in a sensible way, in a balanced way. Immigration reform I believe we'll get done, because the Republican Party will start recognizing that alienating the fastestgrowing segments of our society is probably not good politics for them – not to mention the fact that immigration reform is the right thing to do.
On energy and climate change, we will continue to develop oil and natural-gas resources, but we'll build off the work we've done, doubling fuel-efficiency standards on cars and doubling the investment we've made in clean energy. There's a huge opportunity for us to focus on energy efficiency in our buildings, in our schools and in our residences. If we can make our economy as energy efficient as Japan, say, we would be cutting our greenhouse emissions by 20 percent and saving consumers billions of dollars every single year. And by the way, we can put a whole bunch of construction workers back to work in the process.
Internationally, having ended the war in Iraq, I am now committed to ending the war in Afghanistan by 2014. Doing that in a responsible way will have a huge impact, because we're also going to be able to take the money we've saved on war to do some nation-building here at home.
We're going to have a full agenda in the second four years, but people shouldn't underestimate how much we can get done. Obviously, I'd love to see a shift in Congress where we are electing people who are less interested in the next election and obstruction and are more interested in getting stuff done. And that's true whether it's Republicans or Democrats. I just want to make sure that there are people who have some sense of service toward their constituencies.
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